Why MLB Needs an Expanded Postseason

Baseball has reached a critical juncture once again where it needs to be responsive to change.
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We have become world-class complainers. Snark eclipses kindness. Opinion defeats fact. Nuance dies. If social media did not create this descent into darkness, it accelerated it.

When news broke this week of a plan to expand the MLB postseason another predictable fight broke out among who could express the most outrage. What resulted was a peek at what reaction might have been if social media were around on June 13, 1993, when MLB announced the addition of a wild-card entrant.

Imagine the hooting then about allowing second-place teams into the postseason. What a disgrace to the name of the 1927 Yankees and what champions should be!

Why did baseball do it? Declining television ratings and revenue, labor trouble (which would lead to a strike) and a growing narrative that baseball was lagging behind the NFL and NBA as a modern entertainment option. Surveys then backed the idea of expanding the postseason by 54-44%, including 66-32 by fans aged 18-24.

“The traditionalist point of view,” said then-commissioner Bud Selig, “of which I happen to be one, holds us to a higher accountability than other sports. On the other hand, we have a huge body of people who say our reluctance to consider change has been harmful.”

The wild card became a hit.

Now baseball has arrived at another moment in time to be responsive to change.

Why not do nothing? Let's examine the status quo.

Attendance is down seven straight years, with a loss of 6.36 million paid customers. Analytically-minded front offices run algorithms before the first box of baseballs is cracked open to determine their playoff chances, and often their faith in the math removes their incentive to spend—sometimes for years—while valuing future wins over present ones.

And so we get bifurcated “pennant races” like the last one, with some teams that are trying and too many teams that are not. Of the 15 games played on Sept. 15, 2019, for instance, only three of them were contested between two teams within five games of a playoff spot.

The 2019 New York Yankees were the canary in the coal mine in this land of disincentives. They won 103 games, yet their attendance dropped 5% and their television ratings dropped 17%. Why? Too many games that didn’t matter. They Yankees played almost half their schedule, 71 games, against teams that lost 90 or more games. They went 52-19 in those games. They played intra-division “rivals” Toronto and Baltimore 38 times.

So that’s your status quo. Stick to it at your own peril. I know this: the players don’t like it, nor should they.

That’s why the expanded postseason idea has merit, and privately the players want to discuss it. We’re at another critical convergence of labor, disruption of the television industry and increased demands by viewers/consumers overwhelmed with choices. The proposed format addresses this moment in time more than do vestiges of 1927 or 1960.

If you want to understand the layers to this format (a novel idea, I know) here are questions and answers that explain why it deserves consideration.

Shouldn’t we be worried about losing teams making the postseason or–gulp–winning the World Series?

No. Knee-jerk reactions jump straight to the least likely occurrence and use that as an argument to throw out the entire idea.

Running the 14-team playoff simulation over the past eight seasons finds only four playoff teams with a losing record out of 112. That’s one losing team in the playoffs every two years. So yes, it’s possible–3.6% possible for those of you who put faith in numbers.

Now stop worrying about it. The average No. 7 seed would have 84 wins. (The 2006 Cardinals won the World Series with 83 wins, so there’s that.) Just to get out of the first round, that No. 7 seed must beat a better team two out of three days on the road. To win the World Series, any of the bottom three seeds will have to win 13 games while playing 14 of the maximum 22 games on the road.

red-sox-world-series

Can’t we do something about pace of action before talking about the postseason?

Apparently not. The players just won’t play along with the pitch clock (in part because pitchers and hitters bring their own biases) and commissioner Rob Manfred is too afraid to disrupt the tenuous labor relationship by swinging his hammer of implementation.

Manfred’s way of doing business is to secure big deals, then use the momentum of those deals to attack nuts-and-bolts issues. He did this with the umpires, who agreed to help with the design and implementation of a robo strike zone. Get the players on board with an expanded postseason and you can start talking about pace of action.

Does it help labor relations?

It’s designed to do just that. Players rightfully haven’t been happy with the way clubs have reduced a chunk of their rank and file into fungible assets and decided if they’re not ready to win the World Series they should prune their spending for years until they are ready.

The players want a system in which more teams are competing. Owners heard their complaints. If you’re a middle-of-the-road team, try telling your fan base you’re too far away from 84 wins to even try to get there.

Players also have concerns about the current economic system, which doesn’t get enough money to players when they’re young and doesn’t value them when they’re old. The collective bargaining agreement runs out after the 2021 season. Selling a postseason package to the networks with labor unrest will not draw top dollar. Players and owners could agree on the expanded postseason with an extension of the current agreement–with tweaks to the luxury tax thresholds and minimums, for example–while negotiating bigger economic changes. But that scenario involves more mutual trust than what we’ve seen lately.

What else is in this for the players?

You mean besides more teams in the playoffs and more teams trying to compete? Money. Lots of it.

Money, as in broadcast money?

Of course. It is the biggest driver of revenues, long ago replacing turnstile counts. The disruption of cable television, especially the regional sports networks, was a big reason behind the 1993 playoff expansion and subsequent growth of the game. Another disruption has hit the broadcast business, thanks to cord-cutters, streaming services, mobile platforms and over-the-top services. Nobody quite knows how it is going to play out. But once that disruption is settled with its winners and losers, baseball will not be able to leverage a competitive marketplace like this one.

Said one industry insider, “I think the timing is really crucial. When cable first came, in that transition everybody overpaid for content. I think we’re in exactly the same place.

“I’d be more concerned about when the transition is complete and when it really is all over the top, when it really is direct to consumer, whether there is a monetization model that is going to get the same bump.”

Why do broadcast companies want postseason baseball?

They don’t want simply more postseason baseball. If that were so you would just make the wild card a best-of-three and the division series a best-of-seven. No, they want events that are DVR proof—they can’t be time-shifted. And when you have a playoff game in which you know it’s win-or-go-home for at least one team, that becomes an event. That’s the key to March Madness.

Under the 14-team playoff format, the number of potential clinching games increases from a maximum of 26 to 36. The "wild-card” round begins with Game 1–which has some cachet as the start of the postseason, especially in the urgency of best-of-three—and then has nothing but potential clinchers thereafter.

wild-card

Do the broadcasters want the postseason selection show?

They really want it. MLB floated the idea to interested buyers of the Sunday night selection show, in which the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds from each league will pick from among the Nos. 5, 6 and 7 for their first-round opponent. Last year, for instance, the Yankees on camera would announce who they wanted to play among the Rays, Indians and Red Sox.

MLB found the interest was surprisingly robust. Why? It’s an exclusive, live, prime-time “event” that networks/services could promote for days in advance, stoking debate. Out of thin air, baseball creates a valuable asset.

Is it a gimmick? Yes. But is that word the same pejorative it used to be in this crowded entertainment landscape? The other option is to just let the matchups fall according to win totals: cold, clean, without debate.

Now you’re starting to catch on why the expanded playoff format could be a windfall for players. Baseball is creating another revenue stream.

Enough about money. What’s in this for the average fan?

More competition, particularly in September. Under the current format, an average of 15 teams are within five games of first place on Sept. 10. If you retrofit a 14-team postseason format over the past eight seasons, an average of 20 teams would be within five games at that date.

Think of all the races to follow. The race for the No. 1 seed is huge because that earns the best team in the league a bye. The race for No. 2 matters because you get the first pick of who you want to play in the first round. The race for No. 4 is big because you get three home games in the first round; fall to No. 5 and you get none. The race for No. 7 is the difference between getting into the postseason or not. More teams in the race with more on the line means you have more games in September that are meaningful.

What does the rest of the regular season mean for the average fan?

If you live in a National League city you get to see your team play against Mike Trout every year, home or road. In nine years Trout has played two games in Philadelphia. Two. Imagine if NBA fans in Philadelphia saw LeBron James that infrequently.

With seven postseason spots available, baseball would move toward a more balanced schedule in which teams theoretically play every team every year—Dodgers vs. Yankees, Red Sox vs. Cubs and, O.K., Royals vs. Padres. And the Yankees no longer play the Orioles and Blue Jays for almost a quarter of their schedule.

What does this idea mean for a general manager?

The good: The best team in the league wins a gigantic reward—the first-round bye—which honors the value of the 162-game grind. (Over the past eight years, 12 franchises would have secured the 16 No. 1 seeds.)

Also: more playoff spots incentivizes more teams to try to win, and getting to the playoffs helps GMs keep their jobs.

Also: No playoff team will have to put its entire season on the line in one game, which GMs hate. I’m thinking of you, Oakland: Its playoff teams that won 88, 97 and 97 games in the past six years went home after one game.

Also: The rhythm of baseball for six months is captured in series, not one-offs. The first round honors that rhythm.

The bad: You can’t keep bragging about your farm system to buy time when building an 84-win team is enough to get into the postseason.

Also: You have to stare into a camera and announce who you want to play in the playoffs, immediately inflaming the series.

Wait. Both of those are actually good things for the rest of us.

O.K., what are the downsides?

Division winners other than the No. 1 seed are worse off under this system, even if they get all home games in the first round.

You’re adding six non-clinching games to the postseason inventory (all wild-card-round Game 1s).

There are no Game 163s—tiebreakers, which always felt like bonus postseason games. You would get some kind of NFL-style tiebreaker formula to break ties, starting with head-to-head matchups.

National League–style baseball is endangered. Once you move to a more balanced schedule, the DH issue in interleague games becomes more problematic than it is now.

I hate the idea of killing baseball as it was invented and as it was meant to be played: as a game of skill and strategy. A universal DH dumbs down the game. I would allow the DH in all interleague games regardless of venue and keep out the DH in NL-vs.-NL games.

Don’t give me that argument about “who wants to see the pitcher hit?” NL attendance was 24% higher than AL attendance last year. The tension and uniqueness between the leagues are good for baseball. Most of the best postseason games you ever saw were played under NL rules because of the increased strategy created by the pitcher’s spot (see 1975 World Series Game 6 just as a start). Killing NL baseball is taking away the appeal of chess and telling everyone they have to like checkers.