It's February, which means it's time to talk ... playoffs? Well, it shouldn't be time to talk playoffs. But if last season is any indication, in which the league and players agreed to an expanded postseason format hours before Opening Day, there's a chance history repeats itself.
As of now MLB is going forward with a 10-team postseason (two wild-card teams plus three division winners per league). If owners have their way, the playoff field will expand (and so will owners' profits). If players have their way, every team will be spending every year in an effort to win. Ah, the romance of baseball ...
SI's MLB experts are here to weigh in on what the sport's ideal playoff format should be going forward.
In each league the playoff field is filled by the three division winners (Seeds 1–3) and the four teams regardless of division with the next best records (Seeds 4–7). The first round (wild-card round) is a best-of-three played entirely in the home park of the higher seed.
The team with the best record is the No. 1 seed. It gets a bye through the first round. On the night after the final day of regular-season games, a selection show is held in which the No. 1 seed in each league chooses its best-of-five Division Series opponent from the wild-card matchups (2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5).
Last year, for instance, the Dodgers would announce they would choose to play the winner of Braves-Marlins, Cubs-Cardinals or Padres-Reds. This adds drama, strategy, a built-in narrative to the Division Series (“You want us?”), and prevents the No. 1 seed from complaining that it randomly drew a “bad” matchup. TV networks already have expressed interest in bidding on a selection show. (It also allows what is a must-have in sports these days: office brackets.)
Winners advance to the best-of-seven LCS. Those winners advance to best-of-seven World Series. World Series is held at a neutral site every third year.
Advantages? Best record earns a big premium. Winning a division—and being a great second-place team that happens to be in the wrong division (i.e., 2020 Padres)—earns a premium (home throughout first round). Jockeying for seeds matters, which injects intrigue into September. More players get the chance to play postseason baseball. More teams chase the carrot of a playoff spot, though the added incentive is there to build one that stays out of the all-round first-round matchup. Less travel (first round all in one park; neutral World Series “trials”).
My ideal playoff format would be for it to stay just as it has been since the second wild-card spot was added—but even though it looks like an expanded playoff won't be featured this year, it now seems all but inevitable that it'll happen at some point, perhaps after the renegotiation of the CBA. If that happens, then, I have one change I'd like to see made to the expanded field that we had in 2020: Let the wild-card round be one game instead of a best-of-three. The three-game series felt like a weird no man's land between the excitement of a single game and the strategic arc of a best-of-five. A single game starts the playoffs with a bang and jumps into the serious action more quickly. Is it a perfectly fair way to judge which team is actually better? No. But neither is a best-of-three! This way, at least, is more fun.
I love the idea of a selection show, as Tom outlined above. The only way that's viable is with a 14-team playoff (seven seeded teams per league), in which the top seeds get a bye and seeds No. 2 and 3 choose their first-round opponent. The wrinkle I would add to the so-called "wild-card round" (which, uh, includes division winners) is to make it a two-game series. How does that happen? Game 1 is an elimination game. If the higher (better) seed wins Game 1 or 2, the series is over. The only way the lower (worse) seed wins the series is by winning both games.
It's a marked advantaged for the better seed and protects superior teams from a dreaded one-and-done postseason. And if the worse seed can win two elimination games on the road to get to the Division Series? Watch out.
The remaining playoff rounds should stay status quo. Having a neutral site World Series is an intriguing concept (just not in the Rangers' dreadfully dark and plain ballpark) but it should only happen if a stadium is specifically built for the Fall Classic. Let's not play a Yankees-Dodgers World Series in Milwaukee.
I'm quite happy with the playoff format adopted in 2012; the wild-card game is high-stakes drama that division winners rightfully get to avoid. But I must admit the thrill of watching eight playoff games in one day last fall sold me on some measure of postseason expansion. And if we're going to do that, as seems likely, the first round should be a best-of-three series so division winners couldn't crash out after one game. While letting in 16 of 30 teams is too many, allowing seven teams per league would provide several levels of incentives: a bye for the No. 1 seed, three home games for the No. 4 seed and playoff qualification for the No. 7 seed. Hopefully that leads to a reduction in tanking.
I loved the expanded postseason last year because it made the opening rounds of the playoffs feel like a marquee event. Baseball was on all day, with meaningful games overlapping for hours. The downside to having a 16-team format is some of the teams that get in won't deserve it, and there are concerns that will incentivize mediocrity. I get it, but it could also make teams that otherwise wouldn't be in contention decide to make a push because there are three more berths in each league. I also get why the players union does not want to agree to expanded playoffs now, a year before the current CBA expires. But, in an ideal scenario, the excitement of the 16-team format is too good to pass up.
I think having five playoff teams from each league feels about right. Expanding the playoffs to field 12 or more teams lowers the barrier of entry into the tournament, and thus disincentivizes front offices from spending the extra money it takes to turn an 85-win team into a 90-win team. Changing the wild-card round from a single game to a best-of-three wouldn't be a bad idea, though the pressure of a win-or-go-home game to kick off the postseason is undeniably a plus—at least if you don't root for a team involved and are spared the agonizing stress of the whole ordeal.
I don't see any real reason to deviate from the current 10-team setup. The wild-card round is legitimately thrilling, and moreover, creates a marked advantage for division winners. Last year's expanded playoffs may have brought some added excitement (hello, quad box!) but from a competitive balance standpoint, it was absurd. Top seeds had no advantage whatsoever outside of home field with empty stands, and a 16-team playoff in 2021 would make a mockery of the 162-game season. Let's not mess with a good thing. Returning to the 10-team playoff format is best for all parties involved going forward.