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14-Team Expanded Playoff Format Is Perfect Fix to Reinvigorate MLB for a New Era

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2020

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 02: The Tampa Bay Rays celebrates in the locker room after defeating the Oakland Athletics 5-1 in the American League Wild Card Game at RingCentral Coliseum on October 02, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Should nearly half the teams in Major League Baseball qualify for the postseason each year? 

This isn't a mere thought experiment. On Monday, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that "MLB is seriously weighing a move from five to seven playoff teams in each league beginning in 2022."

Here's the idea, and strap on your thinking caps because it gets complicated. 

  • The teams with the best records in the National League and American League each earn a bye and automatically advance to the division series round.
  • The other two division winners and the top wild-card club in both the AL and NL host best-of-three series against the other three wild-card entrants, with all games played on the top team's turf. (Any ties among non-division winners are broken by head-to-head records with no tiebreaker games played, as noted by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci.)
  • Oh, and one more wrinkle: The division winner with the second-best record in each league selects its opponent, then the other division winner picks its opponent and the last two wild cards play each other. Selections are made on national TV.
  • The winners of those series, along with the teams that earned byes, move on to the division series round. From there, the playoffs proceed as normal.

On its face, this sounds like a complex scheme to draw attention and eyeballs to the sport.

And that's accurate, as Sherman noted: "In 2019, attendance was down for a seventh straight year. Many factors have led to the dip, but clearly one is so many teams surrendering playoff objectives before or during seasons. MLB wants to have as many regular-season games matter as possible."

Tanking to get high draft picks and snag cost-controlled young talent has become the new normal for many teams. This proposal could tweak the calculus.

Under the proposed format, there would be a massive incentive to finish with the best record—or at least win your division. Such finishes have been watered down in the wild-card era.

Mostly, though, teams that eke out 83 or 84 wins would have a realistic shot at extending their season and maybe making a Cinderella run. The pressure would be on to compete.

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The drama would ratchet up leaguewide. More eyeballs would be glued to screens, and more butts would be in seats.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The NFL has unquestionably eclipsed MLB as America's top sport. The NBA has more marketable stars and cultural cachet. And soccer, domestically and internationally, is gaining steam, both in terms of enthusiasm and interest.

All those other sports have one thing in common: more teams competing in the postseason or hugely popular tournaments.

As a lifelong fan who grew up listening to lazy Wednesday afternoon baseball games with my grandpa on the radio, I understand the nostalgia and traditionalism baked into the sport. But the league needs to innovate to keep the attention and interest of a younger demographic.

MLB already implemented instant replay and added the second wild-card spot. Now, it is seriously toying with the idea of robot umpires.

Heck, once upon a time, there were only two leagues with no divisions, and the two winners advanced to the World Series.

"Baseball players used to leave their gloves on the field between innings," former big league outfielder Eric Byrnes told me in 2016 while advocating for an automated strike zone. "They used to take trains across the country instead of airplanes. They used to not have lights and not play night games. It's a simple progression."

This progression isn't simple. In fact, it's pretty chaotic and would seismically shift the structure of both the regular season and the postseason. But that's the point.

Is your team hovering below .500 in late August? Don't worry! It's a five-game winning streak away from being smack dab in the postseason mix.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

And if this protracted playoff dance plays out, imagine the drama. That would undoubtedly turn the heads of the younger demographic baseball needs to court.

It should also appeal to players as it would increase the pool of potential contenders (aka buyers) and drive up salaries. Though, as FanGraphs' Jay Jaffe opined, it may instead allow teams to justify standing put or spending less:

Jay Jaffe @jay_jaffe

Having 14 teams in the playoffs won’t make teams spend more money. It will allow them to justify *not* spending because they “proved” they could make the playoffs without breaking the bank. https://t.co/jm4BibxJMy

Furthermore, it should appeal to owners by giving them a greater shot at postseason revenue and, more importantly, lucrative TV deals. As Verducci noted, "Baseball has shopped the idea of the expanded playoff format among current and possible future television partners and found the appetite 'robust.'"

In the end, though, this isn't about players and owners making more money, though that does up the likelihood it'll be implemented when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season. 

It's about the game evolving. To channel our inner Byrnes, it's about progression.

And above all, it's about a bigger pool of fans investing, rooting and cheering every year.

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