Burning Questions to Address After MLB Expands 2020 Playoffs to 16 Teams
MLB is plunging into a shortened season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Players and coaches are wearing face masks. Commentators are calling games from afar. Canned crowd noises are playing as unblinking cardboard-cutout fans look on in empty, echoey stadiums.
Apparently, things weren't weird enough. Shortly before the first pitch was thrown on Opening Day, the league announced it was expanding the postseason from 10 teams to 16.
Excuse us while we grab a glass of water for the obligatory spit take.
Seriously, though, this is a big deal. And it raises a number of burning questions. Here are seven of them and our best attempts at answers.
First, though, a quick primer on the new format.
A Quick Primer on the New Format
Got your pen, pad, protractor, thinking cap and Magic 8-Ball handy? Good.
First, here's who makes the playoffs this season:
- The three division winners in each league
- The second-place team in each division in each league
- The two best third-place teams in each league
Here's how the first round works:
- The No. 1 seed (meaning the division winner with the best record) plays the No. 8 seed, the No. 2 seed plays the No. 7 seed and so on
- The first round will be best-of-three
- The higher-seeded club hosts all three games
Here's how the second round works:
- The winner of the No. 1-No. 8 series plays the winner of the No. 4-No. 5 series, and the winner of the No. 7-No. 2 series plays the winner of the No. 3-No. 6 series
- Home field goes to the higher seed
- It's a best-of-five with a 2-2-1 home/road format
Here's how the third round works:
- The two remaining teams play a best-of-seven, with a 2-3-2 home/road format
- The higher seed gets home field
Here's how the World Series works:
- Well, basically it's the World Series
- Best-of-seven, 2-3-2 home/road format, team with the better record gets home field
Also of note:
- Teams will be seeded as follows: the division winners get the 1-3 seeds according to record; the second-place teams get seeds 4-6 in order of record; and the two remaining third-place "wild cards" get the seventh and eighth seeds according to record
- Any ties will be broken by head-to-head record, intradivision record and record in the final 20 division games, in that order
OK, on to the questions...
Why Wait Until the 11th Hour?
The coronavirus pandemic was, obviously, the primary reason the season was delayed. But the contentious negotiations between players and owners over compensation didn't help matters.
Finally, Commissioner Rob Manfred unilaterally mandated a 60-game season.
At the time, the parameters of Manfred's decision called for the prior 10-team playoff format. But an expanded postseason format had been in play during negotiations, and in June, players union head Tony Clark left the possibility of more than 10 postseason entrants open.
"I would simply say that if there's interest to discuss something, I'll be available to discuss it," Clark said at the time, per Ronald Blum of The Associated Press.
Reading between the lines, it seems the two sides were always amenable to an expanded postseason. But, in typical fashion, it took until the last possible moment for the details to be ironed out.
Why Go with 16 Teams and Not, Say, 12?
The simple answer: money.
With fewer games and no fans paying for tickets and concessions (for now, at least), every franchise will feel the financial pinch in 2020.
More playoff teams means more television revenue. The pie gets bigger, and more clubs get a bite. From this standpoint, if 12 is good, 16 is even better.
Plus, while it's far from certain, it's possible fans could be allowed back into ballparks by October. If that's the case, more teams will have a chance to cash in on gate receipts.
The less cynical take is that it also keeps more fanbases involved. More playoff teams equals more contenders, which in turn equals (theoretically) more engagement and widespread interest.
And if it gets emerging young stars such as the Chicago White Sox's Luis Robert (who plays for a fringe contender) onto the brightest stage, what's the harm in that?
Does This Make the Regular Season Less Meaningful?
Once upon a time, there were no divisions in baseball. The winners of the National League and American League advanced to the World Series, and that was that. The regular season was huge.
Then came the advent of two divisions in each league and then three. Then came one wild card and then another.
Each change diluted the regular season to an extent. But it also made the regular season more interesting for more teams and fans.
Think of the days of two pennant winners meeting directly in the World Series. By midsummer or sooner, many teams would have been all but mathematically eliminated. Adding divisions and more chances for clubs to make the dance helped offset this.
There is a tipping point, of course. If every team qualified for the postseason, the regular season would be almost completely meaningless. So how about when more than half of the teams qualify?
We'll find out. There are incentives in the new system for clubs to win their divisions or at least finish second. There will be meaningful baseball late in the season.
But this is uncharted territory, and it's tough to argue it doesn't further water down the games that precede the first playoff tussle.
Who Benefits the Most?
The biggest beneficiaries will be clubs on the playoff bubbles.
That includes teams such as the White Sox and San Diego Padres, rising contenders who might have been a year or so away under normal conditions but who could now vault into the postseason. We mentioned Luis Robert as a rising star who may benefit, and we'll add Pads shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., among others.
The Los Angeles Angels are also on the edge of contention in the American League, and they employ the best player on the planet in Mike Trout.
Trout has played just three postseason games in his career, which seems criminal. If the new format gets the Halos to the playoffs, Trout, the Angels and all of us will be winners.
Basically, if your team was a coin-toss playoff hopeful this year—or even a so-you're-telling-me-there's-a-chance long shot—you win.
Who Loses the Most?
If the fringe hopefuls are the biggest winners, the odds-on favorites are the biggest losers.
Teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins were near-consensus picks to make the postseason.
They still are, but now they'll have to share the spotlight with multiple other hopefuls. Yes, they'll have advantages if they win their divisions, finish with the best records, etc.
But, as the playoffs have shown us time and again, weird things can happen in a short series. Scrubs get hot; superstars go cold. Balls bounce your way, or they don't.
In the small-sample chaos of this 16-team format, we will inevitably see pinball-machine oddities. It'll be entertaining. But it could seriously disadvantage teams that built deep, balanced rosters—or at least level the playing field for the upstarts.
Will This Become Permanent?
Let's assume things return to some semblance of the usual next season (which is, admittedly, a big assumption).
Changes such as the universal designated hitter and expanded playoff format would theoretically go by the wayside with players and owners returning to the parameters of the collective bargaining agreement.
That agreement, however, is set to expire after 2021. At that point, anything and everything could be back on the table.
Manfred and MLB, along with the players and owners, are using 2020 as a testing ground. In a season that's already unlike any other, why not throw everything at the backstop and see what sticks?
So the answer to this question may depend upon you. Well, not just you, but all baseball fans and how they respond. If ratings and interest are up and the 16-team gambit seems popular, you can bet the league will consider making it permanent.
If it leads mostly to ire and indifference from casual fans as well as purists, it'll probably be a one-shot experiment.
Here's what we know: The fact that the union and owners were able to agree on it for this year means it's possible, because those two factions don't agree easily on anything.
Is This Fair?
Do you define "fairness" (as it pertains to baseball) as: A) Giving the most teams a chance to win the World Series; or B) Giving the best teams the best chances to win the World Series?
If you answered "A," this is fair. And if you chose "B," not so much.
Our answer—and it might seem like a cop-out—is that nothing has been fair in 2020, so why worry now?
Going forward, MLB will have to decide how radically it wants to rewrite its rules. The game has evolved through the years, but it's also steeped in tradition.
Going with 16 playoff teams would be one of the most radical rule changes of the modern era, and it's not something the league should do simply to increase revenue. But if the majority of fans respond positively...who are we to stand in the way of progress?
In a world in which games are played in front of cardboard spectators, not normal is the new normal.
And maybe unfair is the new fair.