If MLB permanently adopts the 16-team playoff field, here’s how it should look

Commissioner Rob Manfred said during a panel at Hofstra University’s business school this week that he’s hopeful the expansion of MLB’s playoff structure for the 2020 season — from 10 teams to 16 teams — becomes a permanent part of the baseball landscape. 

Apparently, the excitement of watching 10 teams hovering within a couple of games of the .500 mark competing for spots on baseball’s hallowed October playoff stage was enough to convince Manfred and the MLB owners that 2020’s temporary plan was a great idea. 

Just kidding. It’s about money. It’s always about money. The more teams in the playoffs, the more money owners can make from TV contracts. And, as Manfred said during the Hofstra event (as reported by The Washington Post), owners were “overwhelmingly” in favor of this even before the coronavirus pandemic delayed and shortened the 2020 MLB season. 

It should be noted that expanding the playoffs isn’t something Manfred can make happen unilaterally — he’d need the MLBPA to sign off — but if the owners overwhelmingly want the expanded playoffs to happen, it’s probably going to happen. There will be lots of give-and-take in the upcoming CBA negotiations that will be contentious, and the players will/should use this to get something they need/want more, surely. 

Still, from a baseball fan’s perspective, it’s a horrible idea. Baseball America did the research, and since baseball expanded to 30 teams for the 1998 season — hi, Diamondbacks and Devil Rays! — the 16-team playoff setup would have at least one team with a sub-.500 record making the postseason in 18 of the 22 season, including the past six in a row. Yikes. In 2013, either the Padres or Giants would have made October with a 76-86 record!

And this excellent FanGraphs piece shows how a 16-team format exactly as it’s constructed in 2020 hurts the chances of the best teams making the World Series and helps the chances of the more mediocre teams getting there and winning it all. 

Oh, and you can bet that if it’s easier to get into the postseason, teams/owners will be much less willing to spend big bucks on free agents when October can be a bit of a crapshoot anyway. So, y’know, MLBPA, if you agree to the expanded playoffs, you’d better get a damn good CBA concession in return. 

But, again, it’s probably going to happen. If not for 2021, then eventually (like, when expansion happens). And with that truth in mind, let’s endeavor to make a 16-team playoff scenario as strong as possible. 

Make the regular season count

Let’s start here: How do you protect the integrity of the regular season? 

The 2020 regular season means next to nothing, essentially. Sure, the division winners get banners to hang in their stadiums, and there are seeds to be “earned” during the 60-game schedule. But when the first round of the postseason is a best-of-three series against another MLB team, there’s very little benefit to earning a higher seed. It’s such a small sample size, and every playoff team is going to have at least one pitcher capable of winning a game pretty much all by himself. 

Here’s an example: The Dodgers are playing baseball at an incredible clip; only two teams since the mid-1950s have finished with a winning percentage above .700, and the Dodgers currently sit at .706. But it’s entirely possible their best-of-three opponent could be the Reds, who sit a game under .500, but can throw out Trevor Bauer (1.71 ERA), Luis Castillo (2.62 FIP) and Sonny Gray (2.93 FIP) in a three-game series. Where’s the benefit to L.A.?

So how do you make sure the regular season matters? How do you reward the teams that were the best over the long haul of the season? With eight-team brackets in each league, byes don’t really work if you want to keep the postseason to four rounds. 

The obvious answer would be to play seven-game series in every round, fully testing each team’s depth and strengths/weaknesses. But four rounds of best-of-sevens aren’t really feasible for baseball, time-wise. The NBA and NHL postseasons are set up that way, but their playoffs last two months. Baseball can’t have a World Series winner crowned the day after Thanksgiving. And don’t bet on MLB either starting the regular season in mid-March or cutting 15 to 20 games out of the regular-season schedule. Revenue from those home games is important. 

A three-game series with a twist

So, here’s a solution: Make all eight playoff teams play a three-game opening-round series, with the higher seed hosting everything, but with this twist: The three division winners only have to win one game to advance. So, in the scenario mentioned above, the Dodgers would only have to win one game, while the Reds would have to sweep the three-game series. Challenging for the Reds, sure, but winning a division has to matter. The regular season has to matter. 

And, yes, there will be years where, for example, an 86-win team claims a division title and only has to win one game to advance to the Division Series against a 92-win team in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 series, while a 97-win team faces a 96-win team in a No. 4 vs. No. 5 best-of-three and a 92-win team has to try to sweep a 94-win team in the No. 2 vs. No. 7 matchup. But most years, the three division winners will have, at least, three of the best five records in the league and the seeds will look right for the most part. 

As far as seeds, the seeding format for the 2020 postseason — division winners get 1-3 seeds, division runners-up get 4-6 seeds and wild cards get 7-8 — has to go. It made sense for this year, when schedules were division-specific (i.e. AL East teams played only other AL East teams and NL East teams) and MLB wanted each division to get at least two teams into the postseason, so division runners-up got auto bids, too. But going forward, assuming full 162-game schedules starting again in 2021, division winners should get the 1-3 seeds, and the final five playoff teams should be wild cards, seeded by final record. 

Re-seed for the Division Series

Oh, and as the playoffs move to the Division Series, matchups reset. This year, (best-of-five), it’s Winner of 1-8 vs. Winner of 4-5 and Winner of 2-7 vs. Winner of 3-6, no matter what. For example, let’s say the No. 7 seed beats the No. 2 seed in the Wild-Card Series. Under this setup, the No. 1 seed (assuming it advances) still has to play the winner of the series between the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds, not the No. 7 seed. It’s entirely possible the No. 1 seed could face the highest remaining seed, in fact, if the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds advance through the first round. 

That can’t stand. The best team over 162 games should have the “easiest” path to the World Series. Those players earned that advantage. The best remaining team should ALWAYS face the “worst” remaining team.

OK, so here’s the quick recap.

Playoff field

16 teams make the postseason, eight in each league.

Seeds

1. Division winner (best record overall)
2. Division winner (second-best record of div. winners)
3. Division winner (third-best record of div. winners)
4. Wild Card (best record, non-division winner)
5. Wild Card (second-best record, non-division winner)
6. Wild Card (third-best record, non-division winner)
7. Wild Card (fourth-best record, non-division winner)
8. Wild Card (fifth-best record, non-division winner)

Opening round (up to three games)

No. 1. vs. No. 8 (No. 1 has to win one game, No. 8 has to win three)
No. 2. vs. No. 7 (No. 2 has to win one game, No. 7 has to win three)
No. 3. vs. No. 6 (No. 3 has to win one game, No. 6 has to win three)
No. 4. vs. No. 5 (standard best-of-three)

Division Series (best-of-five)

Highest remaining seed vs. Lowest remaining seed.
The other two teams face off.

League Championship Series (best-of-seven)

Same as always.

World Series (best-of-seven)

Same as always. 

So, yeah. That’s how it should look. Well, how it SHOULD look is 10 teams in the playoffs, five in each league. But if we’re going to expand to 16, then this is how it should look. 

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