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Editorial: A New Playoff Format Would Be Good for Major League Baseball

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The addition of four new teams into the playoffs would inject life into the game

Let’s address the elephant in the room; publishing an op-ed like this on a Mariners blog will be met with skepticism and side-eye. After all, missing the playoffs in 18 consecutive seasons will inherently make the idea of more playoff teams reek of cheapened desperation.

But that’s simply not the case here.

As reported Monday, Major League Baseball is potentially planning a radical change, hoping to move from five to seven teams in each league and have the teams with the best records pick their playoff opponents. The four additional teams would all carry Wild Card designations. The best team from each league would earn a bye. The division winner with the second-best record in a league would then get the first pick of its opponent from those lower three Wild Cards, then the other division winner would pick, leaving the last two Wild Cards to play each other.

Maybe most importantly, the Wild Card round would move from a single-game elimination format as currently constructed to a three-game series, all three games hosted by the superior seed.

I’d like to go on record, before truly diving in, that a 12-team playoff structure makes far more sense than the proposed 14-team format. We’ll dive into why here soon...

Major League Baseball could use an injection of peril and chance into its postseason format. In a league that so proudly waves it’s No Salary Cap Flag, too many low-to-mid market organizations are left scratching and clawing their ways to the top of the mountain, only to repeatedly fail. Sure, it’s possible for teams like the Rays, Athletics and Royals to succeed, but they’re threading the needle and working three times as hard as others to stay relevant.

In its current structure, markets like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Houston have the luxury of overspending to stay in contention year after year. Other cities like Philadelphia and Chicago have markets big enough to buoy big spending habits as well, though they’ve obviously seen lesser degrees of success over the past decade. These franchises have the luxury of exorbitant resources to ensure success on a consistent basis. They don’t necessarily have to rely on a healthy farm system year after year to remain relevant, though no one is arguing it isn’t important for long-term responsible spending and stability.

At the end of the day, when four to six organizations consistently and comfortably have a $70 million or more payroll advantage on one-third of the rest of league, it’s not good for the game.

The new proposed playoff structure may help quell some of that.

There’s a lot to unpack here, so let’s start with the numbers.

Total Playoff Teams

Major League Baseball moving from 10 playoff teams (33 percent) to 14 playoff teams (47 percent) would move it more in-line with the NBA, whom currently lets in 16 out of it’s 30 teams (53 percent). The NFL currently qualifies 12 of their 32 teams (38 percent) for postseason play.

So what risks come with allowing almost half of the league into the playoffs? Well, first and foremost, MLB is certainly risking devaluing regular season games. It’s no secret that several NBA teams throttle back at different points of the year to stay fresh for the postseason. Every game matters right now, and that would be in jeopardy with the new proposal.

From this chair, 12 teams is probably the sweet spot, not 14. The NFL is a good example of this. While the NFL only has 16 games in a season, every single game matters and postseason spots are precious. 38 percent of the league getting into the playoffs just feels right. Every postseason berth feels like a legitimate achievement, and that’s coming from a writer in the Seattle market that saw the Seahawks make the playoffs 80 percent of the time over the last decade. It’s never taken for granted.

Team Spending

Under the new proposed playoff structure, more teams will inherently be involved at the trade deadline, and even more-so each offseason. By lowering the average wins needed to qualify for a Wild Card spot and subsequent postseason play from 89 to 84, more teams will will be “one piece away” at each deadline. Tanking will be far less prevalent, and more teams will be in on big ticket free agents each offseason.

This does come with a caveat. In order for more spending to take place, more talent has to start hitting the open market each winter. The MLBPA needs to demand a restructuring of the current system. Players being controlled for six ‘service time’ years is simply unacceptable. Too many stars aren’t reaching the open market until they’re 30 years old, at which point, in a lot of cases, their peak value has faded. But I digress... an article for another time.

Optimistically, being that much closer to postseason play each winter will push teams to grow their payrolls. According to Tom Verducci, Over the last eight years, 27 of 30 teams would have made the playoffs in the proposed structure. Only the Cardinals and Dodgers would have qualified EVERY year. Twelve different teams would have been #1 seeds. There’s a lot more parity here, and a lot of incentive to “try”.

Three-Game Wild Card Series

This may be the best addition to the potential new layout. The current one game do-or-die Wild Card structure is probably doing more harm than good. Placing all your chips onto the table for the chance to play one game on the road isn’t enough for teams to spend big or make deals at the deadline.

A three-game series, albeit on the road, would allow for less “luck” and happenstance in the Wild Card round, whilst rewarding roster construction and game-planning. All for it.

The Gimmick

One piece of the proposed structure that simply doesn’t make sense is this “choose your own adventure” rule that allows division winners to select their opponent. The rule itself is cheesy and disingenuous to the game. It feels like a reality TV stunt meant for ratings. Allowing playoff seeding to be based on anything other than merit feels underhanded.

Conclusion

It’s no secret Major League Baseball needs some infusion of creativity or marketing to bolster the product. Attendance has fallen seven consecutive seasons league-wide and there’s no reason to believe 2020 will be any different. A new proposed playoff structure would certainly help, but not as currently envisioned.

A 12-team postseason format akin to the NFL would not only inject life into the sport, but also shake up the prevalence of transactions and spending year round.

There is, and likely always will be, meta averse to change in Major League Baseball. It’s a sport build on a foundation of purists and traditionalism. The proposition being thrown around isn’t perfect, but it may have some components that would be truly fortuitous for the future of the game.

There’s already been a great FanPost on the subject that’s also worth a read!