Fire is hot.
The Earth is round.
“Better Call Saul” is the best show on television.
Major League Baseball owners want to make as much money as humanly possible, with the health of the game a secondary concern—and a distant one at that.
Yes, obvious statements are obvious, and though we all knew that MLB owners are chiefly motivated by money, the acrimonious negotiations with the player’s union over the terms of the 2020 season have thrown that fact into even starker relief. Whether it’s through their attempts to cut costs (not just in the wake of the pandemic, but over several previous collective bargaining agreements), or increase revenues (advertising patches on uniforms, anyone?), the owners appear hell-bent on extracting every dollar of value from the sport that they can.
Of course, that’s not surprising. But perhaps there’s a simple tweak to be made to the crown jewel of the league’s revenue-generating proposals – the expanded playoffs – that would better preserve the integrity of the postseason and its value as a product.
Now it’s true that the current 60-game regular season plan implemented by Commissioner Rob Manfred doesn’t include any expanded playoffs, but a previous proposal offered to (and rejected by) the players called for the postseason field to be increased to 16 teams across both leagues, for both this season and next. That followed reports back in February that the league would pursue a 14-team playoff field after the current CBA expires following the 2021 season.
The format of the 14-team playoff would be as follows: Three division winners would be joined in October by four Wild Card teams (as opposed to the two Wild Cards who meet in a one-game playoff currently). The division winner with the best record would get a bye, then the second-best division winner would be able to choose their opponent from the Wild Card clubs. The final division winner would do likewise, with the third matchup consisting of the remaining teams. The clubs would square off against each other in a best-of-three series, with the better regular season team enjoying the benefit of home field throughout. The 16-team proposal would presumably follow the same three-game series format, minus the bye for the top team.
Critics of an expanded playoff argue that it devalues the regular season, as even division winners will be asked to navigate an extra playoff round, and a three-game crapshoot at that. The best team winning a seven-game series is no sure thing. A three-game matchup even less so, creating a world in which the league’s best regular season teams face getting bounced before the tournament has barely begun. As dramatic as upsets can be, is it really in the league’s best interest if their best teams aren’t around to face each other in late October? I would humbly argue no.
So what if the league borrowed an idea from Korea Baseball Organization, who have been the sole purveyors of actual baseball in the U.S. for almost two months? The 10-team KBO also features a Wild Card round, between the fourth and fifth ranked clubs. While nominally a best-of-three, the higher-ranked team is given a 1-0 series lead automatically, meaning they only have to win one game while their lower-seeded opponent has to win two.
MLB adopting the same wrinkle would tilt the odds further in the division winners’ favor and elegantly reinforce the value of the regular season (and thus neutralize a chief criticism of the expanded field) while at the same time not precluding the odd upset. And if an upset does happen, how much more dramatic would it be to have an underdog overcome those tougher odds?
Top seeds would also face a strategic conundrum: do they go all out to win that one game, or do they hold back in case they need to play the second?
Is all this self-serving coming from a Yankees fan? Sure. But if an expanded playoff field is to be part of the game’s future – and every indication is that it will be – then the league would do well to preserve the integrity of its 162-game crucible and its championship tournament. This just might do it.