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For 2020, expanded playoffs are a good thing

Lean into the craziness of this fever-dream season.

2019 ALDS Game 1 - Minnesota Twins v. New York Yankees Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

There was a flurry of news in the hours before before the first pitch of the 2020 season. Mookie Betts signed a huge extension in Los Angeles, and Nationals star Juan Soto tested positive for COVID-19. Perhaps the biggest news of the day, and the one that changes the landscape of the game the most, is the expanded playoff structure agreed to by MLB and the players association.

Craig Edwards gives his breakdown of the entire deal at FanGraphs, but here are the key points:

  1. 16 Playoff Teams
  2. Division winners will receive the top three seeds in each league
  3. Second-place division finishers will receive the 4-6 seeds in each league
  4. The two teams in each league with the best records apart from those six will be the seventh and eighth seeds
  5. The top four seeds in each league will host every game in a best-of-three Wild Card Series to advance to the Division Series

To put this in the context of 2019, the eight AL playoff teams would have been the three division winners — the Astros, Yankees and Twins — followed by the second place division teams — Oakland, Tampa and Cleveland — and then the last two “wild card” teams would be Boston and Texas. Boston ended the year with 84 wins, Texas with 78. Houston would have hosted three games against the Rangers, the Yankees would have played three at home against Boston, etc.

Over 162 games, I hate this idea.

Baseball is a game that needs a large sample size for all the randomness to wear out. The whole point of 162 games is to let that happen, and then only allow the best teams into the playoffs. Using 2019 as an example, the sub-.500 Texas Rangers would have a chance, however small, of winning the World Series despite all the evidence to the contrary that they don’t belong in the same class of clubs as the Astros, Yankees or Dodgers.

But we’re not playing 162 games.

Baseball needs to lean into the chaos and confusion of the 60-game season. It already flies in the face of what baseball usually looks like, so you might as well do it with the playoffs as well. Moreso than just accepting the weirdness of 2020, though, I think this playoff format for this season actually helps the game, in the same way that adopting it for 2021 would hurt.

This has been a hard season for sports fans. Baseball already is well-known for an older fanbase, and overly reliant on legacy media for distribution. A messy squabble over finances made a lot of fans dissuaded with the state of the game, and for some reason, people of a particular demographic are angry that baseball players would like a more just and equal society. Of course there’s also a looming CBA negotiation that’s likely to be one of the more contentious of our lifetime.

What better way to assuage some of these concerns — some quite legitimate, one not — over the future of the game than by expanding the possible number of interested fans? Yankee fans or Dodger fans were already going to be invested in this season, since both squads are World Series favorites.

But what about the “bubble” teams, those clubs that wouldn’t have sniffed the postseason under the conventional structure, but benefit the most from expansion? The White Sox, Red Sox, Athletics and Angels all saw their playoff odds jump more than 30% upon the announcement. These are teams, and by extension fanbases, that might have been completely checked out over the final two weeks of the season, and will now experience meaningful baseball.

Again, in 162 games, I don’t particularly care if a team has meaningful baseball in September, since they’ve had 130 games up to that point to prove they deserve it. In a sprint season, though, where the MVP is going to have 18 home runs, I can’t really find myself the energy to care about “deserve”.

I don’t ever want to see 16 playoff teams in a full season. But really, all that matters for baseball in 2020 is that everyone stays healthy, and the game helps repair some of the damage its done to itself over the last eight months. Baseball has a relatively captive audience, and the chance to keep them engaged in a way that hasn’t existed before. That’s worth some hand-wringing over the “legitimacy” of a title.

Lastly, in a roundabout way, expanded playoffs may give teams an out to take COVID more seriously. The more teams make the playoffs, the less each individual game matters, the more seriously teams can take the protocols and procedures around a positive COVID test. If the Phillies are one game out of the old Wild Card spot and Bryce Harper tests positive, it creates some pretty gross moral hazard around how the team approaches it. More teams in the playoffs mitigates that.

In the end, my thoughts on expanded playoffs are virtually identical to Sam Miller’s:

The pandemic has changed all our lives, and baseball is one way we might have an outlet from it. The game needs as much engagement and excitement as it can manage right now, and having as many clubs competitive all season as possible is the best way to do that.