All season, MLB has flown by the seat of its collective pants, making rules appear out of thin air and expecting players and fans to accept them without complaint. We talked about a few of these last week - universal DH, the extra innings rule, and so on. This week though, commissioner Rob Manfred announced two changes to the playoffs, and both are the biggest failures yet in his stewardship of the 2020 season.
First of all, for this season, there will be no off days in any of the first three rounds of the postseason. Then on Wednesday, Manfred said he was confident that expanded playoffs will continue beyond this season, with 16 teams making the postseason and beyond. That second proposal still needs to be agreed upon by the players, but Manfred’s shown an annoying habit of getting his way on most other things this year - negotiating the players down to 60 games a chief example.
These are two separate ideas, but both hurt the integrity and competitive balance of the game, and the no-off-days rule also hurts the marketability of baseball. The playoffs are a time for the stars of the game to really show themselves off - Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon went from notable names at the top of FanGraphs leaderboards to lead roles in a dramatic World Series championship for the Nationals last year. As much as the playoffs can be a coming out party for position players, they’re even more so for pitchers.
Because of the off-days, teams can lean on their star pitchers more in the postseason than they can in mid-June, and the higher stakes of the playoffs leads to the use of guys on short rest. Starting pitching often defines the postseason itself - Stephen Strasburg in 2019, Justin Verlander in 2017, Madison Bumgarner in 2014. And teams have leaned into that reliance on their best starters, even while bullpens become more important in the regular season:
No off-days between games in first three playoff rounds is huge. Consider how last three WS champions shrunk their staffs:— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) September 15, 2020
2019 WAS: Strasburg, Scherzer, Corbin 58.6% of innings
2018 BOS: Eovaldi, Price, Porcello, Sale 59%
2017 HOU: Verlander, Keuchel, Morton, McCullers 68.1%
Conventionally, if you start your two best pitchers in games one and two of the division series, they’re always available for a do-or-die fifth game. The Yankees could turn to Gerrit Cole instead of J.A. Happ, their nominal fifth starter, or Jordan Montgomery. Either case, the Yankees are a better team, but they’re also more watchable. Cole is a star, Happ isn’t. Casual fans are just more likely to tune in to a game featuring the pitcher that signed a $324-million contract than the pitcher that can take the New York subway without being recognized.
Instead, with no off days, the Yankees would have to decide whether starting Cole on three days’ rest would be better than starting a fully rested Happ. Even in doing that, though, you reduce the ability to use your best pitchers in the next round. Ben Clemens has already done the math on the risks and general stupidity of no off days, but suffice to say it doesn’t just hurt the competitive aspect of baseball, but the entertainment aspect as well. Maximize your star talent, get them on camera on the biggest stage possible, and fans will tune in.
Aaron Boone said they just learned this week that there will not be off days during the ALDS and ALCS. That indicates teams didn’t know this before the trade deadline.— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) September 15, 2020
There’s also the small detail of teams not being told about this rule change before the trade deadline, which like most things Rob Manfred does, is blissfully ignorant at best and malicious malpractice at worst. With no off-days, your weak pitching spots become exposed quickly - not just the Happs and Montgomerys, but the Luis Cessas as well. Not allowing teams the opportunity to bid on shoring up support for such a fundamental difference in the game again waters down the product.
Now, on to playoff expansion in perpetuity. It sucks, but I want to expand on exactly how much it sucks.
Baseball’s long season and small playoff pool are intertwined - the game has so much built-in randomness and unpredictability that you need 162 games to boil down the best two or three or four teams, and if the idea of a championship is to identify who was actually the best team in baseball, you would then have that pool of two or four teams play off against each other. Hey, that’s almost how it usually works!
Some people feel that the second Wild Card spot dilutes that a little bit, and they could be right, but to me, it’s a worthy dilution. You want to introduce a little chaos into the picture, but too much renders a 162-game season meaningless. One reason basketball and hockey have an 82-game season is to accommodate the meaninglessness of an individual game - you scale down the number of games, increasing the importance of each game. It does not seem like MLB is willing to reduce regular season games following the same theory.
So you have a watered down playoff field, and increasing the number of teams in the playoffs means a team likely needs to spend less to make the playoffs. I wanted to find out how much less, and so pulled some data from the last 15 years.
First, we have the payroll of the last 15 pennant winners in each league - I used pennant winners instead of first overall seeds just to highlight that your goal, in theory, should be winning the whole damn thing.
If you want to win the pennant, based on the last 15 years, you should expect to spend about $28 million more than MLB’s median. Spending money does correlate with success - being above the MLB median makes you about 2⁄3 more likely to win the league.
Next, let’s look at what it costs to be a solid playoff seed - let’s say the sixth seed. We’re ignoring the dumb division second-seed nonsense, and just looking at overall record. The battle for the eighth seed might actually be exciting, or as exciting as it can be to watch two mediocre teams race for their 81st win. The sixth seed is the kind of team that would likely have its spot wrapped up in September, no real way to move up significantly but too good to miss the playoffs entirely.
Admittedly it’s less of a difference than I thought. If you want to be the sixth seed, a solid playoff presence, you can expect to spend about $20mm more than the MLB median. However, not only would the expanded playoff field de-incentivize spending - if less than imagined - it would also discourage teams from going all-in at the trade deadline. More postseason hopefuls reduces the number of sellers, and more uncertainty in the outcome of the playoffs means fewer buyers. The result? Not only are the games less meaningful in the regular season, but the trade deadline, which should be one of the more exciting days on the calendar, is as well.
I loathe arguments that changes to the rules “aren’t baseball”. Baseball is an arbitrary thing and always has been, and those that govern the game shouldn’t be afraid to make changes if it improves the sport. Once upon a time, integration “wasn’t baseball”, lowering the mound “wasn’t baseball”, and similar examples through the history of baseball have actually improved the experience, regardless of naysayers.
The argument against these playoff changes isn’t that it’s “not baseball”. The argument against these playoff changes is that, in the immediate term, they ruin the enjoyment both diehard and casual fans will get from the game, while hurting the league’s competitive balance. These playoff changes in the long term make the regular season less meaningful, and bring the strong possibility teams spend less on big moves.
Stop ruining the playoffs. Baseball has real challenges that need to be tackled - cable blackouts, minor leaguers making below-poverty wages, and the decoupling of revenue from winning. These are the issues facing the game, and the things that Rob Manfred’s office should be concerned about. Instead, it looks like the primary concern of MLB’s administration is watering down competition in order to sate television contract demands.