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If MLB expands the playoffs, they should borrow from the NBA’s play-in model

The NBA tipped off the playoffs with a play-in tournament for the final two seeds, a perfect model for MLB to use if they insist on expanding the number of wild card teams.

NBA: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, it feels inevitable that at some point in the not-so-distant future Major League Baseball will expand the playoffs from its current 10-team format. Even before the pandemic-shortened 2020 that saw the league and the player’s union agree to a 16-team playoffs, the league has been laying the groundwork to add playoff teams. Although 2021 has reverted back to the 10-team format agreed upon in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it’s clear that the league will be making this a priority in the upcoming CBA negotiations, as the league has already sold the television rights to a round of the playoffs that do not yet exist.

Under most speculated or rumored playoff expansions, each league will either have six or seven teams, with a best-of-three first round played at one ballpark, in a manner similar to last year’s 16-team format (in a 14-team format, the top seed in league would get a first round bye). In the process, this would do away with the do-or-die Wild Card Game, which would both eliminate one of the most exciting games in the entire postseason and cheapen division titles. Fortunately, in their pandemic-shortened 2021 season, the NBA has provided a model for Major League Baseball to have expanded playoffs and still keep the divisional title valuable: the play-in tournament.

For those unfamiliar, due to the pandemic causing the 2019-2020 playoffs to end on October 11th, or about ten days before the season typically began, the 2020-2021 NBA season was pushed back to December 22nd and shortened by ten games. Because the final two seeds in each conference were often decided in those final ten games, the league introduced a Play-In Tournament for the seventh-through-10th ranked teams. Using a model adapted from the Page-McIntyre System, the seventh and eighth seeds were matched up in the first round, with the winner being named the seventh seed and the loser playing the winner of the matchup between the ninth and 10th seeds; the winner of that game would become the eighth seed. From this point, the playoffs resumed as normal.

Major League Baseball could easily expand the current Wild Card Game to follow a similar model. Instead of two wild cards facing each other, with the winner advancing to the league divisional round, the league could set up single-game tournaments for either three or four wild card teams, depending on whether the league prefers a 12- or 14-team playoff. The two models would look something like this, with the overall winner of the play-in tournament facing the top seed in the divisional round much like the winner of the Wild Card Game does today:

Regardless of the model selected, a play-in tournament would provide almost all the benefits of an expanded playoff — namely, two-to-three more days of nationally-televised games for that sweet, sweet ad revenue — while avoiding the pitfalls that a pure 6-7 team bracket would introduce (namely, the lack of incentive for winning the division, the entire point of introducing the Wild Card Game nearly a decade ago in the first place). Sure, there wouldn’t be the same total number of play-in games as there would be if everybody was part of a best-of-three round, but that would simply eliminate the numerous non-primetime playoff games, which didn’t exactly shine in the ratings department to begin with — sacrificing these for better baseball in the month of September should be a no-brainer.

The NBA Play-In was a massive success, generating such excitement in the final month of the basketball season that the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, hopes to convince the league’s owners and the player’s union to make it a permanent part of the schedule. If Major League Baseball is as serious as they seem to be about expanding the playoffs, they should borrow the NBA’s model, since they’ve already proven that it works.