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The impact of expanded playoffs after Year One

A door may be opening for a new turn towards parity in Major League Baseball.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Notwithstanding the standard tension of being on the verge of elimination for days on end, the worst part about the Division Series’ refusal to end might be the extension of the “are the new playoffs TOO random?” discourse that, even by the standards of baseball fans, has been particularly neurotic in recent days.

You’re probably familiar with the hand-wringing. Three of the four winningest teams in baseball this year — juggernauts of 111, 101, and 101 wins respectively — managed to combine for a grand total of three playoff wins in 11 attempts, none of them coming all that close to a LCS appearance.

I’m not here to ask any rhetorical questions about whether the expanded playoff format has made things more chaotic. They haven’t. Two of those three teams benefited from an even bigger advantage than the one given to equivalent seeds under the old system.

This debate hasn’t been a referendum on the playoff system itself so much as the state of competitiveness around the league as a whole. Mets fans aren’t taking umbrage with the existence of a three-game playoff series per sé. Their issue is having been confined to such a series despite winning a whopping 101 games, second-most in team history and a total that would have topped the NL in more than half of the seasons since their 2000 pennant run.

MLB: Wild Card-San Diego Padres at New York Mets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Likewise, the great disappointment in Dodger country comes less from having bowed out in one round as a top seed — a perch they’re accustomed to — but from having done so despite blowing franchise records out of the water with 111 wins and a +334 run differential, some of the best marks in league history.

This is the culmination of the trend towards the extremes that has overtaken baseball in recent years. Winning or losing 100 games in a season used to be notable, for better or worse. I’m a Chicagoan, and I can’t help but be startled at how the 99-win White Sox of 2005 or 103-win Cubs of 2016 — the two most dominant teams fans in this city have ever seen — feel almost unremarkable within the context of the juggernauts built by the Dodgers and Astros organizations.

And as the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gone broke. Four full seasons since 2018 have given us 14 different 100-loss teams, more than the league saw in the previous 10 seasons combined.

Losing in the Division Series as the second- or third-best team in any given year is far from unheard of. It’s only now, with a glut of teams that have been at very best ambivalent towards winning, that the second- or third-best team in the league might put up a win total that has their fans being at least a little justified (as much as it ever is) in thinking World Series Or Bust.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Diego Padres Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

Expanded playoffs haven’t introduced much randomness into the equation that wasn’t already there, but these underlying reasons for that perception have the potential to alter team-building strategies as soon as this coming offseason. It’s doubtful that league-wide payroll spending will ever be as high as we’d like it to be as long as owners are who they are, and expanded playoffs aren’t setting off the kind of arms races that fans deserve in terms of every team actively trying to be as good as they possibly can be.

That being said, the outcomes we’ve seen this October hint at a future defined by fewer haves and have-nots, opening a possibility for a level of increased competitive parity that, in an ideal world, might result in more than a handful of fanbases having reason to be deeply invested in their seasons beyond the All-Star Break. Owners being who they are, it’s unlikely that any kind of real change is on the horizon. Still, though it’s impossible to say what’s going through the minds of White Sox, Brewers, or Orioles executives, it’s easy to imagine at least a little twinge of regret at having effectively punted their trade deadlines with the win totals of multiple LCS participants well within reach. All three of those teams will almost certainly re-load (or in Baltimore’s case, finally load) in some capacity for another shot at the postseason.

Meanwhile, an unusual number of teams that fell to the bottom of the pack in 2022 may see a path towards 2023 contention that perhaps would have felt less feasible under old circumstances. The unexpected departure of Jon Daniels tells us that the Texas Rangers were expecting better than the 94-loss campaign they just got, and with their superstars all under contract and another wave of minor league talent on the way, they’re likely to go for it again next year.

Chris Ilitch doesn’t have the free-spending proclivities of his father, but with Riley Greene, Spencer Torkelson, and a bevy of young pitching all fully arrived in the majors, the Tigers surely still see their window as opening, not closing.

Derek Jeter’s departure called into question Miami ownership’s dedication to spend to win, but with a minuscule payroll and one of the best young pitching corps in the game under contract, their route to a Wild Card spot is as clear as it’s been in some time.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs’ dismantling of their World Series core was nothing short of baffling, but they’ve already hinted at potentially heavy spending this winter in a division in which there are virtually certain to be at least two teams worse than they are.

Simultaneously, though Steve Cohen talks a big game, it’s fair to wonder whether the Mets’ ignominious end to 2022 will lead to hesitance in once again unloading the payroll clip by running it back with presumed free-agents-to-be Jacob deGrom and Chris Bassitt.

If Ilitch isn’t his dad, then Hal Steinbrenner really isn’t his dad. Like the Mets, the best-case scenario for the Yankees this offseason might include simply running it back by paying Aaron Judge what he deserves.

As a collective, we have yet to see the bottom of the Dodgers’ pockets, but a repeat of a record-setting 2022 will be hard enough even if they do return Trea Turner to the fold. And after letting Carlos Correa walk last offseason, the Astros are once again in excellent position to field an elite team without much in the way of splashy additions.

Again, it’s doubtful that competitive balance will ever be what we’d like it to be as fans of baseball as a whole. Whatever you think of expanded playoffs, however, it’s possible that the door has been opened for a more wide-open field in 2023 than we’ve seen since the word “tanking” entered the lexicon. We can only hope.