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MLB 2020 expanded playoffs: Pro and con of the new setup

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16 teams will reach October this year.

Baltimore Orioles v Oakland Athletics
Will this news help or hurt the A’s quest for this trophy?
Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Beyond the July opening date amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the shortening of the schedule to 60 games, and ballparks filled with cardboard cutouts instead of fans, there’s now yet another way that the 2020 MLB season will be different than a normal campaign: Expanded playoffs.

The MLB Players Association on Thursday agreed to expand the postseason for this year only, reports Marly Rivera of ESPN. There will be room for 16 teams instead of the usual 10, notes Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who also adds that players as a group will get an extra $50 million for their end of the deal regardless of whether fans can attend.

For details on the new setup, here is a primer from MLB’s site. All teams that finish first or second in their divisions will qualify, plus two more wild cards from each league. The first round is a three-game Wild Card Series, and everyone has to play, including the division winners — although, the team with the higher seed hosts all three games. Then the bracket proceeds as normal from there, with the same LDS, LCS, and World Series we are used to.

Two immediate effects jump to mind from this new playoff arrangement. On one hand, the bar has been lowered to qualify for the postseason tournament, in which anything can happen in tiny sample sizes of only a few games, and it might theoretically be possible for a fourth-place team (or at least a sub.-500 squad) to win the World Series. On the other hand, this mitigates the concern of a true contender getting screwed over by a three-week slump in a 60-game season, and getting shut out entirely.

My gut reaction is that I don’t like it, although I must also concede that some of that might be humans’ natural reflexive aversion to change in general. Perhaps I could learn to love it in a normal, 162-game campaign, and I won’t write it off entirely until I’ve seen it and lived through it — I thought the NCAA March Madness play-in basketball games were silly and pointless until UC Davis made it to one and showed me how much fun it is for schools that otherwise have little chance of participating at all.

However, I have two specific thoughts to explore, one in favor of the new plan and one opposed. I’m sure there are a thousand other details and ramifications to consider, but these were two that hit me right away.

Con: Does the regular season matter anymore?

There were already going to be serious questions about the competitive integrity of deciding a six-month sport in just two months, but at least it was born of necessity. Even if they’d gotten their act together for 81 games, it would have been the same problem.

But to then add all these extra playoff spots, such that a losing team is almost guaranteed to make October? Sure, the regular season will still eliminate almost half the teams, so it will mean more than nothing, but the postseason tournament was already enough of a crapshoot without adding an extra round. How many times have we been thrilled by a rebuilding A’s team randomly sweeping a contender on the road one weekend in the late summer?

This leaves us with a season so short that it might not be representative of clubs’ true quality, followed by a postseason field so wide that there won’t be enough good teams to fill it. The expansion itself is tacit admission that this small-sample season is too clumsy to be trusted, and that it must be overridden by extending the margin of error right off the page.

Granted, there’s fair question about which would be less satisfactory: A regular season that doesn’t matter because the postseason is too big, or a normal-sized postseason that is weak because the flawed regular season fed it bad data. Maybe this way is the better of two evils. But it still takes some of the thrill out of the next two months, which just serve as a waiting period until the actually meaningful part begins.

Looking bigger picture, I fear the precedent this might set. It’s no secret that sports owners prefer postseason games over the regular season, for obvious revenue reasons. They will always want to push for more playoffs, with the only question being where the line of over-saturation (and thus diminishing financial returns) might lie. Even though it’s officially just for 2020, might the expanded field catch on and become permanent in the near future? It’s just a matter of how much of the cut the players would ask for in negotiations.

Again, maybe I’d grow to like the bigger playoffs, but then you get into the matter of slippery slopes. If this catches on, then we haven’t found the line yet, and like a mouse with a cookie the owners will want to push even further for a higher percentage of the season to be playoffs and a lower percentage to be dull old Tuesday evening regular season games against the Mariners (yes, even in this dystopian hypothetical future, Seattle can’t seem to make it to October). Shorten the season to 140 games? 120? How many rounds can you fit in? The NBA plays two full months of postseason and folks watch the whole dang thing.

Do we wake up in 20 years to find the regular season gone entirely, replaced by a 32-team March Madness style tournament with seven games per round? As fun as that concept sounds for sports in general, I don’t think it’s a good setup for baseball, which truly needs the long haul to be in its best form. But it might be a more profitable arrangement, and would certainly add that excitement that could counteract some of baseball’s slow and boring reputation. It could get that fabled youth market.

But in the nearer future, if it catches on beyond this year, a 16-team field presents one more massive fundamental problem. A league that is trying desperately to ensure fans and players that teams still have motivation to try as hard as they can to win, just gave those clubs incentive to be satisfied with mediocrity, because you only have to be .500 to get into the tournament and roll the dice on getting hot at the right moment. Striving for greatness can still help your odds of winning the ring, but by far less now, and perhaps not by enough to be worth the expenditures required to get there. If that causes future salaries to continue stagnating, it sure won’t help the current labor dispute.

Even as I type this, I hear how conspiracy theory-ish it sounds, and that’s often a good sign you’re overthinking something. But the extra-inning rule with automatic baserunners was just a minor league experiment, until it suddenly arrived in the majors this year. It doesn’t matter that there’s a logical reason for it right now, just that it eventually found its opening and happened. Plenty of people predicted the rule would find its way to MLB somehow, and I often scoffed. But they were right. Here it is, and none of us can say for sure that it won’t find a way to stay. So it could go with the oversized playoffs.

Pro: No Wild Card Game

Buried within that negativity is one happy side effect. There will be no Wild Card Game in 2020.

As an outside fan, the WCG can be a fun idea, and it’s easy to understand the thrill of the forced winner-take-all. But when your team is actually in the game, it’s the worst. Just ask any A’s fan, as we’ve watched our squad lose it the last two years in a row, and three of the last six. It’s a crappy way to end a 97-win season.

I’ve come to accept the WCG overall, and I’m not here arguing for its banishment. Just as I worry about overloading the playoff field, I actually think adding the ninth and 10th spots was just right, giving the proper mathematical balance in a 30-team league to keep the maximum reasonable amount of teams in the hunt each summer. The one-game playoff is less unfair than making all the higher-seed teams sit around for 3-5 days getting rusty while they wait for the LDS to begin. It’s all fine.

But. After talking about how small samples are not the best way to measure baseball, a one-game playoff is the most extreme example. At least in the expanded field, the smallest series would be three games, and with the added touch of home-field advantage for the more deserving high seed. It’s a small silver lining, but it’s something.

***

This season is so made up as we go along that it’s probably not worth taking things too seriously, and we should just sit back and enjoy it while we can instead of getting all worked up. There will be a huge asterisk on 2020 anyway, so I’ll choose to focus on the positive that the extra round of playoffs will at least be fun to watch — and that’s the central goal of sports, after all. But let’s pour one out for the 2020 regular season, which at this point is just ceremonial.