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MLB Postseason: Finding a Better Way to Change the Playoffs

MLB Postseason: Finding a Better Way to Change the Playoffs

MLB Postseason: Finding a Better Way to Change the Playoffs

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has come up with lots of creative ideas for how to change the sport over the years, some better than others.

Major League Baseball's latest proposal would totally change the format of the postseason, as first reported by the New York Post's Joel Sherman. The playoff field would expand from 10 to 14 with the top seed in each league getting a first-round bye, while the remaining six teams play a Wild Card round (best-of-three series) with the other two division winners picking their opponent.

Sounds crazy? It's ambitious, to say the least. Whatever you think of the reality TV aspect of teams picking their opponents — players, for one, don't seem to like it — adding four playoff teams would fundamentally change the way teams are built.

A move to make nearly half the teams make the playoffs would further devalue the grueling 162-game schedule, which is one major problem. The top seed would also be "rewarded" with nearly a week off before its first game. But fear not. There are other strong options to reform the playoffs if this idea does not pan out.

Why MLB's latest proposal would be bad

Perhaps the biggest reason why expanding the playoff field to 14 teams is bad is because, well, bad teams would make the playoffs. Fans may be excited to see their teams make it, but they would stand little shot of making the postseason.

If this proposal were in effect last season, the 84-78 Red Sox and 85-77 Diamondbacks would have made the postseason, and they would have been among the stronger 7-seeds of this century. Even more concerning, as Baseball America's Kyle Glaser points out, seven teams in the last 19 seasons would have advanced to October with a .500 record or worse. In 2014, the 79-83 Braves and Mets would have had a play-in game to make the playoffs. That's not exactly quality baseball.

Letting four more teams into the playoffs would make more teams want to compete, but it would also give more teams incentives to keep their teams good but not great. The Red Sox traded Mookie Betts and David Price essentially to clear salary, and PECOTA projects them to miss the playoffs because of that. With seven AL playoff teams, they would be a good bet to play in the postseason. And I would posit that baseball is worse off when its premier teams dump generational stars to save owners money.

Furthermore, with only the top seed getting a bye, there's less incentive to build a great team. There's little difference between getting the No. 2 or No. 7 seed, and with the Dodgers looking so dominant in the NL, other teams may feel they can hold back on improving their team to get the top seed.

Expanding the playoffs to 14 teams is a bit like saying March Madness should expand their field to 128 teams. You're adding quantity but not quality to the postseason, and it slightly lessens the chances that the best team will win the title. You can even look at leagues like the NBA where 16 teams make the playoffs and the first round often has no upsets.

The alternate proposal

All of this is not to say that baseball is perfect as is and should never change. It's important to change with the times, especially as the league looks to potentially expand to 32 teams in the near future. That's the perfect time to re-evaluate what the league can look like.

With 16 teams, MLB can easily split into two leagues with two eight-team divisions per side. Why two divisions instead of four four-team divisions? The smaller the divisions are, the more likely a division winner will not be one of the best teams in the league. Think about the 2019 NFC East with the 8-8 Eagles making the playoffs or the 7-8-1 Panthers winning the NFC South in 2015. The NBA has it right by all but eliminating divisions.

In this scenario, the two division winners in each league would get a first-round bye, while the four teams with the next best record (regardless of division) would make it as wild cards. Those teams could either play in a best-of-three series or a double-header where the higher seed only has to win one to advance, depending on how long the league wants to stretch out the postseason.

The rest of the postseason could continue as normal. The Division Series would be a five-game series, and the Championship Series and World Series would remain seven-game affairs.

Why this alternate proposal works

This plan works for several reasons, and the biggest one is that it gives a bigger reward than before for winning a division. Having two teams get byes will give teams more incentives to improve than if just one team earning that honor. And with only two division winners, we're less likely to get a scenario like 2015 when you have an underachieving division winner (Mets) with 90 wins while 98- and 97-win teams (Pirates and Cubs) were relegated to a Wild Card Game.

Once the league moves to 32 teams, expanding the playoffs probably does make sense, although moving to 14 (43.8 percent) remains a bridge too far. A neat 12 out of 32 would keep it such that the teams that do make the playoffs are still quality.

Keeping a brief Wild Card round, especially with the double-header set-up, would allow for baseball to have a jam-packed start to the playoffs without delaying the World Series at all. Those games could all take place over two days with start times at 12, 3, 6, and 9 p.m. ET. Holding three-game series would complicate matters somewhat since deciding which team hosts which game is tricky and could require travel days that extend the season even longer. The double-header setup also gives a bigger incentive for teams to finish high in the standings instead of just barely making the playoffs.

Baseball may be years away from expansion, but their leaked playoff proposal wouldn't take effect until 2022 anyhow. Changing the postseason format may be for the best, and the ideal playoff proposal doesn't have to be so complicated or drastic.