MLB considering new playoff format — as it should

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Howard Simmons/New York Daily News/TNS

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred before the New York Yankees take on the Minnesota Twins in the American League Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium in New York on Oct. 3, 2017.

By Marshall Worth, Staff Writer

MLB is considering upending its current postseason setup and replacing it with a revamped tournament format. While the adjustments would not go into effect until at least 2022, and would require MLBPA consent, just the possibility of change should excite baseball fans hungry for change in the sport.

According to Joel Sherman of the New York Post, the league is “seriously weighing” drastic changes that would add elements of drama and further performance incentive to baseball’s tirelessly long season.

In summary, 14 out of the Major Leagues’ 30 teams would qualify for the postseason, a four-team increase, with the top team in the American and National leagues earning a bye in the opening round. With those two teams set aside, the remaining six teams per league — two division winners and four wild card teams — would compete in the wild card round for the right to advance.

The format of the proposed wild card round is perhaps the most innovative element of MLB Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred’s proposal, as it signals a significant change to the current one-game “win or go home” structure.

The two division winners that did not earn a first-round bye and the top wild card team would host every game in the best-of-three wild card round, putting them at a powerful advantage. Unlike the current playoff model where series matchups are automatically determined by seeding, the top division winner would have the opportunity to choose its first-round opponent from the three weakest wild-card teams. After the first selection, the next ranked division-winning team would pick between the two remaining wild card teams, pitting the last two remaining teams against each other.

To add further intrigue, these selections would take place on live television, giving the league a golden marketing opportunity and the selected teams easy bulletin-board material.

These changes would benefit baseball for a number of reasons, and it comes as no surprise that the plan is reportedly growing more popular among team owners across the league. It is no secret that the MLB has a relevance problem. The only thing that has gotten baseball real national attention over the past few months is the Houston Astros’ cheating debacle, which is thought of as the biggest MLB scandal in a century. Yikes.

This is a stark contrast from previous decades and generations when baseball was widely known as “America’s National Pastime.” In attempts to regain fan interest, the league has made pace-of-play adjustments such as the elimination of intentional walks, implementation of a three-batter rule and entry of bullpen carts (although mostly comedic) to save time. Despite the MLB’s efforts, the average game in 2019 still lasted three hours and 10 minutes — an all-time high. The most concerning piece of data is that total attendance was its lowest in 16 years, despite stadiums growing increasingly larger in size. Something needs to be done. Here’s why the new playoff model would be a great step in the right direction.

The drama!

Just imagine teams picking their postseason opponents. And on live TV, nonetheless. How would this process work? Would representatives of the higher-ranked eligible franchises appear on a split screen and say, point blank, to a rival that their team is the weakest of the bunch? The selected teams would have increased motivation to win, knowing their opponent has little respect for them. This would also provide a consistent storyline for fans and analysts to talk about. Beyond the reality TV element of the idea, increasing the number of playoff teams would add on-field suspense as well, largely due to …

Added performance incentives 

Every sports league hates when its teams tank. While it can work at times, the short-term consequences are brutal. Fans lose interest, causing attendance and viewership to plummet (not to mention revenue), and the team becomes invisible in a crowded sports market.

But it’s hard to blame organizations for recognizing that their team lacks the talent to compete for a postseason berth, and therefore start trading away their remaining pieces in order to build for the future. Increasing the number of playoff teams would mean that fewer teams feel the need to tank, as a spot in the tournament suddenly becomes much more attainable.

This exact process played out in 2012 when a second wild-card spot was added to the playoffs, increasing the number of eligible teams from 10 to 12. While only two more teams actually make the postseason due to the change, an additional four to six tend to remain in the hunt until mid September. This keeps more fanbases engaged deeper into the season and fuels front offices to be more aggressive before the trade deadline and in free agency. 

Adding two more wild card teams would escalate those trends. Last season, for example, the Red Sox finished a distant 12 games out of the playoffs and essentially knew their fate by the end of August. If the new proposed model were in effect, however, they would have made the playoffs. Additionally, the Texas Rangers, who finished six games behind Boston, would have had a realistic shot deep into September. 

The same goes for the Philadelphia Phillies, who finished three games behind the Arizona Diamondbacks for a playoff spot. Philadelphia’s postseason chances were largely kaput by early September, and its fanbase shifted focus toward football when it could have been thinking about the MLB playoffs. An increased number of teams with a shot at the playoffs deeper into the year would lead to …

More meaningful games

At its core, this is the biggest reason why the rule change would benefit baseball. In addition to more playoff games, which would add revenue from various sources, an expanded playoff field would lead to more significant and suspenseful regular-season action. While old-school diehards could be turned off if the schedule was subsequently shortened, the tradeoff would be well worth it. 

With teams having greater reason to win, a larger portion of August and September games would have meaning. The playoff atmosphere would be present in stadiums that could otherwise be half empty, and baseball would earn increased media attention. In a sports world where football and basketball are viewed as more hip and happening, baseball needs to step up its game. Manfred’s postseason change would play a huge role in doing so. 

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To read why TPN senior staff writer Ben Bobeck thinks Manfred’s proposal is actually a bad thing, click here.

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