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MLB must embrace expanded playoffs more than ever after rough offseason

When Major League Baseball is mentioned these days, it’s usually not in a positive light. The very public and very acrimonious battle between players and owners on when to start the season, how long it should be, and how much everyone involved should be paid has been a major black eye for the sport, regardless…Read More

Rob Manfred

When Major League Baseball is mentioned these days, it’s usually not in a positive light. The very public and very acrimonious battle between players and owners on when to start the season, how long it should be, and how much everyone involved should be paid has been a major black eye for the sport, regardless of who’s right and who’s not.

Things have not gotten any better in the last week. Rumors of a deal led to another breakdown in talks, and the general public saw two sides haggling over what seemed like an insignificant ten-game difference in proposed schedules. The most likely outcome now appears to be a situation in which no deal is made and commissioner Rob Manfred mandates a schedule of somewhere between 50 and 60 games. That will lead to lingering acrimony between both sides, and perhaps worst of all, fan antipathy over a season that barely even seems long enough to be legitimate.

There is some good news, though it may not come to pass. Players and owners have seemed willing to discuss some significant changes to the rules and structure of the sport. Some of them, like the proposal to put an automatic runner on base during extra innings, make sense for a shortened 2020 but should be left in the past once the sport returns to a full season. Other changes, though, should be warmly embraced by players, executives, and fans.

The expansion of the MLB playoffs is one of those things, and there are several reasons to do it now. An expanded playoff format is on the table for the shortened season, and it should be something that both players and owners should eagerly agree to. There’s a perception that its inclusion in any deal would favor the owners, to the point that Manfred has offered to take it off the table if the 2020 season is not played. There are benefits for players, too: more of them could have the chance to compete for a World Series.

This will be especially pertinent in 2020. As noted previously, baseball fans are not happy right now, and casual viewers are probably less interested in the sport than they have been in a long time. Expanding the playoffs for 2020 could bring extra teams — and their fans — back into the fold. In a season with as few as 60 regular season games, it would also make the postseason a bit tougher, and perhaps make the eventual champion a bit more legitimate in the eyes of fans due to the added competition.

It’s not just for 2020. There are plenty of reasons expanding the playoff field should stick even once 162 game seasons have returned. Baseball has had a major tanking problem in recent years, with seemingly more teams trying to lose than win at any given moment. Granting extra playoff spots could inspire a few more middling teams to perhaps make a greater effort at making it into October, and reduce the amount of tanking in the game.

This could also allow MLB to do more to spice up the playoff format. Recent floated permanent proposals included adding four teams for a total of 14 clubs in the playoffs. That opens the door to some fun seeding possibilities. If MLB wanted to be a bit bolder, they could even eliminate the American and National League altogether and simply seed every playoff team from 1 to 14. The NBA has considered something similar, but MLB would find it easier to do; unlike in basketball, MLB’s two leagues aren’t geographically based, so travel isn’t as big an imposition.

To be clear, any new format should make sense. Adding things like choosing one’s playoff opponent is a bridge too far and feels too gimmicky. Concerns over making it too easy to make the playoffs, however, are overstated; over half the league would still be left out in any given season.

Instead, more fanbases would be treated to October baseball, and even more would experience a pennant race every year. More teams may have incentive to try to win instead of languishing at the bottom of the league. And baseball badly needs something different right now — something to make everyone remember the product on the field, not the arguing and bad blood off it.

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