The New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals are set to kick off the 2020 season a few hours from now, the Toronto Blue Jays are currently without a home, and Major League Baseball is focused on… *checks notes* adding more teams to the playoff field. OK!
If you’re a baseball puritan, this is terrible news. Of all the major North American sports leagues, the Major League Baseball playoffs are undoubtedly the most legitimate test of merit.
You have to grind through a 162-game marathon and come out on top of your five-team division in order to guarantee yourself a playoff spot. The two best non-division winners play a one-game playoff for the opportunity to face the team with the best record in their league. Seldom do you see bad teams bullshit their way into the playoffs in baseball.
But, if you’re a Blue Jays fan, this is great news. When you’re trapped in a division with the free-spending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and the consistently-frustratingly-good Tampa Bay Rays, the more playoff spots up for grabs the better.
It’s really no surprise that MLB wants to add more teams to the playoffs. The league is going to be missing out on a bunch of revenue because the season is only 60 games and there won’t be anybody in the stands buying hot dogs and beer. Adding more playoff games, which will be must-see-TV, will help compensate for that lost revenue.
Back in February, there was talk that MLB was looking to expand the field to seven teams per league. This format would have seen the top team in the league get a bye and the second- and third-placed teams choose their opponents on some kind of big TV reveal show.
Now, it looks like MLB wants to expand all the way to a 16-team playoff field. What would that look like?
If MLB, PA agree to a 16-team playoff field for 2020, that likely means, given the calendar limits, that the first round would be best-of-three. The heavy favorites, Dodgers and Yankees, might be playing for their lives right away.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 22, 2020
According to Buster Olney of ESPN, this would be an NHL/NBA style 1-vs-8, 2-vs-7, and so on format that ultimately makes the playoffs a four-round operation. Due to calendar constraints, Buster says, the first round of the playoffs would be a best-of-three games series. I would assume the second round would be a best-of-five-games series and then the final two rounds would be best-of-seven.
Going off of last year’s standings, this would have seen the 107-win Astros play the 78-win Rangers, the Yankees play the Red Sox, the Twins play Cleveland, and the Athletics play the Rays. In the National League, the Dodgers would have played the Cubs, the Braves would have played the Diamondbacks, the Nationals would have played the Mets, and the Cardinals would have played the Brewers.
Again, as a Blue Jays fan, I absolutely can’t complain about this. Rather than gunning to finish with the fifth-best record in the league to get into a one-game playoff, the Jays would be fighting to finish in the top-eight in order to get a three-game series. It’s still an uphill battle, of course, but this makes the playoffs surprisingly possible.
But this is also a fairly lazy format that ultimately wipes away any of the traditional advantages of being a division winner. I’m not a fan of the idea that the best team in baseball can be knocked out by a sub-.500 team in a three-game series. It feels wrong, but that’s the reality of the 16-team system.
In my mind, a 12-team field is ideal.
You can do it NFL-style, in which the top two division winners in each league get a bye and the worst division winner along with three wild-card teams play best-of-three game series to move on to the divisional round. That way, MLB still gets its added playoff round and there’s still a clear advantage to being one of the best teams in the regular season.
Or you can even do something more chaotic. Given the fact teams are only playing geographically-based rivals this year, you can scrap the American and National League and just have three divisions, East, West, and Central.
The three division winners along with the best second-placed team would get a bye to the divisional round. Beyond those teams, you can put everybody else in the entire league in a wild-card pool in which the top-eight teams make it to the wild-card round. Have best-of-three series between 1-vs-8, 2-vs-7, 3-vs-6, and 4-vs-5 in which the winners move on to face the teams that got a bye.
You can even do the choose-your-own-opponent thing with this format, which just further adds to the chaos and drama.
As much as I love the idea of how the 16-team playoff field makes the possibility a Blue Jays playoff appearance somewhat of a reality, the 1-vs-8 system it demands is off-putting. The 12-team format is a nice middle ground. There are still advantages to doing well and MLB gets its added round of games.