Keidel: Baseball Has Its Problems, But Playoff Format Isn't One Of Them

Reported Postseason Expansion Would Be A Bad Idea

Jason Keidel
February 12, 2020 - 1:08 pm

So, baseball has tossed some raw meat into the pit between old school and new school fans. 

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MLB is toying with the idea of expanding the playoffs. This expansion would include seven teams from each league, a bye round for the team with the best record in each league. It would also permit the other two division winners in the AL and NL to choose their first foe, perhaps announcing it live, and thus adding some reality TV tension to the whole thing. The format, which would begin in 2022, allows for 46.6% of MLB squads in the playoffs, up from the 30% allowed today. 

At the risk of sounding incurably old and calcified, it says here that more is not better. 

More than any other sport, baseball uses its regular season as a barometer of its best clubs. You get 162 games to undue bad luck, overcome injuries and flip long skids into winning streaks. Attrition is a hallmark of the long summer. There should be a clear edge for teams that leak the least over six months. 

Baseball became our pastime for many reasons: the cozy charm that comes with no clock, the pastoral contours of each ballpark. And the fact that October is the most exclusive month in sports. The NHL allows 16 of 31 teams to joust for the Stanley Cup. March Madness is a bracket of 64 college basketball teams. And we've long lamented the interminable NBA playoffs, which feature 16 of 30 squads. 

A detail of the World Series logo prior to Game Three of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 25, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

So, is it a coincidence that America's preeminent, dominant league, the NFL, is also the one that allows just 12 of 32 teams to pine for the Super Bowl title? 

If any sport could campaign for more playoff games, it's pro football.  Each team has just 16 games to prove it’s playoff worthy. The gulf between a 10-6 team and a 9-7 team is often marginal, yet it's often the gap between reaching the wild-card round or shutting down for the winter. The NFL has the fewest games, the lowest percentage of playoff teams and still has lapped the other leagues.  

Yet MLB wants to join the land of mediocrity, to forgo quality for quantity. The league tells us that the Mets would have squeezed into the postseason last year under the new format, but we knew the 86-76 Mets didn't qualify for the playoffs because they weren't a playoff team. 

We lauded interleague play because of the provincial pride that comes with a Subway Series. We agreed with a wild-card team because it was absurd to see the San Francisco Giants win 103 games and fall short of the playoffs simply because the Atlanta Braves won 104 games in the same division. We have a refined, internal metric for playoff teams. We know that 99-win teams earn a crack at the tournament, while 88-win clubs get no such sympathy.

Of course, this isn't just a test of old and new world sensibilities. This proposal is also about money. The MLB postseason doubles as an ATM for team owners, especially those from smaller, somber markets where they don't get the bulging summer crowds we see at Fenway or Wrigley or Yankee Stadium. A few home games in October alone would generate millions of dollars. This also doubles as deodorant to cover the stench of the sign-stealing scandals that have bogarted the bold ink for months.

The Pollyanna will say this injects more juice into forlorn franchises that rarely get playoff love. Cynics will assert that this trivializes the regular season, and opens more lanes for undeserving teams, which will someday lead to a .500 club stealing the World Series, toppling a 100-win team that did so much more to get there. 

There are a few, valid beefs young fans have with Major League Baseball. The games take too long. There are too many interruptions. And the games start and end way too late for kids going to school the next morning. But we have yet to hear an army of fans or pundits screaming that "the real problem with MLB is they don't have enough playoff teams!" 

If baseball ever wonders why it lost its grip on America's soul, it may think of times like this: when the league cared less about lazy summers and the colors of autumn, and too much about lining their pockets and the color of money.

You can follow Jason on Twitter:@JasonKeidel