Major League Baseball’s plan for this fall, an expanded postseason in which 16 of 30 teams have a chance to win the World Series, is patently ludicrous.
While it’s been a possibility since MLB moved to a six-division setup that a team with a losing record could make the playoffs — and that well may have happened atop the American League West in 1994 had the strike not happened — it’s now all but a lock, because, well, more than half the teams in baseball are going to be in the playoffs.
Had this system been in place last year, the Texas Rangers would have been a playoff team at 78-84. In 2018, a 78-win Minnesota Twins team would have been in. It would have been really wild in 2017, with the 77-85 Miami Marlins making it, and a one-game playoff in the American League for the final playoff spot between the 80-82 Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals, who would join the Los Angeles Angels in making the playoffs with the same record but an automatic bid by virtue of finishing second in the West.
This playoff format is preposterous, but for a season that is superlative in its ridiculous existence, it’s going to turn out to be exactly what baseball needs.
Because MLB insisted on playing a 60-game season over a little more than two months, with constant intercity travel in the middle of a pandemic, things have predictably gone off the rails. In particular, the National League East is total chaos, with the Marlins sitting atop the standings at 2-1, but also a game behind 7-4 Atlanta. The other team to play all of its games so far, the Mets, are 4-7, while the defending World Series champion Nationals sit a game behind the Marlins and two behind Atlanta at 3-4. And the Phillies, nearly two weeks into the season, have won just one game, but while a 1-3 record has them in last place, they’re half a game better than the Mets.
Got it? Of course not, it makes no sense, these teams have played anywhere from three to 11 games, with no way to know what other interruptions — be it coronavirus outbreaks, hurricanes, or a giant sinkhole just opening up and swallowing the entire Mets team — might occur. If you had to bet, would you really put down money on every team playing a full 60-game slate?
We already knew that a 60-game schedule could leave a contender out of the playoff mix, as evidenced by last year’s Nationals being 27-33 and in fourth place in the East in early June. What baseball absolutely doesn’t need this year is a playoff field full of teams that got in on the basis of having had good fortune in avoiding the effects of a pandemic. An expanded playoff field waters down the importance of the regular season, but there’s never been a regular season that needed watering down the way this one does.
On Oct. 2, 1972, the Red Sox went to Tiger Stadium for a series that would determine the winner of the American League East, as both Boston and Detroit entered the three-game set with 84 wins.
Mickey Lolich struck out 15 in a complete game in the opener, the Red Sox went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position in the second game, and that was that. Boston’s 4-1 win in the season finale was mere consolation as the Sox headed into the winter having lost 70 games… the same number as the Tigers.
What happened? The 1972 season had an uneven schedule after the first strike in MLB history wiped out the beginning of the season. The decision was made in April not to make up the canceled games, and in October, a Boston team with three Hall of Famers in its lineup paid the price.
But the Red Sox still had their chance in that series in Detroit, and the season coming down to a series between the two top teams in a division at least has an air of fairness to it. If the Cardinals, who have played five games in 12 days and won’t take the field again until Friday, lose the National League Central by a game because of a wave of seven-inning doubleheaders, how would that strike anyone?
The Cardinals and Phillies are pretty good teams that likely would have been contenders over a full 162 games. With the season cut down to 60 games, and further hampered by coronavirus outbreaks, it makes sense to have lower standards to qualify for the playoffs. It’s a purist’s nightmare, but so is this entire experience. The entire reason to have this season is to collect that sweet television money from the playoffs, with the joke of a season almost serving as a spring training that counts. In that respect, the expanded postseason is the one sensible thing baseball has done in 2020.