Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Expanded Playoffs Suck, But Here’s a Way to Fix It

The 2019 Washington Nationals storm the mound following their World Series win.
The 2019 Washington Nationals storm the mound following their World Series win.
Image: (Getty Images)

Rob Manfred says this season’s expanded baseball playoffs are likely to remain in place for 2021 and beyond, and everybody hates it.

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Howie Rose, Mets radio broadcaster: “So basically, all the good accomplished by adding the second wild card, creating urgency to win the division, would be wiped out in an expanded format. Good teams would be playoff locks so early that most of the regular season would be meaningless and hurt attendance. Brilliant.”

Trevor Plouffe, former Twins third baseman: “I BARELY like 10 teams. One game playoffs are insane (great for fans I guess). The one game wildcard makes a mockery of the 162 game season almost as much as 16 teams would.”

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Jay Jaffe, senior writer for FanGraphs and creator of the advanced Hall of Fame tracking stat JAWS: “oh fuck this entirely”

At least, starting next year, we’ll hopefully be back in a world where playoff games are played at teams’ home fields, rather than the division series, LCS, and World Series taking place at neutral-site bubbles. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts complained about that on Tuesday, saying, “It certainly doesn’t incentivize a team outside of (that) you still want to win the division. That’s still a goal. But as far as the benefit, it’s nonexistent.”

For this year, winning the division is but a minor goal. It’s a 60-game season, and first place merely confers home-field advantage for the opening round of the playoffs. And while having 16 of 30 teams making the postseason makes it a near certainty that sub-.500 teams will be in the mix — as of the start of play Wednesday, that would be the Giants and Cardinals, with the Astros sitting at 24-24 — it does make some sense to do it that way since 60 games isn’t necessarily a representative sample to determine true talent level.

With a 162-game season, all that matters is building a team good enough to get in, because everyone in the sport knows that when you get to October, anything can happen in short series. After all, the team with the best record during the regular season has won only five of the last 20 World Series.

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That being the case, maybe going ahead and expanding the playoffs for good isn’t such a horrific idea. Playoff baseball is the best version of the product, and if you get a couple of teams in there that don’t really belong, they’ll either get their butts handed to them in a show of dominance by an elite squad, or they’ll create some drama by making an underdog run.

The problem isn’t the idea of expanding the playoffs. We’re already well past the point of no return on “this will determine who the best team really is,” if that was ever a real thing in the first place.

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The playoffs are a fun tournament. We should be finding out who the best team is over the course of six months, and honoring that excellence appropriately. In that case, the problem isn’t a watered-down playoff system, it’s a watered-down regular season.

What value is there in finishing first if there are six first-place teams? Quick, who won the American League West in 2015? Nobody gives a damn that it was the 88-win Texas Rangers, the eighth-best team in the majors that year, outside of the fact that they were the other team on the field when Jose Bautista hit the biggest homer of his career in Game 5 of the ALDS.

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Get rid of divisions, get rid of interleague play, add teams in Montreal and Las Vegas, and go with two 16-team leagues with balanced schedules of 150 games — 10 against everyone else in your league.

The top eight teams in each league would make the playoffs, creating obvious drama for the middling teams to try to get into the field. At the top of the standings, there would be — get this — a pennant race.

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Is finishing first for a six-month grind not enough of a reward on its own, because our sporting society has so overemphasized playoff performance? Fine. Add some stakes to finishing first. The pennant winner could get home field for all the games of the first round of the playoffs, or a cash bonus akin to playoff shares, or be the only team allowed to have a clubhouse champagne celebration during the regular season — whatever it takes to make it clear that the regular season is actually important and worth caring about.

The problem isn’t having more playoffs. More playoffs is a good thing. The problem is turning the regular season into a meaningless chore. That’s what baseball needs to fix, and can fix with relative ease that would bring back an element of the game whose loss has been bemoaned by traditionalists since divisional play was introduced in 1969.

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Without that fix, yes, fuck this entirely.

Sorry to all the other Jesse Spectors for ruining your Google results.

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