Right at the top, I’ll admit this is all a forlorn hope. Whatever happens in the first season of baseball’s expanded playoffs isn’t going to cause too much of a ripple in how the sport looks and how teams are managed. I get that. But we can at least start here.
Secondly, the idea of the four teams with a bye being off too long is being greatly exaggerated. In the old playoff system, with the coinflip games, there was always one team, depending on what the TV schedule decreed, that would get a full four days off before starting their division series. The other league’s top seed got three. That’s basically an All-Star break. It’s not foreign to players.
So the fact that the Yankees, Astros, Braves, and Dodgers got a full five days off this time around shouldn’t be that big of a difference. Especially for teams like the Dodgers and Astros, who are used to having the best record in their respective leagues and having multiple days off in a row before starting the playoffs. Considering they’re almost always in the World Series, it doesn’t appear to have made much difference. Though I suppose the Dodgers have tripped over their own dick in the Division Series enough to make that argument if they want.
I get it. Most people don’t think it’s very fun to support the favorites, and the four teams that got the bye this time around are all detestable in their own way. The Dodgers have been the big bad for about a decade now. The Yankees are the Yankees. The Astros will never be free of suspicion or their own previous arrogance and obnoxiousness, no matter how little it applies anymore. The Braves are followed by Braves fans in a town and park that are a testament to White Flight.
One of the major problems baseball has had in recent times is the idea that “You just have to get in.” They imported it from hockey, which always billed itself as the sport where one guy — your goalie — could turn the whole league on its head and the 82 games everyone spent six months getting through were kind of meaningless. It isn’t really true in hockey anymore either, but that’s still popular thought there.
What those who push that idea that all that matters is getting into the playoffs are trying to accomplish is make it seem like it’s chaotic and weird and fun and you should watch to justify the exorbitant TV contracts MLB gets for the postseason. And that can be true. The MLB Playoffs can be riveting viewing. They are fun, especially when we get to watch one man caress another man’s ears as part of his job.
But what the “just get in” corollary is really trying to accomplish is that teams don’t have to try to build the absolute best team they can. The more and more fans feel like merely getting into the playoffs gives them as good of a chance to win the World Series as the team that laced through six months of games, and the more MLB devalues the regular season and is indifferent to attendance during it, then the fewer fans will demand free agent signings and trades and larger payrolls. Which is the real aim of all of this. The MLBPA was acutely aware of this when it halted an expansion of the playoffs to 14 teams instead of 12, but who knows how long they can hold that dam.
Even amongst the league’s best, there’s some lowering of standards. In the past two seasons, the Braves have proven that a talented team can basically take the first two months of the season off and still be more than fine. So did the 2019 Nationals. But those teams could rightly argue they were amongst a small pool of truly great teams during the last part of the regular season, which their second-half records more than justified. But it’s showing that there are enough dogshit teams trying to be dogshit that talented teams really only have to try for three-quarters or even half of a season to get to 95 or even 100 wins.
Also, the last six World Series champs could rightly argue they were among the top percentage of teams. They weren’t upset bids that went on some miracle run. It’s seven if we include 2020’s goofus of a season and the Dodgers. Not since 2014’s Giants, a wildcard team that just got hot and had October know-how, did a team from the clouds win the World Series.
And yet MLB is happy to push the narrative that the playoffs are a new game and all that matters. And in a sense they are. Rosters are managed differently, variance from any group of players renders six months of data completely moot. But the more illogical playoff exits like the Mets convince teams that striving for 100 wins is a waste of time is bad for the sport.
We’ll give the Mariners a pass here, because they’re in the process of still building a great team. But their aim shouldn’t be to spend the next five years comfortably finishing second in the AL West and coasting to a wildcard spot and just hoping they roll sevens for three weeks. The Phillies shouldn’t give up on hauling in the Braves and Mets one day soon, or just wave the white flag like the Rays mostly have done considering the financial disparity, safe in the knowledge they’ll always be good enough to snag a wildcard when both the Red Sox and Yankees aren’t really trying all that hard. Which is another thing that happens far too often, thanks to the soft landing of the expanded playoff field.
It would also help convince teams that six days rest wouldn’t be a bad thing, which would provide enough of a window to have a step-laddered wild card round, though that’s my only deluded fantasy.
It sounds simple to want teams to try to be the best they can be. But in this age of baseball, it’s getting to be more and more desperate.