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Will the playoff format matter in 2020?

Due to the global pandemic going on right now, the MLB season is on hold. Although MLB has stated they want to play 162 games this season, if they play at all, that wish gets less likely by the day.

With a shorter season, owners are going to be upset over lost revenue. One easy way to make more money is to have additional playoff games. Right now, MLB is the most selective with its postseason, with only 10 teams making it per season. Compare that to 12 for the NFL and 16 for both the NBA and NHL.

Last month, MLB proposed a change to the postseason which would increase the number of teams from 10 to 14. That proposal was met with much ridicule, but the current situation may give MLB the cover it needs to stealthily implement that type of system. In fact, I would argue MLB is going to do everything in its power to increase the playoff field this year for additional revenue.

Let’s quickly go through the proposal: The 3 division winners from each league make the postseason as usual. Instead of 2 Wild Card teams from each league, there are 4 from each. That is how you go from 10 to 14. So far, so good. Here’s where it gets tricky – the #1 seed gets a bye. The remaining 6 teams play a best-of-three Wild Card round. The 2nd and 3rd division winners as well as the top Wild Card team get to choose their opponent which is just bonkers. After that wild card round, each league is left with 4 playoff teams to start the divisional round like normal.

So, what does all that look like? To better assess what could happen, I looked at the past 5 seasons and what it would look like if the playoffs used that format. Although teams get to pick their wild card round opponent, I went solely by record to keep it simple. At the end, I’ll go through what that means for 2020 and beyond.

2019 AL

Bye: Houston

Wild Card 1: NYY vs. Boston

Wild Card 2: Minnesota vs. Cleveland

Wild Card 3: Oakland vs. Tampa Bay

MLB gets its dream with a Yankees Red Sox playoff matchup, and if things shook out differently, maybe Boston doesn’t sell off Mookie Betts and David Price. I speak for all of us when I say I’m glad we didn’t have this last year. Playing the Twins is always much preferred. Cleveland would also sneak in, and you wonder if that would change their calculus about trading Corey Kluber and potentially resigning Francisco Lindor.

2019 NL

Bye: Los Angeles Dodgers

Wild Card 1: Atlanta vs. Arizona

Wild Card 2: St. Louis vs. NYM

Wild Card 3: Washington vs. Milwaukee

The Mets make the playoffs! Everyone forgets that the Mets were the last team eliminated from playoff contention last year, and if they made it, maybe we wouldn’t all ridicule projection systems’ optimism about them this year. Lol jk they’re still the Mets.

2018 AL

Bye: Boston

Wild Card 1: Houston vs. Seattle

Wild Card 2: Cleveland vs. Tampa Bay

Wild Card 3: NYY vs. Oakland

Seattle’s playoff drought would have ended! That’s the only important takeaway here.

2018 NL

Bye: Milwaukee

Wild Card 1: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Pittsburgh

Wild Card 2: Atlanta vs. St. Louis

Wild Card 3: Chicago vs. Colorado

St. Louis and Pittsburgh sneak in, and Pittsburgh makes it with a negative run differential. Remember that as we move forward.

2017 AL

Bye: Cleveland

Wild Card 1: Houston vs. Tampa Bay

Wild Card 2: Boston vs. Los Angeles Angels

Wild Card 3: NYY vs. Minnesota

Tampa Bay and LAA both get in with 80-82 records, and they are the first teams with losing records to make the playoffs looking back like this. That is the argument people have against this playoff scenario – when you let in too many teams, the mediocrity reaches October. However, Mike Trout would make the playoffs and who wouldn’t love to see him annihilate the Green Monster?

2017 NL

Bye: Los Angeles Dodgers

Wild Card 1: Washington vs. St. Louis

Wild Card 2: Chicago vs. Milwaukee

Wild Card 3: Arizona vs. Colorado

Once again, St. Louis sneaks in. St. Louis is my irrational baseball fan hatred. Somehow, they are always decently good no matter who is playing for them, yet they could never beat Boston in the playoffs. Boston beat St. Louis in the 2004 and 2013 World Series, and that makes me hate the Cardinals. Hell, even Houston had the decency to beat Boston in 2017 which was a banging success 😉

2016 AL

Bye: Texas

Wild Card 1: Cleveland vs. Seattle

Wild Card 2: Boston vs. Detroit

Wild Card 3: Baltimore vs. Toronto

2016 was the entire reason I thought of this exercise because I wanted to see if the Yankees would have made the playoffs under this new format. Turns out, the answer is still no, as they miss by 2 games. Seattle, Detroit, and Cleveland all making it seems like a nice F-U to Rob Manfred and TV producers who want the most people watching as possible.

2016 NL

Bye: Chicago

Wild Card 1: Washington vs. Miami!!!

Wild Card 2: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis

Wild Card 3: San Francisco vs. NYM

Okay, I take back everything anyone has ever said about this proposal being stupid because THE MARLINS WOULD HAVE MADE THE PLAYOFFS!!! Sure, they had a losing record, and sure they went 3-7 in their last 10 games but remember – this was still when the Nationals couldn’t win a playoff series. Instead of 2016 being the year that broke the curse of the goat, the Marlins could have won the World Series! And as history tells us, whenever the Marlins make the playoffs, they win the World Series. Your 2016 World Series Champions – The Miami Marlins. That’s a fact now.

2015 AL

Bye: Kansas City

Wild Card 1: Toronto vs. Minnesota

Wild Card 2: Texas vs. Los Angeles Angels

Wild Card 3: NYY vs. Houston

That Rangers-Angels series would have been something to watch. And the Yankees would have had a better chance of beating Houston than the beatdown they got from Dallas Keuchel. This is the year when the Yankees would have benefited most from this system in hindsight.

2015 NL

Bye: St. Louis

Wild Card 1: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Washington

Wild Card 2: NYM vs. San Francisco

Wild Card 3: Pittsburgh vs. Chicago

We got some great coastal matchups here with the Dodgers vs. Nationals and Mets vs. Giants. I have a feeling nothing would be different in 2015, even with this expanded format.



There was less of a drastic shock than I expected going into this exercise. By my count, there were only 3 teams below .500 that would make it into the playoffs, which is less than 1 per season. And the Marlins being one of them made it all worth it in my mind. However, working retroactively isn’t a scientific process because teams were operating under the 10 team playoff rules. If teams knew 14 teams would make it, that could further dis-incentivize trying if you could make it with, say, 75 wins every few years.

Furthermore, winning the division is less important than it otherwise would be. Unless you have the #1 overall seed, you still have to play in the Wild Card round. The 2, 3, and 4 seeds are all basically equal which really takes away the goal of winning your division. That is worth watching if this system is put into place.

Finally, the damn Cardinals are the team that would benefit the most from this system. They made the playoffs 3 times in this exercise when in reality they did not. The Rays and Mariners also made it two additional times. For my mental sanity, let’s not use this type of system because I cannot take more of the Cardinals making the playoffs and losing to the Red Sox than I already have.

In terms of 2020, an expanded playoff field could be beneficial for making more money and to account for the randomness of a shorter season. The best teams are less likely to separate themselves in a shorter season, and allowing more teams in the playoffs could help ensure the best teams are playing in October, even if some lesser teams are there as well. Personally, I wouldn’t mind an expanded playoff field if it meant fewer than 162 games. To me, anything over 120 is enough, and an extra few playoff games and teams could be the compromise needed for that to happen. An experimental 2020 season could pave the way for drastic changes in baseball scheduling, though knowing how baseball works, I wouldn’t bet on it.

You can contact Rohan on Twitter @rohanarcot20