We take a look at the MLB’s new playoff format, and point out the ways in which it might be better for baseball, and discuss some interesting alternative scenarios.
Last week, a new proposal from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred emerged for the restructuring of the playoffs. Among other things, it would introduce a seven teams qualifying per league, a first-round bye for the team with the best record, best-of-three wildcard series, and an NCAA-style Selection Sunday, in which the teams pick their first-round opponents.
The plan was met with overwhelmingly negative responses from players, analysts, and fans.
Most famously, Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer made a furious indictment of both the proposal and Manfred himself, highlighting tensions between the players and the league.
It is true that there are some obvious problems with the new playoff format. For many, the expansion to seven teams undermines the “elite” aspect of qualification, by entirely going against the point of having such a long regular season in the first place. Others mentioned that longer playoffs would be too exhausting and dangerous for players, and that, for this to work, the regular season should be a few games shorter. Still others pointed out that this plan could be a mere cash-grab for MLB and broadcasters to get some more playoff games in their upcoming TV deals.
But there are some important strengths to Manfred’s new playoffs. Of course, there is money involved in this proposal – as there always is – but if we think about fan engagement, team involvement, and the game’s need for change, the new format has enough arguments to be a success in the long run. Here are the best of them:
1. A best-of-three wild card series is much better than a single-game knockout
An MLB season is a long process. Through the regular season’s six months, a team naturally experiences highs and lows, but the best teams always come out on top over 162 games. It does not feel too fair when one of those good teams gets eliminated because of one bad game, or even one bad play, like last year’s Milwaukee Brewers.
A best-of-three series would give teams more room to strategize and to recover from a bad outlier. It would also give fans the excitement of two possible clinching scenarios, game two for those who won the opener, and a possible decisive game three.
2. It increases fan engagement and attendance among contending teams
Yes, here’s where the money part comes in: When you give more teams the opportunity for a postseason run, they start seeing themselves as contenders, and this naturally puts more people in the seats, more eyes on TV sets and loads of more cash in the owners’ pockets. But if we analyze it from a fan’s perspective, the fact that your favorite team, the one you’ve been loyal to for most of your life, supporting through thick and thin, gets a chance to play the big games on most years is absolutely thrilling.
This new playoff structure could inject some much-needed excitement for millions of baseball fans. The extra visibility of contending teams in the media could definitely open the door for new fans to come over to the baseball world, as occurred with the NBA and NFL when they changed their playoff formats.
3. It could also create positive changes for the regular season
One of the biggest qualms most people — especially players — have with Manfred’s plan is that, at 162 regular-season games and with a longer playoff schedule, many teams would be absolutely burned out at the end, and it would affect the quality of the play on the field. It is a legitimate concern but on the other hand, this three-stage playoff structure could prompt the MLB to make further changes in the regular season. For instance, there’s the possibility that the calendar gets shortened a few games, giving teams the chance to prepare for the postseason without experiencing more exhaustion, benefiting from a much-needed resting period. Another positive change might be an extension in the teams’ permitted roster to deal with the heavy load of a long season, which would give a couple of more players the opportunity to prove their worth on the world’s biggest baseball stage.
Just for kicks, we came up with three alternative playoff proposals that we think could possibly serve the league better, or at least, would be fun to watch:
1. The NFL plan
In this structure, just like in the NFL postseason, the top two teams of each league get a first-round bye, team No. 3 then has to face No. 6 in a best-of-three series, and No. 4 does so with No. 5. Naturally, the third and fourth seeds get home-field advantage for those entire series.
Team No. 1 would then face the winner of the 4-5 showdown in a best-of-five, and team No. 2 faces the winner of the 3-6 match. The winners of both series battle for the pennant in a traditional best-of-seven League Championship Series.
2. The Japan plan
The model for this system is, of course, the Japanese NPB. Here, only five teams qualify from each league, and the one with the best record in the regular season gets an automatic ticket to the Championship Series as a reward. For the first round, division champs team No. 2 faces No. 5 and the remaining division champ faces No. 4, both in a best-of-three. The winners of each series would then meet each other in a best-of-five to determine who is the top seed’s final opponent for the pennant.
3. The Lucky 7 plan
If the MLB really wants to have a seven-team postseason in each league, this one could work. In our Lucky 7 format, all three division champions get a first-round bye, and it’s up to teams 4-7 to fight for the remaining spot. We would have two best-of-three series — 4 vs. 7 and 5 vs. 6 — and the winners face each other in an extra best-of-three. The victors are the wild card team, and it would face the first-seed in a traditional best-of-five division series, as the other two division champs – the second and third seeds – play another traditional best-of-five division series.
Look, Rob Manfred may be on to something with this new structure, and we can’t just dismiss it. Baseball fans, even more than fans of other sports, are very resistant to change, but constant transformation is a key part of every successful enterprise, as it is in life itself.
Our beautiful game has undergone several changes in its history — night games, designated hitters, divisional series, the wild card, video replay — and it has faced severe resistance at every moment, but for any great thing to remain great, it must try new things, rid itself of the negative, strive to evolve.
MLB still needs to solve the cheating issues, the murky trade and free agency conditions, and make a massive improvement in its Minor League system, but this new postseason proposal is a good way to show the fans that Major League Baseball is trying to move forward, working to improve itself as both a sport and a spectacle, and building towards a brighter future.