The baseball playoffs are in full swing, so I am, of course, preoccupied with them over the more important things in the world. I mean, I'm paying attention to all the Congressional chaos and I have deep, deep concerns about the fascist plans of the so-called Republican party, but I'll save that stuff for another post.
Right now, the playoffs.
I've never been a fan of the Wild Card concept. I think winning a division should mean something, and the existence of even one Wild Card team in a league devalues the accomplishment. Having said that, I realize it's never going away. Rob Manfred and company want the extra playoffs and the TV money that comes with them. And I admit, despite the competitive inequities, I do enjoy having more baseball. So as long as we have them, the format needs some refinement.
Before last season, when the current playoff format began, I wrote a piece for that other website that is no more proposing a playoff system that would be more acceptable. Obviously, no one in Manfred's office listened to me, because it's not what we ended up with. I'm reproducing it below just to get it back on the Interwebs and reiterate the point. (Though in retrospect, it's not the playoff expansion that will hurt teams' TV contracts, it's cord-cutting.)
But the system as it stands now has problems. To wit, the division winners are not rewarded for finishing first. Two of them do get to rest up for a week or so and nurse little injuries and set their pitching rotations, but they also lose momentum. And the excessive number of days off doesn't give that much downside to the Wild Card clubs. So, let's cut out some off days. There should be zero off days between the WC series and the LDS. Then tighten up the calendar during the LDS; the first day all four series are on, then they alternate. That's obviously for TV, and it's hard to argue with that; I have no solution. But fewer off days are better in that a team can't jumble its pitching rotation. A WC team should have to use their top two or three starting pitchers in the WC round, then immediately travel to the LDS town with no off day. So, assuming the now-customary four-days rest rotation, their top two pitchers would not be available for LDS Game 1 or 2. If the WC series went the distance, neither would their third starter. But if there's an off day between LCS 1 and 2 then the ace can go in Game 2; not nothing, but not as much of a handicap.
And the third division winner gets no recognition at all, they're on the same footing as the WCs. Not cool. Thus, even though it involves creating yet another Wild Card team, I much prefer my proposal from two years ago. (Of course, if MLB expands soonish as it appears it wants to, the system would be screwed again as expanding from 30 to 32 teams likely means a realignment from six divisions of five into eight divisions of four. Perfect for zero Wild Cards, e.g. the best way, but problematic for having any at all.)
December 8, 2021
Commissioner Rob Manfred and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association have a lot on their plate right now. The lockout continues with no apparent progress and the matters under alleged discussion are many. One of those matters is the structure of MLB’s playoffs.
Manfred was so enthralled by the extra round of playoffs in the abbreviated 2020 season that he wants that system to be the norm from here on out. He doesn’t seem to care that it only made sense to do it that way in 2020 because of the short season played that year; 60 games was not a fair test of a team’s mettle, so making the playoff tournament pool bigger was a way to compensate. So what, Manfred seems to think, it meant a bigger influx of TV money! MORE TV MONEY! BWAAH-HA-HA-HA!!!!! In the tiny mind of Manfred, there is no balancing argument, no down-the-road obstacle that would counter this. It’s merely “more playoffs = more TV money.” No doubt with the evil laugh, too.
He’s probably wrong, of course—the way he wants to set things up, the regular season would be so further devalued that teams’ individual broadcasting contracts would inevitably shrink, relatively speaking, and there would be no net gain of TV money. (To say nothing of the fact that today’s cable/satellite broadcast model is fast becoming obsolete.) But that’s a long-view argument that can’t penetrate the commissioner’s meager and myopia-addled perceptive powers. He’s going to insist on more playoffs and the union is going to give them in some fashion in order to reach agreement on other issues. The question is, what form will they take?
Manfred wants essentially the 2020 model: Three division winners and three second-place finishers and one Wild Card (or just four Wild Card teams regardless of division/finish, unclear which he proposed) in each league, where the club with the top record gets a bye on the first round and everyone else plays a best-of-three series to advance to the second round, which we now know as the Division Series. This is terrible, as it makes winning your division unimportant. With the exception of the bye team, whether you finish first or not is just a matter of seeding; it is a more widespread reintroduction of the problem that the addition of the second Wild Card slot in 2012 successfully rectified—finishing first has to be substantially better than finishing second or lower. More broadly, the regular season must remain important and not merely a warmup for the playoff tournament.
If we are to be saddled with more playoff teams, the only way in which I’d be OK with it is if finishing first is maintained as a matter of significant import. We have a six-division structure and not enough clubs to comfortably break into more, so six first-place teams is the most we can have (with a two-team expansion, MLB could break into eight divisions of four, but that’s off in the future a ways and wouldn’t help with this anyway). With the four Wild Card clubs (two in each league), we have ten playoff teams, a full third of the MLB complement, but for Manfred that’s not enough. He wants fourteen.
Can this be accomplished? 14 clubs in the tourney while still retaining the importance of first place and the full season? Not entirely, no, but adding more Wild Card slots can still be done without totally FUBARing things. Right now each league has a Wild Card game as a play-in to the Division Series. If we limit additional Wild Cards to that tier, we’re still in the same general realm of acceptance.
Rather than make division winners play in this new introductory round, you leave them be. Win your division and be guaranteed a seed in the Division Series, just like now—three division champs and a single Wild Card club play on from that point. Before that, though, instead of having two Wild Card teams play for that one Division Series berth, you could have four.
As we know, in 2021 Boston hosted New York for the American League Wild Card entry to the Division Series, while Los Angeles hosted St. Louis for the same in the National League. With additional Wild Card teams in play, this is what we’d have had in ’21:
|AL EAST||AL CENT||AL WEST||NL EAST||NL CENT||NL WEST|
Unlike what Manfred wants to do, in our case the four Wild Card teams in each league would get pared down to one before any division winners get involved:
|AL WC 1||AL WC 2||NL WC 1||NL WC 2|
|SEA (90-72) @ BOS (92-70)||TOR (91-71) @ NYY (92-70)||PHI (82-80) @ LAD (106-56)||CIN (83-79) @ STL (90-72)|
|AL WC 3||NL WC 3|
|ALWC 1 winner vs. ALWC 2 winner||NLWC 1 winner vs. NLWC 2 winner|
Then things proceed apace with the Division Series and League Championship Series as we know them now.
You can do this with single-game Wild Card games, three per league total, or you could make it a best-of-three series first round and then a do-or-die single game. Single games would be best, as that only adds one day of idle time for the division winners, but Manfred would whine about how he wants more TV money than that. So to get him to stop throwing his baby tantrum, we say best-of-three for WC 1 and WC 2, then single deciding game for WC 3, giving MLB a “Wild Card Week” between the end of the season and the Division Series (season ends Sunday; day off Monday; best-of-three Tue-Wed-Thu, 2-1 home/away format with no travel days; single-gamers Friday; LDS starts Saturday). The drawback is that doing best-of-three means the division winners all sit on their hands for six days (more if any off days get shoehorned into the WC round). That’s not a good thing, though some might welcome it; any hot-streak momentum might go away, but being able to reset pitching rotations regardless of how down-to-the-wire your season was would be appealing, as would extra rest for any banged-up players.
But, you say, all that downtime for division winners makes things uneven and unfair! Well, under the current system division champs wait up to four days already, and even Manfred’s way has two clubs waiting around for a week; doing single-games for all the Wild Cards would have division winners idle for only a few days. But that really doesn’t matter. If we really cared about equity and fairness and what’s good for the sport, we wouldn’t be adding more playoff teams to begin with. No, this is nothing but an attempt at a cash grab, and that needs to be acknowledged. Accepting that, we mitigate the fair and equitable thing by keeping the regular season and finishing first as meaningful as we can and make it a true disadvantage to advance as just a Wild Card team.
A better compromise would be to do all Wild Cards as single-elimination, win one and move on, and make the Division Series best-of-seven instead of best-of-five. Then you still get your “extra” playoff teams, you don’t have anyone sit around for an entire week, and you get your added games for playoff TV. Either way the World Series starts nearer to the end of October (in 2021 it would have started October 30 instead of October 26).
The whole thing is, of course, colossally dumb. But so long as Rob Manfred is Commissioner of Baseball, the best we can hope for is to limit the scope of the dumbness and keep as much integrity in our great game as we can in the face of his myopic agenda.