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If you were just getting used to the wild-card game added to the MLB playoffs in 2012, get ready. An even bigger change could be on the way.
Major League Baseball is “seriously weighing” a radical change to its playoffs that would expand the field to seven teams (three division winners, four wild-card teams) in each league beginning in 2022, according to the New York Post’s Joel Sherman.
The new playoff structure would essentially create a new wild-card round. The division winners with the best record in each league would get a bye for the round, while the other two division winners and the top wild-card team would host a three-game series against the rest of the wild cards.
The juiciest change comes with who faces each team in the new wild-card round. Per Sherman, MLB is planning to produce a Sunday-night selection show at the end of the regular season in which representatives for each team pick their wild-card opponent on live TV.
So, basically, the division winner with the best record gets a bye. The division winner with the second-best record gets first pick of opponents. The remaining division-winner picks their opponent, then the remaining team faces the top wild-card.
Quite a concept, and also apparently a new one to the MLB Players Association, who would need to approve such a change.
Union head Tony Clark said this was the first the PA has heard about expanded playoffs. “Expanding the playoffs in a sensible way is something worth discussing when part of a much more comprehensive conversation about the current state of our game.”
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) February 10, 2020
How would this MLB playoff structure actually look?
Let’s use last year’s NL field as an example.
The Los Angeles Dodgers had the best record in the league at 106-56, so they would get to avoid the extra three games. The Atlanta Braves are next at 97-65, and they get to pick between the 89-73 Milwaukee Brewers, 86-76 New York Mets and 85-77 Arizona Diamondbacks. They could pick the team with the worst record, or maybe they decide a Brewers team missing MVP finalist Christian Yelich is the better opponent despite their hot end to the season.
The 91-71 St. Louis Cardinals pick next between the two remaining teams, followed by the top wild-card team in the 93-69 Washington Nationals.
That might sound complicated, but just imagine it’s an eight-team NL field in which the best team gets a bye and the bottom three teams are fluid. And just like, there’s another round in the MLB playoffs.
Such a change would create an enormous incentive for teams to capture the top seed, or at least win their division. Under the current system, there’s not a huge difference between being No. 1, 2 or 3; you’re still going to play a quality team at home and on the road, as the Dodgers and Braves painfully learned.
But the difference between needing two road wins just to survive, being able to host those games and not having to play them at all? That’s a big change, and could help drum up interest in the regular season.
Why is MLB doing this?
The one simple word that explains nearly every decision the league has made under commissioner Rob Manfred: money.
Instead of two winner-take-all games for the wild-card games, MLB gets at least 12 games and potentially six winner-take-all games before hitting the division series. Plus, you’d imagine the selection show would do quite well in the ratings.
That is quite a package to sell to television partners, and the league’s deals with ESPN and Turner — who broadcasted the wild-card games — run through 2021. Any change in the playoffs would have to be agreed upon with the MLBPA during collective bargaining negotiations, which happen to take place after next season.
Whether or not the union sees the potential change as a plus remains to be seen. It’s extra labor, but could also prompt teams to tank less and spend more with six new playoff spots available. Of course, teams might not see the new wild-card spots as a major incentive when the World Series remains the biggest prize. You never completely know the collateral effects of a change as radical as this.
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