Nelson Cruz thinks it’s the best thing Major League Baseball could do to grow the game. He said that, direct quote. That’s how much he loves the 2020 postseason format, which kicked off this week with 16 teams — up from 10 the previous eight years — facing off in a seeded best-of-three before even reaching the division series.
“It's incredible,” said the 40-year-old Bomba Squad slugger.
After a 60-game regular season, a 16-team field for October was implemented as a way to give more baseball to broadcast partners and another month of games to more fanbases. It’s sort of a concession to a summer dominated by a global pandemic, but if it proves lucrative and popular (or at least lucrative) it could pave the way for a permanently expanded postseason. The details of that would almost certainly look a little different than what’s about to unfold, and would be subject to collective bargaining with the MLB Players Association.
But if you ask Cruz, they hardly need to bother.
“Hopefully next year they implement the same protocols and we have 16 teams in the two leagues,” he said. “There will be more teams willing to go all the way because they feel like they have a shot to go to the playoffs. That’s the whole deal you know. And once you’re in the playoffs anything can happen.”
MLB is marketing the unpredictable nature of a crowded month-long tournament as a boon of this unprecedented format. But for top teams, the crowded competition and highly variable short series at the outset just introduces the possibility that Cruz’s Minnesota Twins, who won their division, will be bounced from October in just a couple of games by a Houston Astros team that finished the regular season with a losing record. ESPN calculated that the Twins’ odds of winning the World Series are about 3 percentage points less than they would be under the previous format; only the Dodgers suffer more from the expansion.
Cruz said that he welcomes the change, even still.
“Yes, if you love the game, you should be thrilled for the situation that we’re in right now.”
‘They just wanted more baseball’
“With the 60-game season, you see some records and you’re like, ‘Wow they made the playoffs?’” said Marcus Semien, whose A’s are the American League’s No. 2 seed after going 36-24.
They face the seventh-seeded White Sox, who finished 35-25 — just one game worse and tied for second in their division except that this year, rather than play a Game 61, tiebreakers were determined by season series and intra-division records. Those are more concessions to the coronavirus, and help to justify why the playoff field is 60 percent larger than ever: Teams barely had time to separate themselves from the pack.
The party line, based on an informal poll of players and managers made available over Zoom, is that this is, at least partially, fan service. After being forced to deny the public baseball for months at the outset of the summer, MLB is dumping all-day postseason action on viewers now to make up for that.
“I think that they just wanted more baseball this year,” Semien said. “They tried to give the fans more baseball.”
In fact, the fan service extends back into the regular season.
“You look at the last few weeks and you look at the excitement surrounding our game,” said Michael Hill, the Marlins' president of baseball operations. “You know, all of the races that were going up to the last pitch, to the last hour, just create a sense of excitement for multiple markets in our industry.”
The Marlins surprised everyone by securing a No. 6 seed and a winning record one year after losing 105 games and mere weeks after they were the first team to experience a major COVID-19 outbreak. In prior years they would have either been the second wild-card team or just missed the playoffs (depending on what would have happened in the Cardinals’ final few games, had they been required, and any subsequent tiebreakers). They also just might not have gone for it.
“There was more excitement at the trade deadline because there were more teams being active, trying to improve their rosters and improving their chances of getting to the playoffs,” said Hill, who added Starling Marte to the Marlins at the deadline.
“I think the fact that the more chances to get involved or the more excitement you create, the more markets that you have involved and following our sport,” he said. “I think that can be nothing but good things for our game, in my opinion.”
A competitive balancing act
Not everyone agrees. First of all, the fantasy that every fan loves this reflects how little time baseball players and personnel spend on Twitter (good job, guys), where commentators on the sport decry a degradation in competitive integrity and a dilution of the regular season’s value. Those people probably represent a vocal minority who care about the sport as a whole compared to the fans who follow a single team and just wanna see their city have a shot at the championship.
But the criticisms are valid, including those coming from a surprising contingent within the game: teams that wouldn’t even be asked to weigh in if not for the new structure.
“Some teams that are in the postseason probably shouldn't be in the postseason. There's a chance that we fall into that category,” said Trevor Bauer, who will start the first game for the Cincinnati Reds, a No. 7 seed that looks especially well-positioned to upset the No. 2 seed Atlanta Braves because of their rotation strength.
“I think in other years and in the traditional format, we probably wouldn't have made it,” Bauer said. “So, it's good in the sense that there's been a lot of interest, and I also think that at some point teams that don't perform as well in the regular season probably shouldn't be rewarded with a postseason berth.”
The Milwaukee Brewers secured the NL’s No. 8 seed on the last day of the regular season despite a loss. They advanced to the postseason despite finishing 29-31 (one of two losing records, of which the Astros are the other). Manager Craig Counsell said the 16-team format makes sense for this shortened season — but he wouldn’t want to keep it.
“I would advocate either less teams in a full season or a much bigger reward for having a good regular season,” he said. “One of the best things we do is that we have an incredibly difficult regular season. And to me, if you get through that, you have to be rewarded for it. And if you play well through that whole thing, you absolutely should be rewarded for it. And we didn’t play 162 games, but this format does not reward that.”
Commissioner Rob Manfred is reportedly looking to address that in future Octobers. He floated the idea of a 14-team postseason that includes a first-round bye for the team with the best record in each league. It will have to be collectively bargained with the union, which will be paying attention to how any new postseason format will incentivize, or not, teams to build and pay for the best possible roster.
“I can see it helping the industry in some ways,” Bauer said. “Having such a high threshold for making the postseason means the choice to tank is easier. If more teams are able to get into the postseason then your competitive balance in the league probably improves. But it's unclear still to me how teams may approach that, whether getting into a wild-card game and losing in the first round is really worth the reduction in draft-pick compensation or the position of the draft.”
All of those considerations and more will be hotly debated in this offseason and those to come as the league, teams, players and fans debate the best way to crown a champion and air a whole bunch of high-stakes, highly profitable postseason games en route to doing so.
But first, they’ll play it this way. Sixteen teams, no advantage for the first-place finishers.
“If you're a fan, I would think you gotta like it,” said Kevin Cash, manager of the Tampa Bay Rays, who emerged with the AL’s best record this year.
Fans, sure, but what about the No. 1 seed that could be bounced before October even starts, do they gotta like it?
“We don’t have a choice,” Cash said. “Just go play.”
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