That the MLB postseason will feature 16 teams in 2020, after a 60-game regular season that was delayed roughly three months due to a global pandemic, makes sense. Because this season, unlike any other that came before it, has been necessarily strange.
With teams decimated by injury (due in part to the stops and starts caused by the pandemic), players opting out, an unbalanced schedule, coronavirus outbreaks during the season hurting multiple teams, the need for the league to recoup money it lost by shaving off 102 games from the regular season schedule, and there being no fans in attendance, the expanded playoffs were a necessary evil.
The 16-team postseason, like the odd playoff format in 1981 that was put in place due to the player strike, should be a one-time thing. If Rob Manfred gets his way, though, it will be permanent.
Manfred told The Washington Post on Tuesday that "an overwhelming majority" of MLB owners endorsed the 16-team postseason before the pandemic, and the commissioner suggested it could be here to stay.
"I think there’s a lot to commend it," Manfred said, "and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape."
On its face, a 16-game postseason beyond 2020 seems like a money-grab. But no matter what the motivations are, what's clear is that it would take a lot of what has always made baseball special and throw it in the garbage.
What is the point of a 162-game season if every mediocre team reaches the postseason?
Here's one ugly example of what could happen if the new format remains in 2021 and beyond...
Under the current format, where the first and second place teams in every division and two Wild Cards in each league make the postseason, the 78-84 Texas Rangers would have made the playoffs in 2019.
Once in, that Rangers team would have played the top-seeded Houston Astros in a best-of-three Wild Card round, where a Game 1 win by Texas would've put the 107-55 Astros on the brink of elimination.
In what world does it make sense for a 78-win team to have the ability to knock off a 107-win team by winning a best-of-three series?
What incentive is there for teams to go all-in during the offseason/at the trade deadline and/or to play hard for 162 games if the reward for being the best team in the sport is a crapshoot series where a team that's 30 games worse than them can end their season in the blink of an eye?
Additionally, if MLB keeps the 16-team format, it could actually lead to the opposite of what one of their hopes likely is -- that more teams in contention will lead to more exciting games down the stretch.
Perhaps that will be the case for teams hovering around 78-to-80 wins during the last week of the season, but what will this mean for teams that are actually good? Won't they have their spots locked up well in advance? Won't they have basically nothing to play for in September? Won't fans of those teams be less-inclined to watch September games on TV or attend them in person when the results of those games will have very little bearing on anything?
If MLB wants to expand the postseason in 2021 and beyond, that's understandable. But Manfred and the owners need to understand that the 16-team format would do more harm than good, making MLB similar to the NBA -- where sub-.500 teams routinely make the playoffs.
One thing to note about the NBA playoff format, though, is that it comes after an 82-game season and actually forces teams to win a seven-game series to advance.
Here's what MLB should do in 2021 and beyond...
- Expand the playoffs to 12 teams instead of 16, adding a third Wild Card team in each league
- Give the top two division winners in each league a bye into the NLDS/ALDS, eliminating the unfair crapshoot that would otherwise take place
- Under this format, the Wild Card round would be three games, with the LDS expanding from five to seven games. The NLCS/ALCS and World Series would continue to be seven games
What would MLB get under the above scenario?
The continuation of the new Wild Card round, the potential of eight additional LDS games per season, a pennant race that would hopefully still resemble what has made baseball so special, and a postseason that's actually fair and representative of the marathon it took to get there.