ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — By now, you are weary of reading the multiple thresholds and percentage increases of baseball’s luxury tax. And, surely, you have no interest in delving into the weeds of the latest revenue sharing plan.
But there is one proposed change in baseball’s labor negotiations that should capture your interest:
It is a point of pride among baseball fans that their regular season is more meaningful than other sports. Baseball may not have the NFL’s television ratings, it may not be as popular among younger people as the NBA, it may not have the global panache of the NHL, but the 162-game regular season is still the gold standard when it comes to weeding out the truly deserving from the merely fortunate.
So does adding extra playoff teams threaten one of the qualities that makes baseball unique?
Now, I’ll admit this is probably a generational thing. For fans who are old enough to remember when only four teams out of 28 made the playoffs — or, better yet, when the World Series was the entire playoffs — the idea of watering down the regular season is entirely distasteful.
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But that doesn’t mean the old farts (and since I use an AARP card for discounts at Outback Steakhouse, I officially qualify for this demographic) are necessarily right.
Yes, there is TV money to be had in expanded playoffs, and that’s what the owners are chasing. But there is also something to be said for rewarding fan interest around the country. When a pair of season tickets can cost as much as a used Toyota, fans should get to experience a pennant race every now and then.
And that’s what an expanded playoffs gets you. The focus may be on the number of teams playing in October, but the beauty is that more fanbases have hope throughout the summer.
From 2012-18, the Rays had three seasons with 90 wins or more and only made the playoffs once. Had the postseason included 12 teams instead of 10 during that time, the Rays would have had at least three playoff appearances and would have been in contention for a fourth.
So, yeah, there is some advantage to that. I could argue that any 90-win team is sufficiently worthy of being in the postseason, if not undoubtedly deserving.
The key here is that the players association has been fighting the idea of expanding from 10 to 14 teams, which is the difference between an uncomfortably large playoff field and a ridiculously bloated one.
Of course, the players aren’t necessarily thinking of the good of the game in this fight. They are concerned that a 14-team playoff field would encourage too many mediocre teams, which would hold down salaries. Their reluctance may not be noble, but at least it’s constructive.
So is there a noticeable difference between expanding to 12 teams instead of 14? Oh, yeah.
If MLB had 14 playoff teams in the last 10 full seasons there would have been a half-dozen cases of a team that was .500 or worse. Now, maybe that’s a common occurrence in the NBA and NHL, and maybe it happens every so often in the NFL, but it would be heresy in baseball.
On the other hand, an expansion to 12 teams would have resulted in only one season (the American League in 2017) with a team qualifying at .500 or worse. Even one season out of 10 is a sad thought, but at least it’s not farcical. The last team in the playoffs in the last decade would, on average, have had an 87-75 record. Again, not ideal, but not bad enough to hold your nose.
That leaves the question of how a 12-team playoff field would work. ESPN’s Buster Olney reported that the top two teams in each league would get a bye, while the other eight would play a best-of-three opening series.
I can see the appeal for baseball in that scenario. Instead of the current system with a pair of one-game showdowns among wild-card teams, the first round would be a minimum of eight playoff games in the first three days, and potentially four winner-take-all games in the first five days.
There are a couple of concerns about this system. No. 1 would be lumping a couple of division winners into the wild-card round. No. 2 would be the unbalanced schedule that gives teams from weaker/poorer divisions an easier path to yet another wild-card berth.
Unfortunately, that appears to be the cost of business in baseball in 2022.
It isn’t ideal, but hopefully it gets us all one step closer to opening day.
Crowding the field
There’s no getting around it, an expanded playoff field would lessen the rigor of baseball’s regular season. How much would a 12-team field dilute the product? It would mean 40% of MLB’s teams qualify for the postseason, which is nearly triple the field from 30 years ago. Here’s a look at the historical progression of the postseason in baseball.
— 1901-1960 — Sixteen total franchises and two playoff teams — the American League champion vs. the National League champion in the World Series. Ratio of playoff teams: 12.5%.
— 1961-1968 — Baseball expands to 20 teams but does not expand the playoffs. Ratio of playoff teams: 10%.
— 1969-76 — More expansion and baseball splits into four divisions while adding the league championship series. Ratio of playoff teams: 16.6%.
— 1977-1993 — Even more expansion without expanding the playoffs. Ratio of playoff teams: 14.2%.
— 1995-2011 — Split into six divisions and the first wild-card team introduced to the postseason. Ratio of playoff teams: 28.5% until MLB’s 1998 expansion and then 26.6%.
— 2012-2021 — A second wild-card team is added to the field. Ratio of playoff teams: 33.3^.
The 10 most dominant teams in MLB postseason history
The 10 most dominant teams in MLB postseason history