Danger of expanded MLB playoffs is rewarding mediocrity

By Sports Desk June 19, 2020

The Texas Rangers were not very good last season and deserved to sit out the postseason. That is hardly a controversial statement for a 78-84 team.

Yet it is very possible that a team with a similar record to the Rangers – albeit in far fewer games – could advance to the playoffs in 2020 and beyond if MLB goes ahead with a proposed 16-team expanded playoff following a regular season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the proposal, eight teams from each league would reach the postseason and the two wild card games would transform into an eight-team wild-card round with eight best-of-three series.

If the proposed 16-team format is applied to the final 2019 standings, the added playoff teams would have been the Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Rangers in the American League, and the New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago Cubs in the National League.

Each of those teams finished above .500 except for the Rangers, who would qualify under the new format as the eighth seed in the AL.

The only previous team to reach the playoffs after finishing the regular season under .500 was the Royals with a 50-53 mark in the strike-split 1981 campaign. The Kansas City Royals went 20-30 in the first half of the season and 30-23 in the second half before losing to the Oakland Athletics in the playoffs.

It is not difficult to see why both MLB and players would be in favour of expanded playoffs. More postseason games mean more broadcast rights can be sold, which is particularly important after so much revenue will be lost from an abbreviated regular season played without fans in most cases.

In the proposal, commissioner Rob Manfred said MLB would give the additional playoff games to broadcast partners for free this year to compensate for the shortened regular season, and MLB would then sell the games for 2021.

The increase in playoff games gives players extra opportunities to play beyond the regular season, which is after all why the games are played in the first place. The new format also adds the designated hitter to all games for the first time, including games between National League teams for 2020 and 2021.

That will not make baseball purists happy and fans will be robbed of magical moments like Bartolo Colon hitting a home run, but a universal DH adds jobs to a game that has seen its free agent market squeezed recently. It will also extend the careers of players no longer able to play defense adequately.

How will fans feel about more than half the teams reaching the playoffs? Some will scoff at the idea and say that it makes baseball look too much like the NBA and the NHL.

Others might be totally on board with it. That could especially be true of fans in Detroit or Baltimore or any other team with no chance at the postseason in a regular 162-game season. Maybe the Orioles get hot for a couple of weeks late this summer and somehow sneak into the playoffs. This new format at least provides a glimmer of hope, however miniscule.

It was not long ago that just four teams out of 28 qualified for the playoffs, but changes were made following the 1994 strike season.

A wild card team was added in 1995, increasing the number of playoff teams to eight. That remained the status quo until another wild card was inserted in each league in 2012 to bring the total number of playoff teams to 10 out of 30.

It's often said that a whole new season begins with the playoffs and look no further than the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals for a prime example. Washington did not even win their division, finishing four games behind the Atlanta Braves, but the Nationals were the best team when it mattered most.

This new format may decrease the importance of the regular season, but it adds more excitement to the playoffs and would make those games even more tense.

More playoff teams provide more opportunities for upsets and what fan couldn't get behind a sub-.500 team knocking off a top seed? That scenario is a whole lot more likely if MLB goes through with the proposed three-game series in the first round of the playoffs.

Certain seasons leave an indelible mark, whether for on-field play or for other reasons. The 1981 season with its two halves and the 1994 strike-shortened season fall in the latter category. The 2020 season appears destined for that group as well.

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