Between teams parting ways with their franchise players, the proposed contraction of a substantial portion of minor league teams, and the continued fallout from the sign-stealing scandal that has rocked the sport, it has been a turbulent offseason. So, naturally, rather than doing anything of substance to address these more dire problems in baseball, Rob Manfred is trying to distract us all with something shiny: a new playoff format.
Last Monday, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported that MLB is “seriously weighing” expanding the number of playoff teams from five in each league to seven starting in 2022. In this new format, the team with the best record in the National League and the team with the best record in the American League would each receive an automatic bid to the Division Series round. The remaining three Division Series slots would be decided by a wild card round, which would consist of a three-game series, hosted by the two remaining division winners and the wild card team with the best record. The matchups in this new expanded wild card round would be decided on a reality TV style selection show, whereby the division winner with the second-best record in the league would select their opponent from the bottom three seeded teams and then the remaining division winner would pick from the remaining two teams, leaving the final two wild card teams to play each other.
The theory behind this change is two-fold. In MLB’s view, more playoff spots would mean a greater number of teams competing late in the season and trying to win. It would also mean more fan interest, both during the regular season and in the “Who will get the rose?” drama of the playoffs. Unfortunately, I would argue that the new proposed format would accomplish neither goal.
Rewarding mediocrity will not stop teams from tanking. In fact, it will likely have the opposite of the intended effect. In a system in which the 2014 Mets—a team that the audience of this site does not need reminding was not a very good baseball team—would have been a playoff team, what motivation is there for teams to spend money for top free agents when they can simply squeeze their way into the playoffs Tampa Bay Rays style? Does Rob Manfred really think that fans have such short memories that they believe a strategy baseball tried only eight years ago would magically work this time around? I was a supporter of the addition of the second wild card spot in 2012 and remain one now for a variety of reasons, but it is hard to argue in good faith that the change meant more teams trying earnestly to be competitive. One need not look much further than the offseason activities of the Red Sox or the Cubs for that to be abundantly clear.
Allowing for a less exclusive playoff system also fundamentally changes an aspect about baseball that sets it apart from the other major American team sports: the emphasis on the regular season as a large sample size to determine the true standout teams. Baseball has always been a marathon rather than a sprint—a long season filled with highs and lows, hills and valleys. Cheapening the meaning of the regular season by allowing mediocre teams to make the playoffs dulls the unique journey of the sport’s regular season that makes it special.
I have long felt, for the exact reason of baseball being all about sample size, that the wild card series should be a three-game series rather than a one-game playoff. However, baseball is fundamentally a warm weather sport. This new playoff system would drag the postseason out well into November, when the chances of having games impacted by inclement winter weather in certain cities rises sharply. The solution to a longer postseason, of course, would be to slash the regular season—perhaps back to its previous length of 154 games at the least. However, we all know that Rob Manfred and the ownership groups he works for (never forget that Rob Manfred works for the owners and not the fans or the players) have no interest in foregoing those ticket sales and profits.
Because that is, after all, what this is—a cynical and transparent money grab, meant to generate TV ratings, but not any genuine interest in the game. Manfred insists he wants to attract new fans to the sport, yet rather than an expanded effort to market the game’s stars or ending the media blackouts that restrict access to the game for so many fans, he is choosing to once again rejigger the playoffs. Meanwhile, existing fans see the obviously misplaced priorities; in an era where the game is facing perhaps the biggest cheating scandal in its history, Manfred has chosen to try to fix what isn’t broken and alienate those fans.
In a press conference on Sunday evening, Rob Manfred was questioned by reporters about the Astros sign-stealing scandal and a variety of other topics. Instead of demonstrating thoughtfulness and tact, Manfred responded with contempt toward the media and an air of being “out of touch with our game,” as Justin Turner put it in an interview with The Athletic. Manfred’s dubbing of the Commissioner’s Trophy (awarded to the World Series winners each year) as simply a “piece of metal” tracks perfectly with his new proposed playoff format. It is the attitude of a man who holds the highest seat of power in a sport he doesn’t seem to particularly like all that much, which is why he would rather nibble at the edges by instituting three-batter minimums and creating a playoff selection show rather than tackle the game’s real problems.