A Case for the Expanded Postseason
By Mike Whiteman 10/5/2020
I’ll start with one of the understatements of the year: 2020 has been unique.
This is so true of so much through our lives, including our sports. Terms like bubble, illness, and testing are now part of our sports vocabulary along with home runs, touchdowns and scores. Images of games in front of empty stadiums and arenas, with players and coaches wearing masks, will be seared in our memories for a long time.
Even with this, I’ve been grateful for the occasional diversion sports has provided in this sad, sad year.
Major League Baseball has set up exhaustive procedures and protocols aimed at protecting the health of the players and organizations. They have also rolled out a number of rule changes especially for 2020. Among them:
Universal Designated Hitter Expended Rosters Doubleheaders with seven-inning games Runners placed at second base in extra-inning games Expanded postseason to sixteen teams
I think some of these rules have a chance to stick, like the DH (I don’t like), and the expanded rosters (I like). I sure do hope the runner at second in extra innings goes away.
The expanded postseason is what I’d like to focus on here, and it has been a bit of a journey and evolving for me personally.
I’ve always considered myself a traditionalist. I have a fondness for the traditional MLB pennant races, epic “do or die” situations when the winners go onto the postseason, the losers go home. Think 1978 Yankees-Red Sox. Think 1980 Dodgers-Astros. Think 1987 Tigers-Blue Jays. Baseball’s history is unique in this, as other sports have gone the route of increased playoffs; more celebrating and promoting the postseason as opposed to the regular season.
I grumbled quite a bit in 1994 when MLB switched to the three division/wildcard setup. The epic 1993 race between Altanta and San Francisco, ending with the 103-win Giants going home, would be a thing of the past. Instead, we got “undrama” of years like 2005, when the Yankees and Red Sox finished the regular season tied at 95-67, the Yanks gaining the title with a 10-9 head to head series win over Boston. The last game of the season between the bitter rivals an unimportant contest, as both teams were assured of postseason spots.
The Yankees and Red Sox finishing tied for the AL East title? Decided by a tiebreaker? Really? In the words of one of the men running for president, “C’mon man!”
Not that there hasn’t been excitement in the Wild Card era. Among the nail biters:
1998 Cubs – Giants Wild Card race 2007 Phillies – Mets NL East Division race 2007 Rockies – Padres Wild Card race 2008 Mets-Brewers Wild Card race 2011 Red Sox – Rays Wild Card race
In 2012 MLB added the second Wild Card and the one-game playoff to move onto the Division series. While I initially wasn’t excited about another team in the playoffs (now up to ten) I was pleased about the new incentive to win the division and avoid the one-game playoff, where anything can happen. It’s a tough journey from Wild Card game to World Series champions, and it’s only been achieved twice (2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals). Teams don’t want to go that route unless they absolutely must.
That brings us to 2020 and the sixteen team postseason.
Last week was pretty darned interesting, with eight Wild Card series’ going on simultaneously. Here’s the daily breakdown of playoff games:
September 29 – four Wild Card games September 30 – eight Wild Card games October 1 – four Wild Card games October 2 – two Wild Card games
Eighteen postseason games over four days. That’s a lot of postseason. This is the first time in many years of watching the MLB postseason that I’ve needed to look at a bracket to follow along. It really did have almost a “March Madness” effect, as baseball has never had so many teams playing postseason baseball at the same time. I really enjoyed it, and have to say I’m open to this continuing.
There are other redeeming traits to the expanded postseason:
Lots of Storylines
First, we have Marlins in the playoffs, one year after losing 105 games, their first postseason appearance since 2003. The first Miami postseason in the Jeter era. As the season materialized and they hung in competition, the Marlins added outfielder Sterling Marte, a possible 2021 free agent, to the team. Yes, the Marlins renting a player.
The Marlins returning to the postseason against the Chicago Cubs; reminders of how the Marlins broke the Cubs’ hearts in 2003.
Toronto and the Chicago White Sox both rode their young cores to a return to the postseason.
Could there be an epic Yankee-Astros grudge match for ALCS? Well, the Yanks must get past their first grudge match against Tampa Bay in the Division Series.
Speaking of Houston, Carlos Correa’s statement “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here. But what are they going to say now?” sure added another level of intensity to the postseason.
I’m pretty interested in watching the emerging San Diego go up against division rival Los Angeles in their Divisional Series matchup. The Dodgers, who played .717 ball in 2020, go into the series as the favorite, but can we write off Fernando Tatis Jr. and Co.?
A quick look indicates that the Yankees, Blue Jays and Astros don’t make the playoffs under the 2019 system. The Marlins tie with two other teams for the two Wild Card Spots. All of these these teams definitely added some intrigue to the playoffs
Lifeline to Small Market Teams
It seems to me that small market teams have the most to gain by a system like 2020. The Rays don’t have to spend with the Yankees to keep getting into the postseason. A small market like Miami can find themselves in the hunt, then make some deals to improve for the present season and not take on the long term contract burden that breaks the team’s finances.
Additional postseason games likely will result in additional revenue for MLB as well, but could help the smaller market teams keep up financially with their larger market counterparts.
Appeasing the Traditionalists
I still consider myself a traditionalist who wants to see value to the regular season and winning division titles.I do not want to see MLB go the route of the NBA or NHL, where the regular season just seems like along preseason to the postseason. Here are some ideas to keep the regular season relevant:
Mega Home Games? Major League Baseball’s home teams have historically had a home team winning percentage of about .540 for over 100 years, so there’s not a huge difference in the results. Ask players where they would like to play in the playoffs though, and they’ll of course say they like to be in front of their own rooters. Let division winners play all of the Wild Card games at their home.
KBO Wild Card Setup? The Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) has ten teams, no division breakdown. The top five teams make the postseason. The Wild Card round is between the fourth and fifth place teams. The fourth place team starts the best of three set with a 1-0 lead. So, they just need to win one game (or tie, there are ties in KBO) while the fifth place team has to win two games to move on.
Expanded playoffs won’t make everyone happy, and I get that. Due to the state of the country today, it will be tough to get a true indicator of fan response to the new system this year. I would say in the early going of the postseason the positives outrank the negatives, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see MLB try it again when they can assess it with fans in the stands, and not have the tragic backdrops we have now. .