Making Broad Concept Of Rob Manfred’s Postseason Plan Work
It is a danger to take anything Rob Manfred says seriously, especially at a time when he may be very well trying to deflect away from the ongoing Astros sign stealing scandal. We should take heed of the fact he has consistently being walked or scaled back significantly. That said, he is still the commissioner, and there is a CBA negotiation which will soon occur, so we don’t know.
In Joel Sherman’s New York Post article, baseball’s plan for 14 postseason teams were outlined. This would eliminate the Wild Card Game and replace it with Wild Card Series (best 0f three) with the top team in each league receiving a bye. That top team would then get to pick their opponent.
While this is being sold as fan friendly in that with more postseason spots means more teams going for it, at its core, this is a money grab for baseball and its television partners. With this being a money grab, this is something which perhaps needs to be taken more seriously than a universal DH which doesn’t create the same revenue possibilities.
In trying to make this work, let’s acknowledge what doesn’t work about the plan. First and foremost, the long layoff tends to hurt teams. As noted by USA Today, the last 13 teams to have a layoff of five games between series have a 7-6 record. Effectively speaking, this reduces the chances the better team will win their ensuing series, and it is not good business for baseball to see their best teams and players out quickly in the postseason.
Another factor is the troublesome seventh postseason team. In 2019, that would have meant the final postseason teams would have been the 84-78 Red Sox and the 85-77 Diamondbacks would have made the postseason. Going back a few years, the sub .500 Royals and Angles would have made it to the postseason in 2017, and the sub .500 Marlins would have made the postseason would have made it in 2016. Arguably, things get worse the further back in time you look.
We have seen the current division format yield similar results, but not quite that drastic. Certainly, having teams with a losing record making the postseason is unacceptable, and at its core, it puts into question the integrity of the 162 game schedule.
Overall, we see two things baseball could accomplish in an expanded postseason. First, it could re-establish or at least strengthen division winners. Second, it could discourage tanking by giving teams more of an opportunity to make the postseason.
On the latter, we see teams tanking helping prop up those sixth and seventh best teams having fairly respectable postseason records. When you take out the tanking incentives by having roughly half the teams make the postseason, you’re going to see more .500 teams makes the postseason, which runs counter to the concept of the 162 game gauntlet.
Another issue with the best-of-three Wild Card series would put the top teams at a disadvantage. Not only would they be rusty facing that dire five plus game layoff window, but they would also have teams flipping their rotations back over. As such, the top teams are not only facing teams playing well and coming off the high of winning a postseason series, but they are also getting the Wild Card teams best starters to begin a series.
In essence, MLB is further disincentivizing winning the division.
NFL Style Postseason
If MLB wants to expand the postseason, they first need to create a balance where the lower ranked teams have a respectable record. That would be aided by expansion. By adding two teams, you create an additional bottom feeder, which, hopefully, would mean fewer near .500 teams in the postseason.
Now, 16 teams cannot be evenly divided among three divisions calling for a realignment. That leaves two possibilities.
First, you could have four four team divisions like the NFL. What baseball could do is have four division winners and have an NFL style postseason. In keeping with that, MLB could keep the concept of a bye with the top two division winners avoiding the winner-take-all Wild Card games.
The two lower tier division winners could host the top two Wild Card teams. This keeps some of the dignity of winning the division while also setting up a situation where a better team could advance. You also get the added benefit of having the additional winner-take-all games MLB is looking to add.
The other option is to have two eight team divisions. This time, the division winners definitively miss the Wild Card round. Ultimately, MLB would have four Wild Card teams playing two winner-take-all games to determine who advances. The question is how best to handle that.
On the one hand, it would seem to make the most sense to have the four best Wild Card teams. On the other hand, they could have the NHL style postseason which focuses on creating a division playoff to send to the conference finals. Under this sort of hybrid system, you could actually achieve what Manfred sought to achieve. Just to show what it could look like, lets take the 2019 standings but with the 1993 divisional format:
Looking at the standings, the Nationals would go from a Wild Card team to a division winner. Conversely, the Cardinals would go from a division winner to a Wild Card team. These teams would be the top two teams in the new National League East postseason.
From there, you can guarantee the third team in each division a postseason spot. This means under the 2019 standings, the Nationals, Cardinals, and Mets would be in the NL East postseason bracket, and the Dodgers, Braves, and Brewers (replacing the Astros spot) would be in the NL West postseason bracket.
Now, baseball has two options here.
As the Wild Card with the worse record, the Mets could host the Diamondbacks at Citi Field in a winner-take-all game. The winner of that game would then travel to St. Louis to play another Wild Card Game as the Braves host the Brewers for their own Wild Card Game.
Alternatively, with the Dodgers having the best record, you could force the Brewers to host the Diamondbacks for the last Wild Card spot in NL West part of the postseason with the winner of that game traveling to Atlanta for the Wild Card Game. By doing it this way, you give the Dodgers more of an advantage.
Right there is three winner-take-all games, and the top teams do not have much of a layoff. You can then further incentive winning the division with a best-of-six series with the first two games and last two games of the series being played at the division winner’s home.
Under the best of six series, the division winner would only need to win three games to win the series whereas the Wild Card team would have to win four to advance to the NLCS. By doing it this way, you keep the integrity of the regular season in tact by really making it an uphill battle for the near .500 team to advance in the postseason.
In essence, if you want that seventh postseason team, make them really earn it. Make them a true Cinderella.
Why Seven Teams Works
Overall, if you want to really make the seven postseason teams work, it would appear baseball needs a realignment with the four division format, and they then need to adopt the NHL style of postseason. While this may be met with some resistance at first, it may actually prove beneficial to baseball.
The postseason would begin with three intense winner-take-all games, and then you transition from that to four intense series featuring fierce division rivals. From there, you have a system where you hopefully have the absolute best teams playing baseball at its highest level.
In the end, having a sprint followed by intensity followed by the best-of-the-best, you may get exactly what Manfred wanted in floating this seven postseason team plan. If MLB does ultimately go in this direction, there may be something to this plan.