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It’s About Money: Playoff Expansion (with a Poll!)

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Reports surfaced this week that MLB wants to expand from 5 to 7 playoff teams in each league. The move means billions for baseball. Tell us what you think about it!

Poll

Do you support the reported changes to the MLB playoffs?

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    Yes
    (95 votes)
  • 76%
    No
    (496 votes)
  • 9%
    Undecided
    (60 votes)
651 votes total Vote Now

The New York Post reported earlier this week that MLB was considering an expansion to its current playoff system. Beginning in 2022, the proposed system would allow 7 teams into the postseason from each league - three division winners and four wild card teams.

In this format, the team with the best record in the league would receive a first-round bye. The other two division winners would then be able to choose their opponent — reality TV style — for a three-game wild card round. The two remaining wild card teams would be matched up. The highest seed in each match-up would host all three series games.

The current plan would include a televised selection show on the last Sunday of the season where representatives from the division-winning teams would select their opponents live. I was not able to confirm this in time for this posting, but I believe this will include a MMA style weigh-in, followed by a rose-ceremony. (I really want a shirtless Tyler O’Neill staring down Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr., with the cameras flashing, before saying, “I choose you, Picachu.”)

This seems more complicated than it is. In 2019, the bracket could have played out as follows:

In the imagined scenario above, the first-seed Dodgers would receive a bye. The Braves, as the second seed, could have selected the 85-win Diamondbacks, and the Cardinals, the third division winner, would have hosted the 86-win Mets. The Nationals and Brewers would meet in a wild card match, with the Nationals at home.

Under this scenario, no .500 or below teams would have made the tournament in 2019 but two such teams would have reached the postseason as recently as 2017 when the Rays, Royals, and Angels all finished with 80 wins.

Why is this report coming out now? Follow the money. The current contract with ESPN and TBS runs through 2021. The new system would allow MLB to negotiate new television deals for the broadcasting rights to as many as 16 additional postseason games.

In 2012, according to Forbes, TBS paid $2.4 billion to broadcast one championship series, two division series, and a wildcard game — a maximum of 18 games per season — through 2021. Simply put, 16 new playoff games each year would generate billions in extra revenue.

It’s no coincidence that the Collective Bargaining Agreement is also set to expire in 2021. Playoff expansion can only happen with agreement from the player’s union. Would the players agree to such a change? Count Trevor Bauer out.

While players were chirping, their union directors were pensive. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said, “any measures that aim to incentivize competition are worth discussing.” He continued: “For playoff expansion specifically, the devil of those discussions will be in the details.” (Source: The Athletic)

Spoiler alert: the devilish details are dollars. The player’s union is salivating over their portion of those extra billions, but they will surely use the proposal as a bargaining chip to get even more money out of the owners.

Beyond pure finances, defenders of this proposed system point to several key benefits. The new proposal would better align baseball with the rest of professional sports. Under the current system, 10 of 30 MLB teams reach the postseason or 33% of the league. Compare that to the NFL, NBA, and NHL:

MLB (current) - 10 of 30, 33%
NFL - 12 of 32, 38%
NHL - 16 of 31, 52%
NBA - 16 of 30, 53%
MLB (revised) - 47%

Proponents of the system argue that more teams will start the season with playoff hopes and remain in contention later into the season. With greater fan interest (and a corresponding increase in ticket sales and TV ratings), some believe it could lead to more aggressive efforts by teams to improve. Currently, if a team knows it’s roster is below .500, it has little incentive to splurge on upgrades and fans have little reason to attend games. The financial risk required to climb to contention does not outweigh the benefits of more losing (early draft picks). However, it’s not so hard for such a club to add a few wins to reach .500, potentially make the playoffs, and benefit from a boom in both fan interest and revenue.

Of course, there is a flip side to that argument. Lowering the playoff floor removes some of the incentives for already competitive clubs to continue spending. In the wild card era, the playoffs have proven to be little more than a dice roll. In 2019, the 106-win mega-team Dodgers were ousted by the lowly wild card Nationals, who also bested the 107-win Trash Cans (Astros). Why spend for excellence if you can settle for mediocrity, reach the postseason and still have a shooters-chance at the World Series?

Speaking of settling, this seems to be where many Cardinals fans are landing on this reported change. The Cardinals philosophy in the Mozeliak era has been to build through draft and development. The club spends to retain their own players and fill roster gaps in order to stay around 88-92 wins. The club has finished above and below those win totals depending on how well their developed players perform.

Such is the case in 2020. Ownership put a cap on spending. The front office moved on from pricey established players (Ozuna, Wacha, Gyorko, and Martinez) and are trusting that young players like Flaherty, Hudson, O’Neill, Thomas, Edman, and Carlson (to name a few) can fill the gap. It’s a significant risk as multiple projection systems have the club well below an 88-win playoff floor.

If the playoff floor is lowered to 81 wins (give or take), that risk is largely removed, as is the motivation to spend. Since postseason success depends as much on luck as it does talent, why spend tens of millions of dollars to turn an 84 win club into a 92 win team? Former player Dallas Braden addressed this issue in response to ESPN reporter Buster Olney.

The bottom line of this proposal is the league’s bottom line. It’s 100% about money. It’s designed to generate more revenue from fans and television contracts without necessarily requiring clubs to invest more.

Personally, I think the fears that the Cardinals will change their philosophy, cut spending, and rely on 81-85 wins are unfounded. Still, I do question how much motivation the club will have to seek excellence — let’s call that building a roster that projects above 92 wins — but that is nothing new. I’m also not particularly excited about .500 caliber teams in the postseason. I don’t find 81-85 win baseball enjoyable. (I would not have found any pride in the 2017 Cardinals reaching the postseason, and yes, that club would have been the NL’s 7th seed).

That said, MLB does have a competition problem. As much as half the league has little reason to engage with their team or the sport. This proposal could potentially impact that, and it’s hard to see how more engaged fans from more teams would be anything but good for the game.

My thoughts are mixed. I’m curious to hear what VEB thinks. Vote in the poll and let your voice be heard in the comments below.