The Major League Baseball playoff race is fun. The wildcards are alive in the American League and National League. The prospect of a one-game play-in lures teams, fanbases and front offices. It gives meaning to late-summer, early-autumn baseball that it oh-so desperately needs.
It is fun in mid-September despite only one division race being alive – the National League Central. Can’t MLB do better than that, though?
There’s always a risk of everything being sewn up by the end of August, but the current format almost lends itself to that outcome. Far too many teams are nigh-on irrelevant by the 31st July trade deadline. The National League wildcard race made it so there were fewer sellers this season than there have been in other years – the aim should be to recreate that in years to come.
The problem: too many teams out of contention.
The solution: increase the size of the playoffs.
Playoff baseball is great. That’s one thing (maybe the only thing), that baseball fans can agree on. If we can have more playoff baseball without drastically diluting the quality, that’s a no-brainer.
Currently only 10 teams make it into the playoffs, and two of those are sent home after one game. Turning that into 12, 13, or perhaps 14, doesn’t harm the spectacle of postseason baseball. It would open the regular season up, giving more teams a glimmer of playoff hope.
The arguments against this are that the ‘best’ teams are less likely to win the World Series. This recreates a constant argument in sport of fairness versus entertainment.
The ‘fairest’ season wouldn’t have a postseason at all. Every team would play each other the same number of times, and the team with the most wins/points would lift the trophy, like in the Premier League.
Finding that happy medium between fairness and entertainment isn’t easy, but MLB could shift towards the entertainment side (postseason expansion) without significantly harming the fairness.
Any suggested change must keep the division winners in the Division Series. It 1) makes sense, and 2) keeps the division battles relevant. They’re great.
Adding another layer of postseason baseball before that is where there’s room to manoeuvre. Currently there’s a simple wildcard playoff, a one-game extravaganza of aces in relief, countless pitching changes and all-round chaos.
What if, two more teams were added to that wildcard mix. Increase the wildcard spots from two to four and create a two-round wildcard system.
There are lots of different ways it could work.
The top wildcard seed could get a bye, you could have five wildcard teams, with the bottom four in a knockout to face the top wildcard team.
Or the top seed play the fourth seed, and the second seed play the third seed, with the winners progressing to a best-of-three or perhaps best-of-five wildcard round.
The preliminary wildcard games could follow the one-game showdown that we currently have. Although, one way to throw some more ‘fairness’ into this boosted entertainment mix is to make that first round a best-of-three with the higher seed getting home-field advantage.
Compared to the regular season, postseason baseball is a lottery. Front offices will take chances on the possibility of a wildcard spot, knowing a run at the right time could deliver an elusive World Series trophy.
Adding four more teams into the playoffs would see more franchises focused on winning in the short-term. Players, MLB and the baseball media have criticised teams for not trying to win – these changes should help that. It might not see an increase in the win-now moves (because they’re all too often reckless), but it will decrease the number of irrelevant games in most seasons.
There are two ways to look at this for the division winners. An extra round of games will give them additional time to rest, and potentially get key players back from injuries. It could give them an awkward lull, a few days at a loose end, but perhaps their pitchers would benefit from that short break after an intense battle for the division?
Foundation to grow the game
Instead of fiddling round the edges of the game, MLB should be focussing on how it can increase/highlight its biggest moments. Make the Division Series seven games, give more teams a chance of a postseason berth – look to build on the positives rather than tackle the tiniest of negatives (or, in some cases, manufacture them).
Baseball is wonderful. The playoffs produce moments as dramatic as anything in the NFL or NBA. That’s what should be the foundation to grow the sport not just in the US, but around the world.
Give more meaning to the tail-end of the 162-game regular season. Give us more postseason baseball.