Legends On Deck

In Defense of the 16-Team Postseason

A while back, I wrote about what rule changes MLB might consider keeping from the 2020 shortened season. Considering each rule change individually, I came out in favor of things like the universal designated hitter, but opposed to an expanded postseason. After watching the early rounds of this year’s postseason match-ups, I have reconsidered my position.

In several IBWAA newsletter articles this October, writers have taken aim at the expanded postseason. The primary case for opposing the 16-team format is that it renders the regular season less meaningful and undeserving teams get in. It is hard to argue against the position that undeserving teams should not make the postseason when both the Houston Astros and the Milwaukee Brewers made it in with a 29-31 record. This happens quite frequently in other leagues, like the NBA.

The question I would pose, however, is how is this postseason format worse than the other postseason formats in the Wild Card era? I would argue there are at least three ways that this format is better than previous years.

First, the expanded postseason has given hope to the fan bases of franchises who are starting to see the results of the rebuilding process. The Cincinnati Reds (7th seed), Chicago White Sox (7th seed) and Toronto Blue Jays (8th seed) are all prime examples. They are also teams that had winning regular season records. An expanded postseason gives teams that are on the rise a chance to showcase their talent. Fan morale can often be low during rebuilding years. A postseason appearance can provide a much needed boost of interest. It simply keeps more fans engaged through the end of the season.

Secondly, the three game series is much better than the single game elimination Wild Card format. The single game is a foreign concept in baseball. The only time it happens is in the Wild Card game of recent years. Baseball is a game of series. The biggest obstacle with a three game set, in a normal year, would be the travel days between games. One option for a three game series would be to play the first two games (or last two games) at the home of the highest seeded team. Another option might be to play the series at a neutral location. This might create a College World Series-type atmosphere for the first round of the postseason.

Third, expanding the postseason also makes a stronger case for franchise expansion.  MLB has already stated its intention to expand to a 32-team league in the near future. A 16-team postseason makes a lot more sense in a 32-team league, where exactly half the teams could earn a postseason berth. The abundance of minor league and international talent available to MLB franchises makes expansion an easy transition. It also allows for an even number of teams in both leagues, which is better for scheduling.

Despite my opinion that this setup is better than the system it replaced, it is not without flaws. The seeding of teams is the best example. Division winners should get the top three seeds, but every other team should be seeded based on record alone. The Astros being seeded sixth because they were the AL West runner-up is ridiculous, when the White Sox and Blue Jays had better overall records. This needs to be corrected. Yet, the criticism that an undeserving team may potentially make the World Series was taken off the table this week. The Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers entered the postseason as number one seeds in their respective leagues, and they were the two teams left standing after both League Championship Series.

Critics have also expressed concern over the number of postseason games being played. They claim it causes fatigue among pitchers, players, and fans alike. A three-game series means that each team would play just one to three games more. That’s not much difference. If the concern is about playing too many games, I’d rather see MLB return to an 154-game schedule, which they had prior to 1961. Take eight games off the regular season and add a scheduled doubleheader every month. This might allow MLB to start the regular season a week later and end it a week earlier. That’s a win for cold weather teams.

Nothing in sports beats postseason baseball. Even in a season without crowds, the energy and excitement is still there. Despite some flaws, the opportunity to permanently expand the postseason seems hard to turn down. MLB should make some necessary reforms to this new format and continue it for years to come. The most important question the league should ask when considering adopting new policies is, will it energize their fans and grow the game? In the case of the expanded postseason, the answers seem to point to yes.

This article originally appeared in the Internet Baseball Writers Association newsletter, Here’s the Pitch, on October 21, 2020.  

Brian Koss
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