It would be easy to accuse a D.C. sports fan of losing interest in the playoffs because of the Washington Nationals’ unfortunate post-championship belly flop, but in my case that’s not really true; even before this bizarre novel-coronavirus-shortened season kicked off, my expectations were lower than José Altuve’s no-buzzers-allowed on-base percentage. Given the free agent departures and random injuries (Carpal tunnel syndrome? Really?), it’s not hard to mentally fold all this misfortune into the weirdness of the present pandemic and declare MLB 2020 to be a freakish Plague Season of Doom better left as an asterisk in the record books.
No, the real reason the MLB playoffs feel so anticlimactic is the grotesque expanded playoff format. Sixteen teams — eight from each league, over half of all franchises — will now qualify instead of the standard 10.
That means we will be seeing such world-beaters as the Toronto Blue Jays, sporting a .526 winning percentage as of Friday morning, in the playoffs. In the National League? The Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants and Philadelphia Phillies all have plausible shots at making it in the remaining days — and all were within a game of .500.
It’s hard to get particularly excited about the postseason of any sport in which mediocrity is rewarded, but it’s particularly difficult when the inherent nature of a sport is exacerbated by its format. The blunt fact is that baseball’s postseason always has been a crapshoot, random unlike any of the other major American professional sports, and has become only more so as more teams have been added to it.
With the three gradual expansions of the playoffs over the past half-century, postseason outcomes have become more unpredictable because of the unique nature of the game: Your most critical players (starting pitchers) are only available once in a short series, or they may be off their game, or maybe the opposing team is using an elaborate series of buzzers and trash cans to steal their signs. In fact, if history is any guide, the Los Angeles Dodgers probably will lose the NL wild-card series when Clayton Kershaw is abducted by aliens during the seventh-inning stretch of Game 3 because it always happens the way you expect it to.
That’s why the regular season, the 162-game grind, has always been so important: It separates the truly great teams (and, in this wild-card era, the scrappy upstarts and comeback kids, such as last year’s Nationals squad) from the mediocrities and pretenders. But not this year! This year, you can bumble your way into the postseason, with the same puncher’s chance as any other team, by playing ball either at or barely above the .500 waterline.
The 16-team format not only threatens to make the championship meaningless given the randomness of small-series outcomes, it also destroys the entire rationale of the regular season, which is so long precisely because it was designed to create significant separation, over time, between the best of the major leagues and the rest, ensuring that even the weakest teams that made it to October still had a record of genuine accomplishment.
All of this might be tolerable if it were only a single-season, pandemic-induced anomaly. But of course that’s not Commissioner Rob Manfred’s intent. On Sept. 14, he announced that he doesn’t consider these playoffs to be an ugly-but-necessary compromise: “I think there’s a lot to commend it, and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.” He then went on to add that “an overwhelming majority” of owners favored keeping the change permanent as well.
Why wouldn’t they? For the owners, this isn’t about honoring the purity of the game or its traditions or its competitive balance. This is about making the money printer go “brr.” With income streams taking a hit from the loss of games, lack of attendance and long-term decline in the value of regional TV sports networks, one of the big remaining guaranteed cash cows is national TV money for playoff baseball. So more playoff baseball is better for them, even if the value of the product is diluted.
And the product will be diluted, in ways that are entirely predictable: The permanent expansion of the playoffs wouldn’t just render the postseason a farce, it would have knock-on effects for the rest of the game. An entirely new incentive structure for team-building would emerge. When you can get into October with 83 wins or maybe even a losing record, any franchise with a semi-competent front office will conclude it’s not worth spending money on free agents who would push you to 93 wins. That doesn’t merely render the heart of the game — its regular season — almost meaningless, it also means salary deflation for players and careers that end prematurely as teams realize they can just play young cost-controlled kids with less talent and still make it in.
It gets worse: Because of the randomness of playoff outcomes, it’s an absolute inevitability that at some point a team with a losing record would not only make it to the postseason but win the World Series. They say that flags fly forever, but it’s hard not to think that a flag won by a team such as that would look soiled and tattered.
The only consolation for fans is that these changes have to be agreed to by the MLB Players Association in the next collective bargaining agreement. I spent years railing against the MLBPA — for the strike, for the steroids scandal — but now it is the one organization standing in the way of the permanent ruination of baseball. The incentives of the people it represents — not just star free agents but older players looking to extend their careers — stand in opposition to the changes that will occur in a 16-team-playoff world. It’s a sad day when I’m reduced to embracing my old nemesis, but I’ll do it this time: Saving the meaning and worth of a baseball championship is worth a designated hitter, after all.
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