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MLB Postseason: Too much of a good thing

I watched the reign of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig with a mix of revulsion, fear, and nausea. Without extensively rehashing his errors, Selig oversaw the worst work stoppage in the sport’s history, a series of mismatched realignments, and a steroid scandal that threatened to derail the sport completely. When Selig’s reign of terror came to an end, I felt convinced that I had just witnessed the retirement of the worst commissioner MLB would ever see – a man who not only failed to grow the sport appreciably, but who actually had the sport going downhill.

Then Rob Manfred became commissioner and pointed the skis directly down the mountain.

Manfred announced yesterday that “an overwhelming majority” of owners supported the expansion of MLB’s postseason to sixteen teams, following the experiment with this format for the shortened 2020 season. Yes, I understand the reason for this move: it’s all about the money. Networks pay much more for postseason games than for regular season, so playing more postseason games just makes sense to the owners. There, we got the one positive out of the way.

Now, let’s move on to the effects of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea.

MLB moved to the three-division structure in 1995. (Oh, right – 1994, but no postseason occurred – see above. Thanks, Bud.) That leaves twenty-five postseasons played under three divisions from 1995 to 2019. If Manfred’s proposed playoff-palooza had taken effect in 1995, MLB would have seen exactly four seasons in which all playoff teams had a .500 record or better (2000, 2003, 2009, and 2012). During that time, 39 of the 400 postseason participants would have come in with a record under .500. Reasonable minds can differ on the optimal number of teams for a playoff, but surely we can all agree that winning more games than you lose should exist as a minimum standard, right? Compare this to the NFL, who chases every bit as much TV money, and who has featured exactly two teams with losing records over a full season in their playoffs, ever.

So now we face the prospect of 10% of your postseason teams as, objectively, bad teams. But at least they’ll quickly exit to the top seeds, right? What with the higher seed getting all three games at home? Well, first let’s look at the “seeding”. If the owners decide to stick with the current format of second-place teams in each division as the 4-6 seeds, the 7-8 seeds come from the two best records outside the top two in each division. Four times in the last seven years, this would have left the #1 seed facing a team with a better record than the #6 seed – which would actually reward the worst division winner! And even with the higher seed getting home field for all three games of the first round, you face a substantial chance of an upset. For the 2019 regular season, home teams won 53% of games; the top 16 teams in the majors won 61% of home games. Let’s give just a slight drop to that for eliminating the worst teams, and assume that the home team has a 60% chance of winning each game. For a best-of-three series, that equates to a 65% chance of winning the series. Compare that to the NBA’s best-of-seven first rounds (for 16 playoff teams), where the higher seed wins 78% of the series. You’re looking at a substantial difference.

What you face with the expansion to 16 teams, under this format, is the rendering of the regular season essentially moot. Many writers decried the loss of the “pennant chase” when MLB added the Wild Card team, especially pointing to the race between the 103-win Braves and the 102-win Giants as the last of its kind. In some ways, this proved correct – but MLB did make a course correction by adding the second wild card team, thus creating a real incentive to win the division. And you had scenarios like the final day of the 2011 regular season, with the Rays clinching the Wild Card on a walk-off while the fans kept updated with the Red Sox loss to send Tampa to the postseason. The expansion to sixteen teams would undo this work. Let’s face it – even the most ardent of sports fans would find themselves hard-pressed to name a memorable chat for the eighth seed in the NHL or NBA, or a dynamic showdown for a division crown when only seeding would change.

If MLB insists on continuing down this road, then I suggest they follow the lead of the Korea Baseball Organization when it comes to these best-of-three series: the higher seed starts the series 1-0. By instituting a format where the home team would have to lose both games, at home, to lose the series, the above odds change from 65% chance to advance to 84% chance. This would give teams (and fans) a real reason to go for that division championship – analytical front offices would not likely ignore such a dramatic change in their chances of advancing!

I don’t have access to MLB financials. I don’t know the details of their broadcast deals, either local or national/postseason. I do know, from the above, that expanding the postseason would cause irreparable damage to a 162-game regular season. We may see MLB owners chasing short-term playoff TV dollars at the risk of killing their regular-season golden goose.

Featured image courtesy mlb.com

Michael Shopoff

Part-time writer, full-time dad. Unapologetic Astros fan. Please don’t do “Houston, we have a problem” - we can all do better!

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