Watching From Afar: Baseball’s Brightest Stars Miss Out on the Playoffs…Again

As much hate as “superteams” get in the NBA and, to some extent, in the NFL, one good thing that they ensure is that the league’s best players will be playing on its biggest stage in the playoffs. Rarely, if ever, does the MVP of the season or names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Tom Brady have to watch the entirety of the league’s postseason from home. Yet for Major League Baseball, as we approach the Wild Card Games starting tonight, many of the best players have already hung up their cleats for the offseason.

This season, 11 of the top 15 players on the combined fWAR leaderboard are on teams that missed the playoffs. That includes Shohei Ohtani, Vladimir Guererro Jr., Bryce Harper, and Juan Soto, who should win both MVP awards between the four of them. Fernando Tatis Jr., who has been one of MLB’s top social media faces of the game, is also among that group. Mike Trout did not qualify for that list due to injuries this year, but he will again be absent from the playoffs for the 10th time in his 11 year career. MLB faces an uphill battle to get the World Series to rival the NBA Finals in ratings when a casual fan might not know any of the players participating.

While it’s more exaggerated this season, in 2019, the last season with a normal playoff structure, 6 of the top 12 players in fWAR missed the playoffs. Overall, there have been 9 seasons with the current 10 team playoff format (including this season). That gives us 135 player-seasons that were in the top 15 in fWAR in one of those seasons. Only 51.1% of those players made it to the playoffs during that season, 69 in vs 66 out. Think about that for a second, half of the best seasons in the past decade have ended before the playoffs started.

This trend is reflected in the World Series ratings as well. When more star players make the playoffs, the Fall Classic tends to see an increase in viewership, which has had an overall downward trend for the past 40 years. In general, more top players in the playoffs has generated more interest in the World Series, as shown on the graph below.

Graph of number of top 15 seasons by fWAR in the playoffs and average viewership of the World Series over span of 2012 through 2019
Top players in Postseason and World Series ratings, 2012-2019
World Series Rating and Viewership since 1973 (Wikipedia)

Fixing the Playoff Problem

The solution to this problem isn’t as clear. MLB could opt for an expanded postseason with 16 teams, as they did in 2020, but that didn’t help last year. While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and shortened season likely had a lot of influence on it, the 2020 World Series saw the lowest ratings for a televised World Series of all time.

Market Stars on Best Teams

A better idea could be to market around more players so that there are more names known in general. A casual MLB fan could probably name only one or two players on either the Giants or Rays, the two #1 seeds in their respective leagues. MLB needs to take the best and most exciting stars on these teams and put them in every commercial and every billboard across the country. Brandon Lowe, Mike Zunino, and Wander Franco should be just as common in baseball conversations this year as Juan Soto, J.T. Realmuto, and Mike Trout. People should know Buster Posey is still playing, Brandon Crawford is having a resurgence, and Kevin Gausman is putting up Cy Young numbers.

Tampa Bay Rays stars <a rel=
Brandon Lowe, left, and Wander Franco, right, celebrate on the field (Tampa Bay Times)

Market the Teams Themselves

But also, it’s not like historic and big market teams aren’t in the playoffs. This year, the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Cardinals are all in the playoffs and so are the Astros, who have been the villain in recent years. These are teams that people care about and MLB could use to draw the big audiences if they played their cards right. Even if they don’t necessarily have stars that are performing at an elite level this season, the league could lean on the team names and rivalries to gather interest in the games. We’re guaranteed a Yankees/Red Sox wild card game and could have a potential Dodgers/Giants NLDS. If MLB cannot draw viewership for two of the biggest rivalries in sports being played in the playoffs, it’s got a much bigger problem.

It’s a long season and far from an individual sport, so there’s not much the league can do to force the top players in every season, but they can do their best to still get the public interested in their showcase event. With the CBA expiring this offseason and negotiations expected to have an effect on the 2022 season, MLB faces a tough spot that could determine the future of the league and needs to rejuvenate its fanbase. When the next regular season starts, whether that’s in March 2022 as scheduled or as late as 2023, there needs to be a new strategy from the league office to build up support for the playoffs whether it’s the Mike Trouts that are playing or the Brandon Lowes.

Matthew Penn

Graduate student with a degree in Sport Analytics. Lifelong Nationals fan trying to bring an analytical analysis to baseball. On twitter @matthewhpenn

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