As I write this sentence, there are two hours left until the start of the 2020 MLB season, and the “Toronto” Blue Jays don’t know where they will play home games. The best position player for the reigning World Series winner, who was set to play in the season’s opening game, is being held out after testing positive for COVID-19. And we’re only just learning how many teams will make this year’s postseason field.
This is fine. It’s all fine. The strangeness of the 2020 MLB season isn’t a distraction at all.
Out of all the Thursday news, the most concerning centers on the coronavirus—the very reason MLB was forced into this unprecedented season structure in the first place. It’s not just forcing the Blue Jays out of Canada due to health risks; it’s creeping into gameplay too, with Nationals outfielder Juan Soto out of his team’s Opening Day lineup. Soto played an exhibition game against the Orioles on Tuesday and practiced with teammates Wednesday, but the games go on unabated.
The most baffling news, however, involves the size of the playoff field, which seems like a reasonable thing for teams to know before they set their rosters for the season. Yet with the time closing until Anthony Fauci throws the first pitch before the first game of the season—I’ll let you determine the irony in the nation’s foremost coronavirus expert appearing at Nationals Park on Thursday, but not Soto—the league’s owners and players are still hashing out these particulars.
What we know so far—or at least, what we think we know so far—was first reported by ESPN’s Marly Rivera: For this season, the bracket will expand to 16 teams, eight in each league, thus adding extra games and TV revenue and giving players an extra $50 million. The three division winners and runner-ups in each league will qualify for the playoffs, with the remaining teams with the best records slotting in as the no. 7 and 8 seeds. And the new first round will involve a best-of-three format with all games at the higher seed’s stadium.
The most important question for the future of the sport, however, cannot yet be answered: We don’t really know whether the 16-team bracket will exist for just this season before the playoff field returns to normal, or whether it will serve as a model for MLB postseasons going forward. The agreement, at least, is just for this year, similar to how the league embraced a new (and controversial) playoff structure only for the strike-shortened season in 1981. But with all the money involved in extra playoff games, owners and TV networks will surely be incentivized to push for an expanded postseason in additional years—they already had the idea back in February, before the pandemic forced the league into financial fluctuations. There is almost no precedent for a sports league expanding its playoffs only to retract later on.
Such a change could alter every aspect of MLB play. Most notably, bad teams would reach the playoffs—and have a real chance to win—despite struggling through 162 games. On average, since 1998 (when the majors expanded to 30 teams), teams finishing eighth in their league have finished about eight games worse than teams finishing fifth. More than half of those no. 8 seeds finished at .500 or below.
MLB Regular Season Outcomes By Seed, 1998-2019
|Seed||Avg. Wins||Teams Above .500|
|Seed||Avg. Wins||Teams Above .500|
Back in March, before the entire American sporting infrastructure grew fuzzy, I imagined a hypothetical, 16-team playoff future—and all the potentially deleterious ripple effects of such expansion. Teams with losing records would viably compete for a title. There would be less incentive than ever to build a truly great roster, because of both the ease of qualifying for the playoffs—there’s no point in aiming for 100 wins when 81 is good enough to get in—and the inherent randomness of results once there. Teams would change both roster usage, perhaps adopting a sort of NBA-style “load management” approach in the regular season, and construction, perhaps by focusing even more on dominant relievers who can impact the final month more than well-rounded players who can influence the first six. And the trade deadline would lose its luster too, with both fewer obvious sellers and less reason for the best teams to buy.
For 2020 alone, many of those problems might not manifest, and there are some legitimate reasons to prefer a larger playoff field, from giving teams more wiggle room in recovering from a poor start to a 60-game sprint, to increasing payments to players who are receiving just 37 percent of their usual salaries. Besides, this season already looks so different from a normal campaign—what’s another change while we’re at it?
But if this change proves durable and expanded playoffs become the norm, MLB would be worse off for it. In a sports league like the NBA, no. 8 seeds don’t typically challenge no. 1 seeds; talent wins out even in small samples in basketball. But any team can beat any other in a short series in baseball; based on FanGraphs’ estimations of team strength this season, even a Dodgers vs. Marlins best-of-three would give the Marlins a 26 percent chance to advance (using a simple calculation that doesn’t account for home-field advantage).
As FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens wrote earlier this year when running simulations of larger playoff fields, “When you expand the playoff field significantly and make the first round more random, you’re flattening everyone’s incentives. … The race for division titles will be hugely deadened.” Clemens concluded, “This would just be another way for teams to rationalize not trying to get better.”
In a world of expanded playoffs, the threat—and practice—of inferior teams springing upsets would distort the sport by far more than, say, the Dodgers continuing to fall short of a title. As I write this sentence, there is now one hour left until the start of the 2020 MLB season, and the whole business remains a mess.