Expanded Playoffs Are (Probably) Coming

After a week of waffling that would make Belgium jealous, Rob Manfred threw a curveball yesterday:

Of course, it couldn’t be that easy, and I don’t just mean avoiding mixed metaphors. The MLBPA agreed that new substantive discussions had occurred, but disagreed that an agreement was in place or that a final deal was imminent. We’ll have to wait for another offer from the players, and likely a final counter from the owners, though the fact that their latest proposal includes full prorated salaries — and please, let’s never use the phrase “full prorated” again, like ever — suggests that the two sides will reach a deal.

Lost in the tick-tock of the negotiation and Manfred’s wild swings towards dealmaking and obstructionism, however, baseball is changing shape. When (and if) the game returns this year, it will look different than it ever has before. I don’t mean the season length, though that will certainly be novel. There are two major changes to the game in the owners’ most recent proposal: a universal DH, which Jay Jaffe will cover in greater detail tomorrow, and an expanded 16-game playoff field in 2020 and 2021.

The length of the season, while not yet final, looks likely to fall between 60 and 70 games. There’s not much difference between those in terms of how “real” the season will feel — it’s going to feel short, and that’s fine. Nothing in 2020 has felt normal so far, and baseball is merely following the trend.

That’s not to say there’s no difference between 60 and 70 games. Each additional game nets players roughly $25 million in extra salary, which explains their steadfast desire for more baseball. Owners may or may not also profit from extra games, but do make the majority of their profit from the playoffs. To them, extra games are simply a lever to pull in negotiations with the players. For our viewing purposes, however, it will feel short and random. Dan Szymborski is sitting in the ZiPS situation room as we speak, projections at the ready, to fire off win total predictions and playoff odds as soon as the exact season structure is announced, but suffice it to say that 60 and 70 game seasons don’t produce significantly different outlooks.

If the short season will feel a little weird, the expanded playoffs will feel outright jarring. The Mets, Diamondbacks, and Cubs would have made the NL playoff field in 2019. The Indians, Red Sox, and Rangers (!!) would have qualified on the AL. That’s in a full season — worse teams will very likely make this year’s playoffs. There is, as of yet, no concrete information on the prospective playoff structure, but the Rangers won 29 fewer games than the Astros last year. One way or another, they would likely meet in the playoffs with an eight-team field.

An expanded playoff field will likely be a short-term ratings and cash bonanza for the league. It’s less clear whether it makes sense in the long run for the health of baseball. Team incentives would suffer greatly unless top seeds receive some serious first-round advantages, on the order of a one-win advantage in a best-of-three series. Think of it this way: total major league payrolls last year amounted to $4.08 billion, which means that one win above replacement, averaged across all players rather than merely free agents, cost teams roughly $4 million. If the Astros paid the market rate, those 29 extra wins would run them $116 million. That’s a lot of extra spending to play a three- or five-game series that could end your season, the same situation your opponent faces, before even getting to the “regular” playoff crapshoot that already exists.

This argument isn’t airtight — the Astros couldn’t relinquish 10 wins and pocket $40 million very easily, because baseball assets aren’t perfectly fungible. Even if the Astros became less interested in winning, teams in the Rangers’ rough tier might pick up some of the slack by attempting to jump from, say, 75 wins to 80.

But at the moment, there’s a real incentive to build a team that projects to win nearly 100 games; even if your club disappoints, you’re still likely to make the current playoff structure. The same can’t be said of a team with a 92-win projection before the season; should that team come up on the short side of variance, they’ll likely be watching the playoffs from the comfort of their own homes.

Removing incentives to build great teams hardly seems like a good way to make baseball more interesting. There’s a balance to be struck — one playoff team per league wouldn’t be a great system either — but in a sport where variance plays such a key role in short series, expanding the playoff field creates a pull toward the middle. Teams are rational actors. If the incentives for creating a fully operational Death Star are low, why build one?

There’s a central issue at play here: to make the most possible new revenue from the expanded playoff field, the league would prefer the series to be competitive. Spot the higher seed too much of an advantage via the structure of the playoffs, and there’s less drama, less appointment television.

Imagine an extreme: the lowest seed in the playoffs must play their first series with only eight players on the field. That would provide a huge incentive to win the top overall seed in the league — a virtual first-round bye. But who would buy the rights to a series that was destined to be uncompetitive? Sure, audiences might tune in for a year: novel concepts can be fun! But if the top seed’s victory is all but assured, what’s the point of watching? And if the top seed has to play two short series, just the same as the fourth seed, what’s the point of aiming to be the top seed?

In all likelihood, the toothpaste is out of the tube. Try to imagine the league using a 16-team playoff field for two years and then returning to eight. It would never happen. The players know that owners want an expanded playoff field — they’ve repeatedly used it as a bargaining chip to ask for greater compensation. Why would they sacrifice compensation to ask for a smaller playoff field? Similarly, the owners have no incentive to pitch the players on a smaller playoff field in exchange for lower salaries — the players wouldn’t listen, and the owners don’t even want to make that tradeoff.

This same logic is true, roughly, for a universal DH. Players generally want the DH in the NL; it would create extra jobs, or so the thinking goes. The owners likely don’t care; profit is profit, whether Madison Bumgarner bats for himself or not. But despite the historical significance of removing pitcher batting from the NL, I believe the expanded playoff field is far more meaningful.

Teams will adapt to the new playoff structure. The Cardinals, to name one example, have proven adept at aiming for an upper-80s win total year after year, a skill that will be more valuable in the new expanded-playoff world. Star starting pitchers will be a must; there’s no better bang for your WAR buck in a short series. But mostly, I think the new playoff field will be a bad thing for generating or sustaining fan interest in baseball. The more teams that aim for the middle, the less fun it is to watch.

There’s an argument to be made that the expanded playoff field would prevent tanking. I think that’s a terrible argument. Teams don’t tank just to try to later build a 100-win team. They tank to save money. Teams that cut salary don’t add it back on average. As long as owners are profit motivated, accumulating underpriced assets at the cost of being bad and inexpensive today will be a viable strategy. Why would we expect teams who are already at best middlingly interested in making the playoffs to suddenly develop newfound zeal when an extra round appears when they still face juggernauts like the Dodgers and Yankees?

In the end, I’ll simply be glad that baseball is back. When my options are a bizarre form of the game or nothing, give me the bizarre form every day. Maybe I’m wrong about the long-term effects of an expanded playoff field. Maybe the structure of the playoffs will still bestow enough of an advantage on the top seeds that they’ll be worth fighting for. But when you’re jumping for joy that baseball’s back, spare a thought for how you’ll feel about the 78-win Rangers and their future equivalents. Playoff baseball is always weird — and it’s about to get weirder.





Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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bluerum29
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bluerum29

Expanded playoffs and DH are the two worst parts of all of this. I’d rather no season this year to prevent that for next year. Effecting the long term negatively for the benefit of a short term season is not a positive.

D-Wiz
Member
Member
D-Wiz

I agree that expanded playoffs are bad – a universal DH, however, was inevitable anyway. Besides, pitchers are only getting worse at hitting, and even the “good” ones have batting lines that wouldn’t fly as even defense-first shortstops. I think a DH is a net positive – better quality of play overall, no fluky heartbreaking injuries to pitchers while they’re pretending to be hitters, and if anything if gives players more major league jobs to compete for.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

I enjoy small ball, bunting, moving the runner over. The cat and mouse game of pinch hitters in late innings. Without the DH, the bench guys during the game are much less important. DH was added for offense, there is more than enough offense now, don’t need it.

D-Wiz
Member
Member
D-Wiz

I understand that point, but I think the need for strategy it creates is often overstated. Even in the AL, pitchers are kept on ever-shortening leashes, to the point that I think most pinch hitter decisions are done almost by rote. Unless he’s an ace it’s starter approximately twice through the order, then a series of 1- or maybe, if the pitcher’s spot doesn’t come up, 2-inning relief stints. Managers inclined to play small ball (though there are fewer and fewer of these) will do it anyway, just using their worst hitters to bunt instead of their pitchers. I do wish there was room for more variation in strategies among teams, but there increasingly seems to be a “right” way to make decisions at every point in a game, and I just don’t think forcing pitchers to hit adds much meaningful decision-making to the game anymore. Though, again, reasonable minds can differ and I do understand where those opposed to a DH are coming from.

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

The mentality of pulling pitchers so early in the game is another one that we need to see the pendulum swing back the other way. In time that can happen with the right people. Less than 6 innings is a pathetic start. 7 should be minimum for a top notch pitcher.

bglick4
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bglick4

I would love to have seen the ‘66 series where the Orioles went the entire series with only making a single call to the bullpen. But, watching a trio of fireball relievers slam the door in three straight innings is also not without its appeal.

butthole25
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butthole25

Fuck that–Jim McCormick once averaged 539+ IP over a six year stretch. Beat that, you pansies!

bglick4
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bglick4

Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched ten straight complete games on two non-consecutive occasions!

Shirtless George Brett
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Shirtless George Brett

Underrated comment, haha

Bolton
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Bolton

The pitcher batting doesn’t add a great deal of strategy, and it’s uninteresting to watch them flail at the plate. But it’s preferable to the designated hitter, and allowing someone who doesn’t play the field to get a full slate of at-bats. I liked the short-lived idea of allowing the designated hitter to remain in the game for as long as the starting pitcher remains in the game. After the starter is gone, teams would have to go to the bench to pinch-hit for their relievers. It would encourage managers to let their starters try to go through a lineup a third time, and discourage the opener and bullpen games.

Syndergaardengnomes
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Member
Syndergaardengnomes

This is absolutely the DH model I support. It keeps some strategy in the game, makes pinch hitters useful again, and incentivizes keeping the starter in a little more. Seems like a no-brainer.

Ryan
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Member
Ryan

That’s an interesting idea… would you allow, as the rules do now, for the DH player to be moved into the flied in order to keep him in the game? But the DH position is now lost?

sadtrombone
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Member
sadtrombone

I am staunchly anti-DH, but I could get behind this as a compromise.

bglick4
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bglick4

This I like and I’m a big fan of the DH. It’s like the strategy added with pitchers batting, but I don’t like to see terrible hitters forced to hit too much.

butthole25
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butthole25

Why do you want to discourage openers and bullpen games?

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

Because they suck.

butthole25
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butthole25

Great, nuanced response. Care to elaborate?

Dag Gummit
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Dag Gummit

I hadn’t heard of that model and you know what? I think I like it, too.

spacemanbob
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Member
spacemanbob

Double switches really get you going, huh? Love watching those old guy managers walk up to the umpire and point at a bunch of guys to move around?

bluerum29
Member
bluerum29

Don’t really care about double switches.

RoyalsFan#14321
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RoyalsFan#14321

The DH isn’t another ML job – he just replaces one of the pitchers on the roster…

Dag Gummit
Member
Dag Gummit

I’ll agree that the universal DH was inevitable. The per-instance, nearly impossible, but eventually all-but guaranteed ultra-fluky, career-ending and possibly-lethal injury to a pitcher while batting would do it. And if it were bad enough (say the kind of player and injury of Kirby Puckett), I could see enough push to even happen mid-season. There are, of course, other freak injuries pitchers are subject to, but those are currently harder to prevent.

If that must happen now in lieu of causing that kind of almost-impossible-but-fully-preventable, horrible situation 1, 5, or 100 years in the future, then I’m happy with it.