Expanded Playoffs Discourage Greatness

To paraphrase the late, great Chris Wallace, if it ain’t one thing, it’s another freaking other. After MLB announced its bubble-esque postseason format, Rob Manfred slipped in the claim that expanded playoffs are likely here to stay.

Manfred, as he is wont to do, conflated what the owners — his bosses — desire with what has actually been decided; expanded playoffs would require an agreement between the league and the MLBPA. Even though Manfred’s declaration is merely media signaling, though, it’s worth discussing its potential effect on baseball’s competitive landscape, because it would be absolutely earth-shattering.

While the commissioner didn’t elaborate on what type of expanded playoffs he was talking about, it’s fair to assume that they might take the form of this year’s tournament — eight teams in each league qualify, with best-of-three series at the higher seeds’ home parks to cut the field in half — though they could also feature a 14-team field, a possibility reported by Joel Sherman in February. I’ll assume a 16-team field here, as I think the extra television revenue will prove awfully enticing. From there, there would be the normal five-seven-seven structure we’ve grown accustomed to.

In an abbreviated season, expanded playoffs make some sense. 60 games isn’t enough to separate the wheat from the chaff, so a postseason cutoff was always going to feel arbitrary. Sixteen, eight, 10 — none would feel normal, because this season isn’t normal. Given that, creating more of a tournament atmosphere via short series feels like a fun one-off plan.

If every possible 2020 playoff format is going to feel equally valid, the owners have an obvious reason to expand the postseason: money. Owners take in the vast majority of playoff revenue — players get a share of the gate receipts in the first three (in the case of the Division Series) or four (League Championship and World Series) games of each round, while the owners get the rest of the gate as well the television money, which overshadows revenue from ticket sales. More games means more games to sell to TV networks. Ask a group of businesspeople if they’d like some extra money at almost no cost, and well, they probably won’t say no.

But in a full baseball season, a 16-game playoff does something else entirely. One of the neat features of a 162-game season is that it does an excellent job of determining which teams are best. On a given day, anyone can beat anyone. In the broad sweep of time, however, five percent edges add up. That doesn’t mean the 10 best teams always make the playoffs, but it does mean that you can be fairly certain the top team in each league is better than the sixth-best team.

From there, the postseason is still a random event. The Astros and Dodgers had the two best records in baseball last year, and the Nationals outlasted both of them. The point of a cutoff, then, is to limit the postseason to good teams. Anyone can win once there, but the smallest playoff field (by number of teams) of the major North American sports, combined with the long season, mostly keeps the riff-raff out.

In a 16-team format, the Astros and Dodgers would still be top seeds. They’d be only three games away from elimination right from the start, however, just like the other 14 teams in the postseason. Everyone who’s watched midseason baseball knows that bad teams sometimes beat good teams in three-game series. That’s simply the cost of doing business in a random game.

To get an idea of what that would do to each team’s odds of winning the World Series, I did some approximating. I took the top eight teams in each league and mixed together winning percentages, mean reversion, and odds ratios to come up with some (very) rough World Series odds. Going into last year’s playoffs, that looked like this:

2019 World Series Odds, Current System
Team Win Pct WS Odds
Astros .660 16.9%
Yankees .636 13.8%
Twins .623 12.4%
A’s .599 5.1%
Rays .593 4.8%
Indians .574 0.0%
Red Sox .519 0.0%
Rangers .481 0.0%
Dodgers .654 17.9%
Braves .599 12.0%
Cardinals .562 8.7%
Nationals .574 4.7%
Brewers .549 3.6%
Mets .531 0.0%
Diamondbacks .525 0.0%
Cubs .519 0.0%

Then I did the same thing using the new playoff format: top eight teams, mean reversion, odds ratio — throw them all in a pot, and you get some World Series odds:

2019 World Series Odds, 16-Team Playoffs
Team Win Pct WS Odds
Astros .660 12.6%
Yankees .636 9.8%
Twins .623 8.2%
A’s .599 6.5%
Rays .593 6.1%
Indians .574 5.0%
Red Sox .519 2.9%
Rangers .481 1.9%
Dodgers .654 12.4%
Braves .599 7.9%
Cardinals .562 5.6%
Nationals .574 5.9%
Brewers .549 4.5%
Mets .531 4.0%
Diamondbacks .525 3.7%
Cubs .519 3.1%

The new structure is flatter by far. Take a look at the odds changes by team:

2019 World Series Odds Changes
Team Win Pct Old Odds New Odds Change
Astros .660 16.9% 12.6% -4.3%
Yankees .636 13.8% 9.8% -4.0%
Twins .623 12.4% 8.2% -4.1%
A’s .599 5.1% 6.5% 1.4%
Rays .593 4.8% 6.1% 1.3%
Indians .574 0.0% 5.0% 5.0%
Red Sox .519 0.0% 2.9% 2.9%
Rangers .481 0.0% 1.9% 1.9%
Dodgers .654 17.9% 12.4% -5.5%
Braves .599 12.0% 7.9% -4.1%
Cardinals .562 8.7% 5.6% -3.2%
Nationals .574 4.7% 5.9% 1.1%
Brewers .549 3.6% 4.5% 0.9%
Mets .531 0.0% 4.0% 4.0%
Diamondbacks .525 0.0% 3.7% 3.7%
Cubs .519 0.0% 3.1% 3.1%

Win your division? You’re hurt by the new format. Wild Card team? You have slightly better odds, because sometimes you’re lucky and the eight seed knocks off the one seed before you have to play them. Mediocre? Join the World Series party!

The main benefit of my loose approximation of World Series odds is that it generalizes well. I used the same method to run World Series odds under both scenarios for every team going back to 2012, the first year of the current playoff format. Here, for example, is 2018:

2018 World Series Odds Changes
Team Win Pct Old Odds New Odds Change
Red Sox .667 19.2% 12.8% -6.3%
Astros .636 16.2% 10.7% -5.5%
Indians .562 8.7% 5.9% -2.8%
Yankees .617 6.5% 7.8% 1.3%
Athletics .599 5.4% 6.5% 1.1%
Twins .481 0.0% 2.5% 2.5%
Rays .556 0.0% 4.8% 4.8%
Mariners .549 0.0% 3.9% 3.9%
Brewers .589 12.6% 8.0% -4.7%
Dodgers .564 10.7% 6.6% -4.1%
Braves .556 10.0% 5.9% -4.1%
Cubs .583 6.2% 7.1% 1.0%
Rockies .558 4.7% 5.5% 0.8%
Cardinals .543 0.0% 5.1% 5.1%
Diamondbacks .506 0.0% 3.6% 3.6%
Nationals .506 0.0% 3.4% 3.4%

There are some seeding vagaries to handle. In 2015 and 2017, for example, both Wild Card teams came from the same division in the National League. The same was true in the AL in 2016. After accounting for that, however, here are the aggregate World Series odds for each finishing spot:

Odds Changes Under 16-Team Playoffs
Seed Avg. Wins Avg. WS Odds Old Avg. WS Odds New Change
Div Winner 1 99.8 15.8% 10.5% -5.3%
Div Winner 2 96.3 13.4% 8.7% -4.7%
Div Winner 3 91.7 10.6% 6.7% -3.9%
WC1 92.5 5.5% 6.6% 1.1%
WC2 90.1 4.8% 5.7% 0.9%
WC3 85.1 0.0% 4.4% 4.4%
WC4 84.2 0.0% 4.1% 4.1%
WC5 81.7 0.0% 3.4% 3.4%

The “Division Winner” lines are self-explanatory. The Wild Card slots, on the other hand, require slightly more explanation. They refer to the top five teams, in record order, who didn’t win their divisions. In 2017, for example, the Rockies won 87 games and finished third in the NL West on their way to capturing the second Wild Card. They count as a “WC2” team here, even though in the new playoff format they’d be the seventh seed.

In a broad sense, the new format penalizes building a great team. The marginal gain from going from the 5-8 seed range — 82-85 wins — to the 3-5 range — 90-92 wins — is tiny. Those 7.5 wins are worth roughly 2% of a World Series trophy. Going from 90-92 wins to the top two seeds — 96-100 wins — adds roughly another 3% of that hunk of metal.

That’s a stark difference from the current format. The 82-85 win range is worth roughly 0% of a World Series championship right now. Move your team into the 90-92 win range, and you add a whopping 7% of a trophy. Go the extra mile and reach the 96-100 area, and that’s another 7.5%. Getting out of the muck is hugely valuable now. It will become less so in the new format.

There’s a countervailing effect that you can’t see here — going from 75 wins to 85 wins is now worth more. It’s worth asking, however, how much teams value a 5% chance of winning the whole shebang. Teams have a chance to do that most years with an aggressive offseason of spending or acquisitions, and they mostly don’t. The emphasis, instead, tends to be on either hunting for bargains or team control. That’s not to say that the occasional team doesn’t take a shot at it, but even then, they mostly attempt to do so in the context of a sustainable, low-cost team.

I’m veering into speculative territory here, but it seems likely to me that this would scuttle the free agency market in relatively short order. The value of mid-tier free agents has already collapsed. Star players have, thus far, avoided this fall, because they mostly don’t have clean substitutes. Teams have gotten increasingly good at developing cost-controlled 1-2 WAR players. Why sign an average free agent when you can make 95% of one out of bubble gum and a minimum contract?

You can’t do that with stars, and a team full of average players is by definition average. To push from the low 80s to the mid 90s, you need to either find a controllable star in the draft or international free agency, trade for one as a prospect, or pay up for one in free agency. Why do the likes of Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg, and Mookie Betts command nine-figure contracts? Because teams interested in living at the top of the table need to jam 5 WAR into a single roster spot to achieve win totals in that stratosphere, and they simply can’t create enough 5 WAR players without free agency.

If you’re going to aim for the mid 80s instead of the mid 90s, though, there’s no need to take your average team and add Mookie Betts. You could argue that the teams who will now hunt stars will be the teams in the 75-80 win range, but those teams, by definition, have more holes than the teams that are currently signing top free agents. If Mookie is worth five otherwise unavailable wins to the Dodgers (by upgrading a 2 WAR spot to a 7 WAR spot), he might be worth seven wins to a 75-win team. Unlike the Dodgers, however, that team would have other ways of getting those seven wins. They could make 1-WAR upgrades seven times, five 1.5-WAR upgrades, or some other combination. Again, they’re a 75-win team; it won’t be hard to find holes that could be upgraded through average players, and average players are far more plentiful than demigods.

Some teams might still be willing to live in the stratosphere. It’s inarguable, however, that this structure reduces the incentives to be great. So long as it’s easier to move from bad to mediocre than from mediocre to great, that will exert inexorable downward pressure on the price of labor in baseball.

Maybe this isn’t how you think about the game. To you, the reward for an AL Central crown might be the crown itself. The players and coaching staff probably agree with you — they’ll be out there trying to win just as much as ever. Teams, on the other hand, absolutely think this way. They optimize everything they can, and find solutions that save them a few bucks over and over again. They hire consulting firms to find new general managers who fit that ethos. You might find the lure of a divisional title to be unaffected by a new playoff format, but front offices won’t see it that way. They’ll cheer for the division title, the same as ever, but cold calculations rule team-building these days, and the numbers are clear.

Most of the other arguments against a 16-team playoff come down to taste and supposition. Would fan engagement really fall if division races stopped having meaning? Do people watch their team because of its talent level or because they want to have the sound of baseball on in the background? That’s not a question I have a solid answer for, and I’m not sure anyone does. I would find the regular season less dramatic in the new format, but I’m a baseball writer — I’d darn sure still be watching.

The owners seem to be betting that more baseball just means a bigger pie, that any downstream viewership effects from the new structure will be outstripped by the cost savings from no longer having to rely on free agency as heavily to construct teams who could feasibly win the World Series. That might be right, and it might be wrong — but even if baseball viewership remains static or declines, it might still be in their interests to pursue this plan.

I don’t claim to know what 16-team playoffs would do for the future of baseball in a broad sense. That’s a daunting projection to make, and I’m simply not up for it. I know baseball fans who check out unless their team is excellent and fans who just want to watch a baseball game every night regardless of the stakes. I’m quite confident, however, that it would disincentivize teams from trying to be Dodgers-esque juggernauts, and that that race to the middle would have a chilling effect on free agency salaries. Whatever the public talking points are, this is about money, plain and simple.

Any final decision on whether or not to expand the playoffs will happen in conjunction with the negotiation of a new CBA. It’s not impossible to imagine economic structures that could keep overall player outlay the same despite expanded playoffs — vastly increased minimum salaries, team control in the two to three year range instead of six to seven, and scuttling an arbitration system that saw teams literally exchange a championship belt for the club that did the best job suppressing fair wages. While it might seem like a sideshow, though, make no mistake: expanded playoffs are a pivot point for the way that teams will choose to spend money and build rosters going forward.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

The expanded Play-off format becoming a permanent fixture is a terrible idea. Of course Manfred would endorse it. Its one of many reasons why I never could work up any interest in either the NBA or the NHL. What is the point of the regular season if it only serves as a precursor to the Post-Season? You can almost defend it in the NBA as the nature of the sport and the format of the series generally ensures that the best teams make it to the Finals. Baseball has no such mechanism. The randomness of a permanent 16 team playoff series almost guarantees that before long we will have a World Series champion with a loosing record in the regular season.
Everyone will have their own personal biases. But I have long believed that the sweet spot for any play-off tournament should be about 1/3 of your league. That grants enough room for talented teams that have to overcome some early bad luck, but generally excludes mediocre squads. So for me, 10 teams from a 30 team league was pretty much perfect.

2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

If they are bound and determined to do this, because $$$$$$$$, then the only way to make it semi-acceptable would be that for the 6,7,8 seeds to eliminate the division winners, they have to beat them ALL THREE TIMES.

2 years ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

Why not a best of 2 series then? Feel like 3 seems excessive, and the MLB wants the variance. I do not think they would get behind all three times idea, because that would defeat the purpose of what they are trying to do.

2 years ago
Reply to  carter

You shouldn’t be able to be eliminated in two games if you win the division, and for a 6,7,8 seed to eliminate a division winner, it SHOULD be a steep uphill climb.

Bartolo Cologne
2 years ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

The problem with that format is that if the weaker team loses the first game (which would be the most likely outcome of that game), the series is already over. The whole point is the owners want to add games so that they can freely print that sweet sweet playoff cash.

2 years ago

With a 16 team playoff in a 30 team league, you’re virtually assured that the #8 seed is gonna be a below .500 team.

As Dan Syzmborski tweeted a couple days ago, your championship process involves a 80-82 team having better than 1/3 chance to knock out a 101-61 team, your championship isn’t even pretending to find the best team.

I understand there are competing interests between having a playoffs with suspense and surprise and in which multiple fanbases are invested, and one that reliably crowns the best teams in the sport as the champions, but the 16 team playoff so devalues being excellent and also removes a lot of the incentive for good teams to compete with each other.

See, for example, this exact week where the Dodgers/Padres series would have been an enormous deal in most seasons (1st and 3rd best records in MLB meeting at 2.5 games apart for a 3 game series that would swing who wins the division and who has to be a wild card), only here in 2020 you had the manager of one of those teams openly telling the press that they didn’t really care about the series outcome because there was no difference between divisional #1 and #2 this year and so they didn’t give a shit about the divisional title.

You’re losing all of that in return for opening the playoffs up to a bunch of mediocre .500 and worse baseball teams who have to compete with each other for the scraps at the back. It doesn’t produce ‘more’ divisional or playoff races; it moves them down the standings, making the best teams extremely secure in playoff spots that, as Ben describes here, are much less valuable than they have been, but also have much less suspense about who gets them.

You’re changing which teams are at risk or have incentives to compete, not adding more. The really good teams will have no regular season risk of missing out on the playoffs, an d also less payoff for anything they do aimed at the playoffs because their odds are necessarily lowered.

Like I am really trying to imagine how people can look at this week’s Dodgers/Padres series being completely irrelevant, to the extent that Dave Roberts, representing a team with the 2nd-longest division title streak in the history of the sport, is openly telling the press he didn’t care about the division title because there’s no advantage to winning it. The expanded playoff structure has a cost, and people who think it’s good should probably engage with that cost and explain why they’re fine with that instead of pretending that ’20+ teams have incentives to compete’. That’s not actually true: the teams that are already good have nothing to compete for, and no reason to try and improve further. Wins over about 86 are virtually meaningless.

2 years ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

I like this idea if these expanded playoffs are here to stay (hoping they are not). If Cleveland finishes with the 8 seed and throws Bieber out there to win Game 1, they should have to win two more and not the 1 seed having to win two in a row. I’d like to see the best of 3 series used only for two low end teams playing each other for the right to play an extended series with a high end team.

2 years ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

I’m of the mind that (a) 16 teams is just way too many and (b) if expanded playoffs are coming and we can’t stop it, please don’t go to 16 teams, and they should make the teams with the worse records play on the road the whole time or something.

2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

“What is the point of the regular season if it only serves as a precursor to the Post-Season? ”

For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, it’s the rotisserie/fantasy season. I lose nearly all interest when the playoffs start. Your question made me wonder if perhaps someday a league will ditch the whole notion of a regular season and just have playoffs and in-season tournaments.

2 years ago
Reply to  Bolton

It depends what you value. All meaningful career stats are based on the regular season. I could care less who wins the WS or about anyone’s postseason achievements. I watch baseball every season, but I may or may not watch the playoffs in a given year.

2 years ago
Reply to  Bolton

Wow, Bolton. What a sad comment. Makes me wonder if perhaps rotisserie/ fantasy enthusiasts should simply play Stratomatic and leave the real sport alone.

2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

Don’t lump the NHL with the NBA when it comes to playoffs. I keep seeing the point made about how bad the NBA’s first round is, which is true, but the NHL’s first round is always exciting and tournaments are a part of hockey culture.

As for the regular season, actually enjoying the sport itself helps a lot when finding a reason to watch the games.

2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

IMO we always overvalue the postseason. What if you change your perspective to one where it never really did matter for anything more than bragging rights and revenue? All counting stats are based on the regular season… we just need to devalue the postseason. Want to talk about equity? Is a player really a HOF player because he lives in the right area code and has better access to resources than someone who doesn’t? Is that not what playoffs really measure? Expand the field and the value of luck gets larger in addition to the inequities that playoffs are already based on. I have never valued the playoffs too much and that is a pretty good solution to this situation. When the top two teams face off, then you have something worth watching but the WS isn’t generally that. Was BOS the best team two years ago? Was WAS the best team last year? Certainly not considering the regular season and the following season. The playoffs are fun if you want to pay attention, but they don’t have to mean much… now they certainly don’t mean much.

2 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Agreed. The regular season determines the best team. Not the post season. It never did and it blows my mind that commenters on this site of all places have such an objection to it “cheapening the product.” The postseason basically never has the best team win. It is exceedingly rare. So why is it such a big deal if a 80 win team knocks off a 105 win but it is ok if a 90 win team does?

Maybe they could satisfy all fans and award the best record team a trophy as well. Why do baseball fans hate baseball so much?

2 years ago
Reply to  carter

Wow again. I’ve often wondered if a significant percentage of readers here were so caught up in the numbers that they’d lost sight of the point of competitive sports – TO WIN.

If all you care about are stats then just read the projections and devour Zips and stop watching the actual games. Maybe that’s what some of you do already. That’s pretty pathetic.

2 years ago
Reply to  sbf21

Not what I was saying at all..

2 years ago
Reply to  carter

I guess I’d just point out I agree with you but you’re also wrong: For most of baseball history, the best teams have won the world series because qualifying for the postseason was so limited. For most of it, only the 2 best teams faced off, and once we went to east/west division play, only the 4 best teams advanced. It is only since the introduction of 3 divisions + wild card – the last 25 years or so – that the world series winner has not consistently represented baseball’s cream of the crop.

The problem is that not only are we used to this because it’s how baseball history works but because it’s how our sports culture works. Other sports DO reliably crown their best teams as champions because better teams win games more frequently. #1 and #2 seeds in the NBA are like 23-1 in first round series over the last 6 years Upsets are virtually unheard of. The Dodgers are currently projected by FanGraphs to advance through the 3 game series to the LDS round 64% of the time. That is an enormous gap.

The culture of sports in the United States is that one team in each league is successful each year, that team wins the championship and is the best team, or at least one of the very best teams. 43-39 teams don’t win the NBA title. 8-8 teams don’t win super bowls.

If you assume that all the new teams added by the expanded playoffs are bad – like, 1/3 chance to win any series they play, say, such a team would have a 1/27 chance to make the world series. That’s not that high, you say. But there are 6 of them each season – so on average you’d see one of them do it every 4-5 years. Imagine if every 4-5 years the World Series had a 82-80 team in it. It makes a farce of the notion that the teams playing in the playoffs are among the best teams in baseball, or that you’re seeing baseball played at the highest level.

People legitimately and correctly believe that when they sit down and watch the NBA conference finals and NBA finals that they are seeing basketball performed at the highest level. They reliably see the best teams in the NFL show up in the super bowl. An expanded playoff structure will not give them that experience in baseball. There is simply too much influence from factors that aren’t the relative skill of the two teams.

I agree that we know that the regular season most reliably identifies the best baseball teams. But we don’t treat them like they’re successful. The Dodgers are probably the best ‘dynasty’ or long-term stretch by any franchise ever to not win a world series. And that is -an indictment- of their organization. They are treated like chokers who have failed to live up to their potential.

If this is our framework for consuming baseball – if people are going to hold the lack of a World Series ring against Clayton Kershaw come HOF voting and induction time, and people would probably do that – then we have to recognize that no one recognizes regular season success as the mark of a successful franchise. There is no one anywhere who would argue the Dodgers were a more successful team in the 2010s than the Giants – no one. They were almost certainly consistently a better team performing at a higher level than the Giants in that decade – that’s why they won dozens more games, 7 division titles, etc – but no one cares about that. The Giants won the only thing that matters to our evaluation of a team’s success. I would personally change that – because you’re right that placing so much emphasis on the playoffs is stupid. But this is where we are, and it won’t change, because its our sports culture beyond MLB. So we should not dilute the title further as a marker of excellence, because, for all its flaws, we’ve chosen for it to be the only one. If we dilute it, we simply won’t have one anymore, and we’ll have no reward, no payoff, for being an excellent baseball team. Teams will see no reason to do more than qualify for the crapshoot postseason, because whether you’re a 86 win or 96 win team won’t really change your odds much.

The Dodgers and Padres are the best two teams in MLB this year and they are lined up so they’re going to meet in the LDS round. The Dodgers are 64.5% to advance through the wild card. The Padres are 61.1%.

So there is a 39.4% chance we even see that matchup in the 2nd round – over half the time, one of the two teams (if not both) will have been knocked out by a .500 or worse team (the Cardinals? Marlins? Giants? Phillies?). Does this sound like good playoff baseball to you? Do you want to see two teams that couldn’t win half their games face off in a playoff series?

I don’t.

2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

While I somewhat agree with your larger point, I don’t know about these blanket statements. I can prove yours wrong. The Dodgers absolutely had a more successful decade than the Giants. They have been the best team in baseball for 6 consecutive seasons. Not winning an exhibition in October doesn’t change that. The results in October should barely impact one’s perception of who the best baseball team is.

Regular season success is the mark of a great baseball team and I doubt I am alone. The reward and payoff of having a great baseball team is having a great record at the end of the season.

2 years ago
Reply to  nah

I do not think there’s any evidence that the fans of baseball teams, in general, share your opinion.

2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

Im down for it if it means 6 less teams full on tanking every year.

2 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

Yeah it’s an awful idea and an obvious money grab.

In Manfred’s defense, at least part of his motivation for mentioning it is probably to see how the MLB commentariat will react. IMO they seem more than loud enough to discourage this idea — this is about the fifth journalist I’ve seen come with this take today. Hopefully the relevant people are listening.