Let’s Rethink the Playoffs

The 2020 playoffs were contested by the largest playoff field in MLB history. While the expanded tournament certainly felt like an oddity, in the context of a shortened season, the format was tolerable for both fans and executives. The sabermetrically inclined readily conceded that a 60-game sample was insufficient to separate contenders from pretenders, all seamheads got to enjoy a few more games in a year with too few of them, and owners made more money. In a difficult situation, an imperfect solution proved a surprisingly elegant way to give everyone something they wanted.

The question is whether that format is here to stay.

One the one hand, you can understand why the league and its owners will be tempted to chase profits and advocate for the expanded field going forward. Per Sportico, the extra games this fall netted MLB an additional $100 million – $4.5 million per contest. Collectively, owners made less money than usual in 2020 and this is not a group that suffers rainy years with any equanimity. The prospect of another fanless season has the billionaire class antsy.

But while an expanded field worked in a pandemic-riddled season, my sense is that most — though obviously not all — fans don’t really want it to stay. A September column in the Washington Post titled “If baseball keeps these grotesque expanded playoffs, it will have lost its soul” is probably overstating things but there’s a sizable number of baseball fans who are very turned off by the idea. If nothing else, the lousy ratings from the early-round games suggests that Americans are hardly banging on the table for a 16-team dance.

The reasons why are as long as they are obvious. First, an expanded field is anathema to the traditionalists. This group may not be particularly well represented in the FanGraphs readership, but it’s clear that any jolt to the sport’s format will annoy a key part of the sport’s viewership. And while inertia alone should rarely be an impediment to innovation, traditionalists have a point in this case: Jumping from 10 to 16 teams is a dramatic expansion, and the prospect of a sub-.500 team bouncing a 100-game winner in a short series is decidedly unappetizing.

Worse, as an expanded field further reduces the significance of any one regular season game, teams will have even more incentive to prioritize profits over competitiveness. Ben Clemens examined this subject in depth over the summer, persuasively arguing that clubs will eschew go-for-broke strategies in favor of ones that offer a higher probability of .500 ball in perpetuity. We’ve already seen some of this since the league shifted from eight playoff teams to 10; it’s hard to imagine the incentives reversing with an even larger bracket.

And so, MLB again finds itself trying to balance innovation and tradition. There is no easy way out here, no approach that will fully appease both the executives clawing for every last dollar and the traditional fans opposed to even minor tinkering (or those who simply smell a cash grab).

But if all parties are okay giving a little, there’s a way to let innovation capture the spirit of tradition. As we so often must do these days, we turn to South Korea for inspiration.

In the KBO, half of the league’s 10 teams make the postseason each year, albeit with a catch: Instead of the traditional postseason bracket that American audiences are familiar with, the KBO uses a step-ladder format, where the two lowest seeds meet first, the winner faces the next lowest seed, and the bracket continues in that manner until a champion is crowned. To see how it works in practice, let’s use this season’s KBO playoffs as an example.

To start things off, fourth seed LG was given a 1-0 series lead against fifth seed Kiwoom in a best of three, with the idea being to reward the fourth seed for their superior regular season performance. LG prevailed and were thus matched against third seed Doosan in another best-of-three (this and all following matchups started 0-0). While that seems like a very short series, the quick turnaround meant that LG could not use its rotation stars, giving Doosan a significant advantage. Doosan won, and then was matched against KT in a best-of-five. My Wiz sadly bowed out at that point, and so Doosan advanced to the KBO series to play NC in a traditional best of seven; the Dinos wound up winning in six games.

The key to making it all work is that the teams with byes have more of an advantage in this format than higher seeds do in MLB’s current setup. Teams use the time off to rest up for a few days while their opponent weakens itself by using their top pitchers. In the KBO, the upshot is that the higher seed wins significantly more often, though not so much as to deprive a round of its drama.

It’s very unlike any postseason American audiences are used to. But if you think about it, the appeal extends far beyond the novelty of merely doing something different. The immediately obvious advantage is that you can expand the playoff field significantly while still rewarding the regular season’s top teams.

Regardless of how many teams you include, the lowest seeds face an absolute gauntlet to the World Series. Having an 83-win playoff team in the field may not sound particularly appealing at first, but they’ll almost certainly bow out early. And if such a team manages to successively rattle off several consecutive series wins against progressively tougher (and well-rested) competition, they’ll have proved their mettle in a far more substantial way than, say, the 2006 Cardinals did. Moreover, this handicap would make lower seeds a far more compelling Cinderella story than a Wild Card team can be in the current setup.

The format makes for great television in a number of other ways. Such a bracket all but demands that you rely on shorter series for the first few rounds, which allows for more of the win-or-go-home games that make the playoffs special. Additionally, by only playing one or two series at a time, you ensure that each matchup takes center stage.

Best of all, this format makes the regular season so much more meaningful than it already is. The importance of winning the top seed rises dramatically: In the KBO, the regular season winner takes the KBO Series approximately 75% of the time. The format incentivizes good teams to aim for greatness, and reduces the utility of aiming for .500 and hoping for a few hot weeks in October. In today’s game, it’s not uncommon for division winners to treat September like syllabus week. In the KBO’s format, you’d have a proper pennant race.

You’d also have a much better chance for crazy end-of-year shenanigans like we last saw in 2011. On the final day of that season, four teams played in separate must-win games that all concluded around the same time: Three were great games and the entire night was a spectacle unlike anything we’ve seen since.

With the KBO’s style, you have a much better chance of something approximating that kind of event. In this format, every single seed matters, so even teams that have clinched a spot will have something meaningful to play for in the season’s final days. And if you get a year like the KBO saw in 2020 — where four teams entered the final day within a half-game of each other — the stakes and intrigue throughout September will be very high indeed.

I understand that plenty of people won’t like this. For some it will feel too far afield from how MLB has structured the playoffs previously, and I can practically hear the Pittsburgh media howling about the disadvantage small teams will have in such a setup; they may have a point.

I still think it’s worth exploring. A step-ladder arrangement offers the chance to give playoff baseball to more fan bases while still rewarding the teams that played best over the long summer. You’d not only get more games, but more games with big stakes — both in the regular season and the postseason. You’ll never make everyone happy, but this seems like the rare proposal that could be worth its weight in television money without making a gimmick out of the entire enterprise. If nothing else, the novelty itself should be a draw for a national audience at a time where MLB desperately needs positive publicity.

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1 year ago

The advantage in winning more during the regular season is home field advantage, maybe one bye. That is fine. There is an advantage and yet it is not drastic. This makes the playoffs mostly even and provides more opportunity for lower teams to provide for upsets. I prefer seeing the top seeds get knocked off and seeing teams that weren’t expected to win it all do so.

Philip Christymember
1 year ago
Reply to  bluerum29

Go watch NHL playoffs