Minority Report: I’m Good With Expanded Playoffs This Year

Truthfully, it’s hard to overstate what a mess yesterday’s expanded playoffs announcement was. Changing the rules of engagement for an entire league mere hours before the season starts is as weird as it sounds. Announcements made in haste lead to confusion, which is how the baseball world spent a few hours trying to figure out whether top seeds would draft opponents, how the eight teams would be decided, and what the travel schedule would look like.

Even without the last-second shenanigans, however, it’s safe to say that the expanded playoffs aren’t universally popular. Heck, I wrote an article earlier this year decrying them. Today, I’d like to present a contrary opinion. Expanded playoffs are weird! They feel wrong. A team with a record below .500 is fairly likely to get in this year. But hear me out: I think they might work better this year than you think.

It doesn’t take some great leap of logic to understand why expanded playoffs feel weird. Baseball is a sport with a unique relationship to randomness. Every individual game feels like a coin flip. Jacob deGrom can have an off day, or Jacob Waguespack can look untouchable for seven innings.

At the same time, baseball feels like one of the least random sports. The season stretches across the better half of the year, and by the time 162 games have passed, those one-game coin flips don’t feel so random anymore. Gerrit Cole isn’t Gerrit Cole because on every day he pitches exactly to a 2.50 ERA, or anything like that. He’s Gerrit Cole because over the fullness of the season, on average, he’ll get to that 2.50 ERA, through a string of 0’s and 4’s and 1’s and 5’s. Something in our brain knows that — a game of baseball is wildly random, but a season of it is intensely skill-testing.

Another perk of the long season? Only the best few teams make the playoffs. With such a long season, we can be fairly confident about who the best teams are. It’s a good thing, too, because the playoffs are still a crapshoot. Good teams are favored, naturally, but it’s not by as much as you’d expect. A five-game series feels nearly as arbitrary as a single game — blink and you’ll miss it. Sometimes the 2011 Cardinals get hot, or the 2007 Rockies steamroll the NL.

You know that. I know that. The playoffs in baseball crown the best team champion less often than the playoffs in the other three major American professional sports. But we’re at peace with it, because the teams that qualify for the playoffs are better, on average, than those other sports. That’s the magic of that long season, the endless accumulation of small edges.

An expanded playoffs makes a mockery of that, I know. Sixteen teams is, well, it’s more than half of the teams. I’m no math whiz, but that doesn’t sound like it results in the best teams making the playoffs. The higher seed will get three home games in a three-game Wild Card Series, but that doesn’t mean much of anything. The Giants played three away series against the Dodgers last year. They won one of the three. Three games is just not a lot.

The baseball postseason is already distilled chaos, and shortening it while nearly doubling the number of teams who qualify is going to do nothing to change that. If you like your playoffs to crown a deserving champion, well, this isn’t that.

So far, I’m probably not doing a great job of explaining to you why I like this year’s expanded playoff field. Here’s the thing: all of that is true, but this year it doesn’t matter. You know that part about the long season grinding away randomness and lifting up the worthy? We’re about 102 games short of that. A 60-game season isn’t remotely long enough to determine the best team in each division.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS odds, cruelly released hours before the playoff format changed. The Yankees were less than 50% to win the AL East. The Dodgers — the freaking Dodgers — weren’t even playoff locks, checking in below 75%. We gave up on this season being a true test of team skill a long time ago. Sixty games is plenty enough baseball for me given the alternative, but it’s clearly different than a full season.

It’s not asterisk-level different or anything. It’s still a baseball season, and the World Series trophy is more than just a hunk of metal. But truthfully, we’re already through the looking glass. It wouldn’t be true pandemonium — we’re not talking World Series Champion Colorado Rockies or anything — but it would indisputably be different. The normal rules of engagement don’t apply.

At that point, the expanded playoff field is a different can of worms. Turning the regular baseball season into a glorified 162-game exhibition season, then letting half the league battle it out in a chaotic month? That cuts into the baseball we’re all used to. It would make winning your division far less valuable; heck, two third place teams would be making the playoffs, at which point they’re only two good starts away from knocking out a division winner.

Let’s take that all as a given. Expanded playoffs turn a regular baseball season into something less. Sure, they create more do-or-die playoff games, more of that Nats-down-to-their-last-out drama that baseball thrives on. But if any team can do it, it will stop being nearly so special. When every game is do-or-die, when we only get a three-game snapshot to decide whether the 106-win juggernaut or the 79-win striver is the better team, it might all start to feel a bit off.

But this year is already going to feel off. It’s July 24th, for goodness sake, and we’ve only just seen the first games of the year. Juan Soto might miss a quarter of the regular season. Clayton Kershaw felt something in his back and now is going to miss at least a sixth of his normal complement of starts. This isn’t a baseball regular season, not in the way we’re used to it.

Given that, why treat the playoffs as an exclusive playground for the best of the best? The 60-game season was, probabilistically, already going to let the rabble in. You can’t wave a magic wand and ignore the circumstances this season is taking place under. Why would you want to? Nothing good would come of ignoring it and pretending this is baseball like any other year. I say that largely about the testing protocols and empty stadiums and nowhere-to-play Blue Jays, but it extends to the playoffs, too.

For me, this season is already going to feel different. Why not lean into it? No one would dispute that a do-or-die playoff game is a sugar rush, a jolt of adrenaline that keeps you on the edge of your couch for three hours. It might not be good long-term, but we’re not getting as much baseball as we’d hoped for this year. Why not cram as much excitement as possible into what we have left?

The three-day first-round-a-palooza is going to be incredible. Will it do a good job of picking the superior team in each matchup? No, of course not! But it’s going to be, at the very least, 16 baseball games in two days, and every single one of the day-two games will be elimination games.

Given a few years, we’d get sick of it. It’s manufactured drama, taking the normal four divisional series and, like Emeril, yelling “Bam! Kick it up a notch!” The hedonic treadmill would dull the excitement before long. Then it would just be pointless; devaluing the regular season without any commensurate payoff.

So long as they keep it to just this already-bizarre season, however, I’m all for it. The baseball postseason has historically been full of drama and meaning. The meaning part is taking a hit this year, there’s no way around that. Why not max out on the drama while it’s free?

What’s the downside? A less exciting regular season? Perhaps, but this season is going to be so full of twists and turns anyway that it hardly feels like a problem. An undeserving champion? We’ve got that covered already — the short season is already going to make it feel that way. If the Dodgers, Astros, or Yankees win, we’ll shrug our shoulders. Sure, that could have happened anyway. If anyone else wins, we’ll shrug our shoulders. Eh, sure, they got hot at the right time, 60-game season, anything’s possible.

Those two things are both true regardless of the size of the playoff field. That won’t always be the case, and I sympathize with the opinion that expanded playoffs are bad because they raise the prospect of future expanded playoffs in regular years. But for one year only, and set up so close to the season that no teams can downshift and try a little less hard to compete knowing they’ll make the playoffs anyway? Bring it on! I’ll be there on the second day of the playoffs, going nuts with the rest of you.





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

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a different brad
2 years ago

The announcement was a huge failure, but I keep coming back to the simple fact that records will be incredibly closely bunched together this year. As is there will almost certainly be extra games played to determine seeding, if not the 7 and 8 seeds themselves. But much of this seems like codifying the chaos that would have resulted anyhow.

Jimmember
2 years ago

There won’t be any extra games played to determine seeding. It will be done mathematically.