Modifying the 2020 Playoffs to Account for a Shortened Season

Yesterday, I discussed what 2019 might have looked like with a shortened season. At the same time, Dan Szymborski showed us how a shortened season impacts playoff odds. The main takeaway from both posts is an understanding that a shortened season creates more randomness and a greater possibility of teams having a chance to make the postseason. The corollary here is that is that it is much tougher in a shortened season to tell which teams are actually better that their competitors. Ben Clemens showed earlier in the offseason that expanded playoffs as reportedly proposed by the league would actually disincentivize competition. However, in a shortened season in which good teams might be left out of the postseason due to the random variation that usually takes care of itself over 162 games, there’s an argument to be made for getting creative and expanding the playoff field, if only for this season.

When addressing the playoff structure, it’s important to keep certain objectives in mind. Winning the division should be of some importance so that two good teams battling it out still have a reason to play hard toward the end of the season even if both are comfortably in playoff contention. Making the playoffs needs to give teams a chance at eventually winning the title, or at least an easy shot at home games that fans (and owners) enjoy. Both problems were issues in MLB’s expanded playoff proposal as most division winners saw their playoff odds go way down and the additional teams making the playoffs weren’t very likely to have a single home game if they even made the playoffs.

The current playoff format is fine enough, but to ensure that good teams aren’t being excluded from playing for a championship, I am proposing that for this season, the field of teams in the playoffs expands. I have two potential proposals, but both have the same key feature: a round-robin tournament at the end of the season.

Proposal One

  • The divisions do not change.
  • Three division winners advance to the LDS.
  • Five teams play a round-robin tournament.
  • Top two teams from that face off in a Wild Card game, with any ties broken by regular season record.

Having eight of 15 teams in each league make the playoffs is not what I would want to see in most seasons, but if baseball is only playing 100 or so regular season games, getting more teams into the playoffs seems a little more fair. Instead of having a few three-game series, having all five teams play each other seems like a better way to generate excitement across the sport. This would also guarantee two home games to every team that made the playoffs. Having the tiebreaker be regular season record would provide some incentive for teams to not shut things down early if they were clearly in a playoff position with a few weeks to go.

The schedule would look something like this:

Round-Robin Playoff Wild Card
Away 1 Home 1 Away 2 Home 2 Off
Wednesday A B D C E
Thursday A D E B C
Friday B D C E A
Saturday E A B C D
Sunday C A D E B

An extra off-day could be built in to stagger travel and give more games exclusive time slots given that both leagues would be playing with this setup, but the schedule above provides an example of how this might work. At the end of the week, all five teams would have played each other one time. The team with the best record would host the Wild Card game. Given the small number of games, a tie is likely for second place, with regular season record breaking that tie. This format would generate considerable excitement with one-third of the sport’s teams playing in massively important games to stay alive followed by the traditional winner-take-all Wild Card game heading into baseball’s more traditional format. There are other ways to accomplish the same thing.

Proposal Two

  • Unchanged divisions or two divisions per league.
  • Division winners (or top two division winners if there are three divisions) advance to the LDS.
  • Six teams play a round-robin tournament.
  • Top tourney team makes the LDS.
  • Second and third teams face off in a Wild Card game with any ties broken by regular season record.

The same number of teams make the playoffs in proposal one, but in this case, there is extra incentive to win a division with a better record than other division winners, and the round-robin teams have more to play for given two spots to the LDS are at stake. Each team would still be guaranteed two home games, though the teams with the three best records in the round-robin tourney would get three home games instead of two. The schedule would look something like this:

Round-Robin Playoff Wild Card
Away 1 Home 1 Away 2 Home 2 Away 3 Home 3 Off
Wednesday D A E B F C
Thursday B A C D F E
Friday E D A C B, F
Saturday C B D F A, E
Sunday A E B F C, D
Monday D B F A E C

Again, the dates aren’t set in stone and off-days could be modified, but we have a week-long set of games with playoff energy where every matchup matters.

The regular season matters a great deal for MLB because it serves to eliminate pretenders and separate the good teams from the mediocre over a long season. A shorter season affects that opportunity, so modifications should be made. Simply adding more short series isn’t overly compelling and actually serves to increase randomness. Giving every potential contender four or five more games to prove themselves might not be as good as a full 162-game season, but it is better than most available alternatives.

Because I’m curious, here’s a poll.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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2 years ago

Not a fan of changing up the makeup of the divisions/leagues, but I am intrigued by the idea of an expanded playoff format given the current landscape.