As Major League Baseball kicked off its delayed Opening Day weekend, they announced a new playoff format for the 2020 season. For this unprecedented shortened baseball season, the owners and Players’ Association agreed upon a 16-team playoff, putting over half of the sports’ teams in postseason play. Each league will see three division winners, three second-place finishers, and the next two best records make the playoffs. Teams in the first round will play a best-of-three series taking place all in the higher seed’s stadium. All other series – League Division Series, League Championship Series, and the World Series – will remain the same.
Expanding the playoffs makes sense for all involved parties. The fans receive additional postseason games in a thrilling three-day stretch to supercharge the playoffs. The teams have extra opportunities to further their season, which should generate competitive division races. And most important to the owners, the league reaps the financial benefits.
In a statement on the growing playoff field, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said, “We are excited to announce the expansion of the 2020 postseason. This season will be a sprint to a new format that will allow more fans to experience playoff baseball. We look forward to a memorable postseason concluding a year like no other.”
The 16-team playoff format has garnered both praise and criticism. MLB Network analyst Ron Darling understands the sport has to find solutions for this strange season. “Let’s not think of it as a regular season. It’s not a marathon, it’s not a sprint, it’s survival, and you’re surviving 60 games to play postseason baseball,” he said on the network’s show MLB Now.
Bob Costas, another commentator on MLB Now, is less enthusiastic about the 16-team format. “This is the balance that baseball has to consider, more so than other sports. It’s good to expand the postseason, both for the revenue and for the fan interest in various markets… but how do you do it? Do you want to tip the balance so that not just the meaning, in terms of competitive fairness, but the drama of the regular season is reduced? How many times during the course of a season would a team that wins a hundred games lose two out of three at home to a team that finishes under .500? A very large number of times. This is not a significant enough advantage.”
If we look back on the 2019 playoffs (when times were simpler) and apply this new format, we see a vastly different field of teams. While the division winners and wild card teams would have qualified, three additional teams per league would have also made the cut, thus greatly switching up the first-round matchups.
The American League would have had many in-division matchups – (8) Rangers vs (1) Astros, (7) Red Sox vs (2) Yankees, and (6) Indians vs (3) Twins – with the same wild card game being (5) Rays vs (4) Athletics. Matchups in the National League would have been (8) Cubs vs (1) Dodgers, (7) Mets vs (2) Braves, (6) Diamondbacks vs (3) Cardinals, and (5) Brewers vs (4) Nationals.
The division winners would have been seen as superior and heavily-favored, but as Bob Costas mentioned, that means nothing in a best-of-three series. One of the clear negatives to this format is the threat of immediate elimination the elite teams face. For example, take the potential Rangers-Astros series. The Texas Rangers, who could have snuck in as the eighth seed, finished six games below .500. The Astros, winners of 107 games, could have lost their World Series aspirations to the 78-84 Rangers. It is a predicament Major League Baseball will have to address in the future.
The new 16-team format comes on the heels of an already changing playoff landscape for baseball. A second wild card seed was added in 2012, creating a winner-take-all Wild Card Game to open the playoffs. The Wild Card Game has largely received positive reception since the extra playoff seed adds excitement and motivation for additional teams as summer draws to a close.
Although this 16-team format is unique to 2020, added playoff seeds may become the norm in years to come. During negotiations for the shortened season, the league proposed expanding the playoffs to 14 teams. Theoretically, this proposal would include three division winners and four wild card teams per league. Included in this postseason structure, the top-seeded division winner would receive a first-round bye. After the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021, analysts expect the proposed 14-team format to implemented.