BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
Hours before the first pitch of the 2020 MLB season was to be thrown, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners announced an agreement that will expand the postseason from ten teams to 16 teams for the 2020 campaign.
Each league will still feature three division champions, who will be the top three seeds among the eight teams that will qualify for the playoffs. The other five clubs to advance to the postseason will be the second place finishers in each division, followed by the two next best records among the remaining teams.
The first round of the tournament will feature the top four seeds in each league hosting each game of a best-of-three Wild Card series, minimizing the travel inherent in the extra round of play. The No. 1 seed will play No.8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No.6, and No. 4 vs. No. 5. The top three seeds in each league will go to each of the division winners based on their record in the 60-game sprint.
The winners of the four three-game series in each league will then face off against each other in a pair of best-of-five Division Series. The League Championship Series and the World Series will both continue to be seven game series in the traditional 2-3-2 home/road format.
The expanded playoff agreement is clearly a pure cash grab by the owners (and the players) who are trying to make up for revenue they will lose from not having fans in the stands due to the pandemic. Estimates place the additional revenue generated by the new playoff structure in the range of $200-300 million, of which the players are guaranteed $50 million. Playoff broadcasts are where the networks can charge the most for their advertising, and that money translates directly into the pockets of the owners, who aren’t paying additional player salaries for the extra playoff contests.
In a season of 60 games, it will be more difficult for the talent on the best teams to separate itself from the rest of the pack. Most of the divisions are projected as being very competitive, where 3-4 games separate the top slot from fourth place. It would not be at all surprising to see the pre-season favorites overtaken by a mediocre team that played scorching (or fortunate) baseball for a span of three weeks. Given that the shortened season was already going to produce more random outcomes than a full 162 slate, having an expanded playoff system will only further ratchet up the potential for truly unexpected results.
It’s almost a certainty that teams that end up losing more games than they win will qualify for the 2020 postseason. In a three game series, it would not be at all unusual for that team to defeat a division champion who finished with a far better record. The Orioles (who finished 2019 at 54-108) took two of three from the Yankees (103-59) in the very first series of the year in 2019. In a short series, anything can happen.
Despite the obvious financial implications of the brazen change to the playoff composition this year, the fans may actually reap the benefits as well. If the season can be accepted as anomalous due to the shortened schedule, and the likely increase in the randomness of possible outcomes recognized, then the fact that more than half the teams in the league will end up playing at least a couple of postseason games should provide hope for fans in cities that might not have expected to have any this past spring.
With 35 games in the books when the trade deadline hits on August 31, it could be argued that 75% of the league should be scrambling to bolster their rosters for a playoff sprint, given that a similar percentage will be a game or two from a postseason position in the new structure. Trade rumors energize fan bases and drive interest in teams (and players), and should allow teams that would have been playing for next year by September in a normal season to experience the buzz of a pennant chase over the final 25 games of the season. Only a small segment of teams will truly be out of contention by that point, and the sheer volume of teams playing meaningful baseball in the final month will inject those contests with far more drama than the typical fall slate offers.
The 2020 season, being played without fans, in the shadow of a global pandemic, and with a vastly expanded playoff structure for the first time in the history of the sport, requires a motto:
Embrace the randomness !
Here are the updated (the previews are less than 24 hours old, and already they are outdated) predictions for the postseason madness:
AL East: Yankees, Rays
AL Central: Twins, Indians
AL West: Astros, A’s
Final two playoff entrants: Red Sox, Angels
AL Pennant: Twins
NL East: Mets, Braves
NL Central: Reds, Cubs
NL West: Dodgers, Padres
Final two playoff entrants: Nationals, Diamondbacks
2NL Pennant: Padres
World Series Champion: San Diego Padres