Will expanded postseason stay after two best teams reach World Series?


More than half the league sauntered into the 2020 MLB playoffs. A total of 16 teams -- boosted from the normal 10 -- started the second season. The under.-500 Houston Astros made it, then advanced to the American League Championship Series. The never-above .500 Brewers also made it and lost immediately. Neither team would be thought of in normal circumstances.

However, the end provides a seven-game series between the two teams with the best records in their leagues: Tampa Bay plays eternally favored Los Angeles beginning Tuesday night. A small-market team with a tight, tight budget faces a behemoth. The ratings will be bad. The baseball should be good.

The expanded postseason offered entrance to more teams. It did little else. The end-of-season races were not out of the ordinary beyond the scheduling boondoggle produced by playing in a pandemic. The best teams in each division were apparent. In 2019, the three National League division winners won by four, two and 21 games, respectively. This year, it was four, three and six (37-23 San Diego was the only reason the NL West wasn’t again a blowout).

The champion in the National League East, Atlanta, was on a 95-win pace a year after winning 97 games to take the division. The Dodgers were on a 116-win pace. The Central was again jumbled among St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee.

So, will this stick? Maybe.

Yes that “conclusion” is a hedge. Bringing in more teams while ending up with the two superior ones playing for the championship is an argument to keep the expansion. Miami may have squeaked in during a regular year, but stretching the field allowed it to comfortably enter. Which was good. The Marlins have several compelling young players. Increased exposure for them helps the sport and that dormant market. That’s the good.

However, the do-or-die jolt of a single Wild-Card Game in each league was wiped away. Replacing it was snoozy baseball to start the playoffs. Both league championship series rescued the otherwise plodding pace this postseason. Mookie Betts helped fix everything. The Astros being reviled and compelling brought engagement.

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At least one significant voice in the players’ union was very much against postseason expansion before the pandemic hit and an on-field look existed.
“For me, it’s really hard to sit there and say our playoffs are broken,” Max Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington in the spring. “When we look at how we won the World Series, we made it as a wild-card team and we won the World Series, we’ve also seen the best team in baseball go out there and win the World Series as well. To me, as we sit here today, the playoffs are functioning as they should because the second wild-card spot and the teams behind it are typically only a few games behind, so really adding those teams, those teams should already be in the hunt and finding a way to make the playoffs already.”

The underlying language here is a concern about teams not spending to compete. It was a prevalent topic which has been beaten to the wayside by the pandemic. A concern about the expanded postseason -- in a 162-game regular season -- is the reduction of emphasis on the regular season. If teams think they can grab a piece of the postseason pot by winning 78 games, why pay to win 94? Also, why push in certain ways during the regular season?

So, players are caught between: they could increase their chances of playing in the postseason (hello, Mike Trout who played three postseason games six years ago), but their salaries overall may take a hit as a result.

“When you start talking about increasing the teams that make the playoffs, I have a huge concern over the competition that resides in the regular season,” Scherzer said. “In this format that is proposed, really the team that finishes in second place is really in the same field as the team that finishes in seventh place. We’ve seen trades in the past where good teams have unloaded players for a number of reasons and maybe not necessarily put the best product on the field, and they don’t feel they would have to compete as strongly if there is a very, very strong team in the league.”

The 60-game sample and resulting postseason may be a counter to Scherzer’s worries. However, the sport is always concerned about sample size. Here, it has a single, fanless one and a multi-million decision ahead this winter. 

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