In what was most certainly not an attempt to distract the baseball world from the continuously-devolving mess that is the league’s sign-stealing scandal, news leaked earlier this week that MLB is considering radical changes to its postseason structure. So enthused is the league by the apparent success of the Wild Card games that it wants unveil a full slate of Wild Card series.
Under the hypothetical new structure, which could theoretically be in place by 2022, seven teams in each league would qualify for the postseason. The top seed in each league would secure a bye past the Wild Card round, while the remaining six teams would play best-of-three series to advance to what would essentially be a typical Divisional Series round. Basically, instead of having just one do-or-die play-in game before the start of the more traditional best-of-five/best-of-seven series, MLB could implement a smorgasbord of chaotic, action-packed, Wild Card fun.
The proposal includes other interesting elements, most notably that the top two teams that had to play in the Wild Card round would get to choose their opponents. The biggest changes, though, are the simple ideas of adding more teams to the postseason and adding more short series. Those changes would take the league even further down the path of playoff and regular season dilution, and could ultimately hurt teams like the Yankees in terms of championship odds.
The arc of the MLB playoff universe has long bent toward expansion. For decades, the World Series was the only postseason round, pitting the top teams from each league against each other in one epic matchup. Starting in 1969, MLB started to get more ambitious, with good reason. The AL and NL expanded to 12 teams each that year, and to give more teams a reasonable shot at a title, MLB instituted a two-division system in each league, and created the League Championship Series.
This held until the mid-90s, and as the league continued to expand, the playoffs continued to as well. In 1994, each league split into three divisions, and the playoffs included each division winner and a Wild Card. In 2012, we had the first version of the playoff bracket we know today, with three division winners in each league, and a sudden-death Wild Card game that feeds into the divisional round.
For the past 50 years, the league has sped in only one direction. The pace of the expansion has quickened too, with six extra playoff teams added within an 18-year span between 1994 and 2012. These newly proposed changes would take the league further into a realm it has already shown interest in wading into.
14 teams out of 30 making the playoffs would turn MLB’s playoffs into something like the NBA or NHL playoffs. 16 out of 30 (or 31, in the NHL) teams make the playoffs in those leagues, which can undermine the importance of the regular season and turn the postseason into a bit of an overlong slog. As currently constituted, MLB’s playoffs already possess a bit more variance for my personal taste. Even I will admit, though, that MLB’s system brings a level of balance most other leagues don’t. It maintains a relatively difficult standard to qualify, incites plenty of chaos within the bracket, and contains the proceedings to one fairly tight month.
The new system would allow nearly half the league to qualify, would introduce a heaping of extra randomness, and would potentially drag the tournament deep into November. Moreover, the system could penalize teams like the Yankees, perennial contenders whose chances of winning it all will take a hit in a more random tournament.
When news of the Mookie Betts trade broke, I argued that Boston’s decision to lay down their sword made one thing clear: the Yankees are lords of the AL East, and likely to dominate the division and the AL for much of the next decade. Only the Astros seem like threats to combine analytical savvy, cutting-edge scouting and player development, and pure financial muscle in the way the Yankees are right now.
If the Yankees conquered the AL for the next several years within the current playoff system, their odds of winning a championship or two would look strong. Should they win the division more often than not, they’d have to navigate just one five-game series and one seven-game series in order to secure a pennant.
Under the new format, in years in which they failed to maintain the league’s very best record, they’d be shunted into the chaotic Wild Card round. They might be clear favorites in a three-game series in which they hosted every game, but the round would add one more legitimate obstacle to clear on the road to the World Series.
Unless the Yankees could guarantee they would bring home the best record in the AL every single year, and thus always coast into the ALDS, this new tournament would take a chunk out of the team’s title odds. While my opposition to the league’s proposed changes mostly stems from how they would diminish both the playoffs and the regular season, as a Yankee fan, I am also loath to see these changes come to fruition.
With the noted exception of the choose-your-opponent dynamic, however, which would bring a spicy bit of drama to the postseason. Otherwise, MLB would be best to leave well-enough alone. The Yankees would thank them if they did.