Baseball has a lot of traditionalists amongst its fanbase. It makes sense as baseball is America’s pastime and oldest major sport. So when Major League Baseball announced it would alter its postseason, which would feature an expanded playoff pool going from 10 teams to 12 teams, it was met with some opposition.
In years prior, it was effectively 8 teams who made the postseason as the Wild Card games were nothing more than a play-in game to decide the 4th spot in each league. Now the one game playoff type situation did lead to some incredible moments, as Nats fans well know. However, it is safe to say that some teams got the short end of the stick too due to only getting one game to make something happen.
Now, the MLB announced that three wild card teams in each league, in addition to the three division winners, would all make the postseason. The two winningest teams in each league would also get a bye past the Wild Card series and directly to the Division Series. The one game playoff was no more, and taking its place would be more teams in a three game series and subsequently more playoff baseball. So how has it fared thus far?
I don’t agree with many of baseball’s changes (except the universal DH, of course), but expanding the postseason to have more baseball games was a no brainer. Baseball already had the strictest postseason of any of the four major sports. For reference, the NFL has 14 teams make their playoffs while the NHL and NBA each have 16. With only 10 teams making the postseason (again, effectively 8 teams), Baseball not only had room to expand, but also the need.
Now I understand the argument that baseball shouldn’t just be letting teams in and rewarding mediocrity. However, I do have a counter-argument that starts with the NFL.
The NFL has been the most popular sport in terms of ratings for quite some time, so when they do something, the other sports should watch and listen. Prior to the 2021 season, the NFL decided to expand its own playoffs from 12 teams to 14 teams. Why? Probably revenue, but also more playoff games means more engagement and more ratings domination.
Now the 2 seed versus newly implemented 7 seed matchups ended up being slight snooze-fests, as both 2 seeds rolled their opponents, but as we’ve seen time and time again in the NFL – any team can win on any given Sunday. As we have heard before, it is not who you play that matters, but when you play them.
In the NHL and NBA, with 16 teams making the playoffs, each round is a best of 7 series. That means if every series goes seven games, there would be a total of 105 games in the entire playoffs. And while that may sound like a lot, most series are obviously over prior to 7 games. But more importantly, that is a ton of opportunity for engagement. The bigger the spectacle, the more fans you draw into games and into your sport. Prior to this season, the most games baseball could have in its postseason was 43, and again, most of the time it was over in many less games than that.
Shifting back to baseball, the immediate concern was if the 5 and 6 seeds could hold their own against the top teams in baseball. Well, we’ve seen the benefits of the expanded playoffs already and we’re not even halfway through the postseason. In the Wild Card series alone, we had three of the four underdogs win the series. The lone loser, the Tampa Bay Rays, contributed to arguably the most entertaining series of the Wild Card round that featured incredible pitching duels and a 15th inning walk off home run for a 1-0 Guardians win.
Of those victorious underdogs, the 6 seed Phillies, the last team to qualify for the postseason, swept the 3 seed Cardinals. These are the same Phillies that wouldn’t have even qualified for the postseason under last year’s format. And the 5 seed Mariners and Padres prevailed over the higher seeds, which might not have even happened if it was a one game playoff like last season.
Now in the Division Series, those same 6 seeded Phillies just knocked off the reigning World Series Champions and 2 seed Atlanta Braves. And just last night, the 5 seed Padres, who only won 89 games during the regular season, pulled off one of the greatest upsets in MLB history, coming back in game 4 versus the 111 win, top seeded Dodgers. The Dodgers had 22 more wins than the Padres, which was the largest wins differential in a playoff matchup since 1906. They also had the best run differential in baseball since 1939. But more relevant than that, the Dodgers were 14-5 against the Padres in the regular season. Ultimately, it did not matter, because it is not who you play that matters, but when you play them.
Another point awarded to expanded playoffs.
Elsewhere, the Guardians are at the very least going the distance to five games against the Yankees, if not taking care of business in four games. And the Mariners gave us some instant-classic games against the Astros, including an 18 inning marathon in their first home postseason game since 2001. This is still very good for the sport, as it is proving there is more of a competitive balance than most people realized. For too long there had been too many non-competitive teams just content with mediocrity. Now? Teams are more compelled to make a push because their odds of making the postseason are greater.
I am a die-hard Nationals fan, so it is not easy seeing the Bryce Harper led and division rival Phillies go on a run or seeing Juan Soto and Trea Turner square off in huge moments, especially after the season we just went through, but it is just nice to experience high quality, entertaining baseball. You don’t have to be fans of either of the teams playing to enjoy the game. That is an aspect that the NFL and, to an extent, the NBA do so well – their games are easy to watch regardless of who is playing. The MLB playoffs are accomplishing just that. Every postseason series, and almost every game, has been incredibly entertaining regardless of who is playing and what market they represent.
So for once, Rob Manfred and the MLB got it right. In just one year with the expanded playoffs, we have seen a 6 seed making it at least to the Championship Series, an all time upset of one of the winningest teams in history, multiple games over 15 innings, and the top seeded teams getting all they can handle and more from the underdogs. For a sport that is so dull sometimes for many reasons and doesn’t do itself many favors, it finally feels alive.