Major League Baseball has decided to expand the playoffs to fully half the teams in the sport for 2020. And the more I think about it the more I wish they’d just go ahead and make that permanent. I understand the arguments against it: it cheapens the regular season, it goes against the tradition so many baseball fans adore, the best teams are less likely to win, the trade deadline is less exciting, etc.
But there could be some real benefits, too. Let’s go over those:
It makes the regular season more interesting
Wait! Hear me out! I get it, if a team in second place in the division is guaranteed a playoff spot then they might not try as hard to unseat the leader. And I guess that’s a concern. But it pales in comparison to the incentive for the third-place team to keep pushing. And, even better, there’s an incentive for fans to watch their third-place team keep pushing. And heck, with the current structure, even fourth-place teams still aren’t out of it.
One hundred sixty-two games are a lot of games to watch. And when it seems your team is likely out of it - as many are, even early in the year, with the normal playoff system - it can be hard for many fans to find the motivation to keep watching night after night. But if a team is within striking distance of a playoff spot it becomes much easier to justify the time spent. And it’s just plain more exciting to know your team still has a chance even if you were going to watch every game anyway.
No good team will get left out
As noted earlier, a common argument against the expanded playoffs is that it’s harder for the best team to win. But, well, that seems like a problem the best team should be able to handle. In the meantime, a smaller playoff field means deserving teams can get left out. I may never forget the 2013 season which saw the 91-72 Rangers excluded because they lost a one-game playoff to the 92-71 Rays. The AL East was stacked that year; the Orioles finished in fourth place with an 85-77 record which would have been good enough for the playoffs in other years.
Yes, there is an increased chance that a team with fewer wins than losses makes the post-season under this format. But... who cares? Such teams will still get knocked out early more often than not. And when they don’t, it’ll be incredibly exciting to see how far the losers can go. If baseball is America’s Pastime then what could be more American than rooting for the underdog no one is even sure deserves to be in the running? Are there any Royals fans out there complaining that their 2014 AL Championship flag shouldn’t fly because the Royals got into the playoffs via a system that wasn’t in place 30 years ago?
The playoffs will be more exciting
This is a culmination of all of the complaints and benefits previously outlined. Did you love Eric Hosmer’s mad dash in Game 5 of the 2015 World Series? Get ready for a lot more insanity exactly like that. More teams equals more games equals more elimination games equals more opportunities for heroics. And what could be better than that?
A longer life for baseball
All of those pros listed above also come with a side-benefit that might be more important than any of them: more fans - and more money - for the sport of baseball. It’s no secret that the age of the average baseball audience member has steadily risen in recent years. If baseball wants to get younger it needs to attract more fans overall. All of the things listed above incentivize exactly that.
I hear you when you say you don’t want baseball to change or that you wish baseball would even go back in time a bit, but that’s simply not plausible. I think baseball needs to look to football, in this instance. American football is a very different sport than it was 50 years ago and it’s exploded in popularity, at least in part, because of it. If baseball wants to remain relevant it will also need to change with the times.