October Madness?

Manfred has an idea to fix the post season, is immediately branded a traitor and shot into the sun.

I have a theory. If Rob Manfred suggested that MLB teams offer free admission to the ballpark and complimentary hot dogs and drinks to all fans in attendance, no fewer than 90% of the general public would rise up in unison to call him out for trying to ruin the great game of baseball. The man can’t win with fans or players, but he at least has the support of the owners who sign his paycheck. The truest (Truist?) test of that loyalty is coming with CBA negotiations with the MLBPA on the horizon, but for now there is a more pressing negotiation that has Manfred looking for innovative ideas: an expiring TV contract.

According to Joel Sherman in his article in the NY Post on Monday, contracts with ESPN and Turner are set to expire at the end of the 2021 season. In a effort to drum up competition for bids on those contracts, Manfred and his team are exploring changes to the current post season format. These changes were apparently discussed with members of the MLBPA, who would have to approve any eventual changes, and those plans were leaked to the media this week. From Sherman’s article, here are the highlights of the proposal:

  • Each league will expand their playoffs to include 7 teams – 3 division winners and 4 Wild Card teams
  • Teams with the best record in each league will receive a bye for the first round of playoffs
  • The remaining division winners and the top seeded Wild Card team will all play the other three Wild Card winners in a best of 3 series at their home park
  • The two division winners not receiving a bye in the first round would have the option to pick their opponent from the lower three Wild Card teams, with the division winner with the best record getting the first pick.

These are pretty radical changes for sure, but aside from the part where teams “pick their poison” on their Wild Card opponent, there is nothing here that hasn’t been discussed at length in bars and chat rooms across the country. The reaction to this idea coming from the league office, however, was not well received:

This all seems a very reasonable reaction to a proposal being crafted to encourage interest in a post season TV deal that is expiring in 2 years. Obviously the man who has the favor of the 30 team owners is actively trying to destroy the game that those businessmen have sunk billions of dollars into. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not as nefarious as Trevor Bauer would have us believe. Before we judge this idea, let’s look at how this would have played out in this most recent post season.

The Bracket

Dismissing the “choose your opponent” option as something that was floated out there with no real chance of being seriously considered, I seeded the bracket based on record. The best record in each league got the bye, and the bottom two Wild Card teams play each other to advance to play the #1 seed. Here is what the American League side looks like:

American League Manfred Bracket

The Indians and Red Sox become part of the post season equation, and that’s good for baseball. The Astros were 4-2 against Boston in the regular season, 4-3 against Cleveland, so it’s not like that’s a cake-walk of a series in Houston. Overall this is a pretty decent playoff slate coming out of the AL, and getting Boston and NY playing games in October is always good for the league’s viewership.

In the National League, here’s what the bracket would have looked like:

As a National League guy myself, I love this bracket. We get the eventual NLCS matchup from last year as a 3 game slug fest between St. Louis and Washington with Scherzer, Strasburg and Corbin lined up to knock off the hated Cards at home. As a side note, we also might have avoided an offseason of ranting about The Chop under this format, which automatically makes it worth discussion. A first round matchup of Braves/Brewers has a nostalgic feel to it, and the prospect of the Mets getting through Arizona and matching their vaunted rotation of deGrom, Syndergaard and Wheeler against the extremely potent offense of the Dodgers would definitely have been appealing to the TV networks.

So what’s all the fuss about?

The best I can tell, there are 4 main arguments against expanding the playoffs under the proposed format:

  • The selection option is stupid
  • Why reward teams for not winning their division?
  • Bad teams equal bad baseball
  • Manfred is an idiot

The first objection is probably the easiest to overcome. A selection show is a marketing device that is becoming common in the sports arena, and while exploring ways to make baseball attractive to their TV partners, someone tried to figure out a way to use that device to their advantage. I think we can all agree this is, in fact, stupid, and unlikely to be part of any final draft of a proposal to the MLBPA

Why reward teams for not winning their division? The goal here is to incentivize teams to remain competitive instead of selling all their sort term assets that aren’t nailed down at the trade deadline. A smart man once said, and I believe this was attributed to Bobby Cox, that as the season opens every team is faced with the knowledge that they are going to win 50 games and lose 50 games that season. Whether you reach the post season is determined by how you perform in the 62 games in between. Increasing the number of eligible teams and making the Wild Card round a 3 game series instead of a 1 game play-in game should provide more incentive to stay competitive further into the season. With more competitive teams, there will be more GM’s looking to improve their team’s chances of success in those 62 games. Also, more teams building their rosters for post season play means more action during the Winter Hot Stove season. Fewer assets being made available will drive the bidding up for those who are made available, leading to better contracts for the players. Everybody wins.

As for the objection that we will see bad teams in the playoffs, I would dispute that by saying even the worst teams in baseball were capable of winning a 3 game series. Putting in teams that just barely missed the playoffs, and matching two of those up against each other in the first round, might actually lead to some shocking results and some extremely entertaining baseball. Also, more teams finding themselves with a chance at the playoffs late in the season leads to more compelling games and series down the stretch, which might actually lead to better records for those Wild Card teams.

Now we come to the crux of the issue – Rob Manfred. Many see this guy through the eyes of the players they root for, and as a result they distrust everything that comes out of his mouth. His job is to be the foil of the MLBPA in negotiations, so naturally the players will view him as an adversary. Manfred is also tasked with growing the game, increasing the revenue for the owners, which in turn increases the money in the pockets of the players. He takes that very seriously, and he has proven to be open to a myriad of possibilities and innovations to the game. This expansion has the potential to do all of that, and it’s definitely something that deserves at the very least some serious consideration. Dismissing it out of hand as a plan to ruin the game of baseball is just not accurate.

I would expect that there will be ample discussion about this proposal as the timeline moves forward and TV contracts begin to be negotiated in earnest. Ultimately the MLBPA would have to approve the change, and in the current climate it’s doubtful any changes would be coming to the CBA before it is completely renegotiated at the end of the 2021 season. In effect, this proposal will most likely have to be presented to the TV partners as merely a possible change and nothing definite, but the league will obviously have to have a pretty good idea of how likely the MLBPA would agree to it before pitching it. For now it’s merely a way for us to talk about baseball at a time when pitchers and catchers are doing calisthenics and players are still in the best shape of their lives, so lighten up!

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