Joel Sherman dropped a mini-bombshell on Monday night when he reported that MLB is considering a drastic change to its playoff format, likely after the 2021 season.
The consideration is increasing the playoff field from 10 teams to 14 teams (yuck), and also allowing the top team in each league to pick its playoff opponent (love it).
I've been advocating for a while for baseball to let the 1-seed in each league pick its first playoff opponent. It would add importance to the regular season. If you are the best team in your league for six straight months, if you win 105 games, you deserve an actual advantage in the Divisional Series. Having one extra home game is an advantage but it's a small one, and there is so much more room for randomness in the five-game Divisional Round compared to the NLCS and ALCS.
At the time the playoffs began last season, the Nationals were clearly the second best team in the NL. They were playing better baseball than the Braves and Cardinals, but because they were the wild card, they were the draw for the 106-56 Dodgers. If the Dodgers had the ability to pick their opponent, they absolutely would not have picked a team loaded with stars like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto. They would have picked the Cardinals. This isn't a plea on behalf of the Dodgers, it's a plea on behalf of teams that dominate their league for 86 percent of the baseball calendar.
Plus, think about the extra drama and bulletin board material! Every team that gets "picked" would feel disrespected and it would create a little extra intensity. The selection process itself would provide real entertainment value. Here's how Sherman describes it:
The plan is to have this all play out on a show on the Sunday night the regular season ends and have representatives picking teams on live TV — think the NCAA selection show, but just with the teams making the selections. The rights to that show is part of the enticement to potential TV partners.
Sign me up.
Say no to 14 teams
Now, let's get to the expanded field. Hate it. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Letting 14 of 30 teams make the playoffs is too many, and it would likely lead to occurences of an undeserving 83-win team getting hot for a couple days and ending the season of a 98-win team that actually should be in the playoffs.
In the NBA, 16 of 30 teams make it and it's too many. Particularly in the Eastern Conference, there are teams every season making the playoffs winning between 38 and 42 games. Those teams rarely if ever advance beyond the first round because the first round is a Best of 7 in the NBA, and because in that league, the true talent level of a team plays out more often than in baseball, where a good arm can shut you down on any given day.
It's easy to see why MLB wants this. It wants its next set of TV deals to be at least equal to its current set, and if the league offers more programming, more specials, more playoff games, that means more money. Baseball isn't in the greatest shape from a ratings or young fan interest standpoint. So MLB is probably trying to think of ways to avoid a pay cut on its next TV deal.
Along these lines, you know what is long overdue? A skills competition during the All-Star break. It's become so formulaic with the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game. How about a baserunning competition? Or a "Best Outfield Arm" competition. It would bring more guys to the Midsummer Classic and showcase more of baseball's excitement. Why is the only skill being marketed at the All-Star break the ability to hit a home run?
How could this affect the Phillies?
Obviously, if more teams make the playoffs, it's a benefit to all teams, specifically teams like the Phillies who are expected to fall in the 85 to 89 win range. It would create an easier path to the playoffs and make roster-building less about competing with the best team in the league like the Dodgers and more about building out a roster you think has a good chance to win 87 games.
Some look at this with the glass half-empty and argue that it would give teams less incentive to spend because they could still make the playoffs without putting the best team on the field. Perhaps I'm naive, but I see it the opposite way. I think more playoff spots would emoblden teams like the 2020 Padres, Diamondbacks, Phillies, Mets, Reds, Rockies, Blue Jays, White Sox and Angels to buy at the trade deadline when they otherwise might not.
This playoff change is not guaranteed to happen. Sherman's language was that MLB is "seriously weighing" the move. Perhaps these ideas were floated out to test fan reaction. The internet reaction has been mostly negative thus far.