On Thursday afternoon, mere hours before the first pitch of the pandemic-delayed 2020 baseball season, it was announced that MLB and the MLBPA had agreed on expanding the playoff field from 10 teams to 16.
To be clear, I generally support playoff expansion at some point in the future. In order for it to really make sense, the league will need to expand to 32 teams, giving each league four divisions. That means that four division winners and four wild-cards would make the playoffs from each league. The wild-card teams can face-off in something resembling a true first-round (probably still just three games, but there are options to consider) before advancing to the divisional round, and so on and so forth.
But that’s a conversation for next offseason, which sounds exhausting at this point. Let’s set that aside and consider why the expansion of the playoff field hurts the 2020 edition of your Minnesota Twins.
Increased variance is bad for the favorites
Strictly by looking at the percentages, expanding the playoff field does indeed help them make the postseason, as it does for everyone. Prior to the new format announcement, FanGraphs gave the Twins a 65.2 percent chance of making the playoffs, fourth-best in all of baseball. After the new format announcement? The odds rose to a shocking 87.2 percent, which still ranks fourth. FiveThirtyEight’s projections are roughly the same.
Here’s the issue: in a season already wrought with an insane amount of variance by shrinking the regular season to 37 percent of its normal length, increasing the playoff field to include more than half the teams league-wide ushers in a whole new layer of crazy, off-the-wall possibilities.
There will be at least one or two, and quite possibly three, teams with sub-.500 records that make the postseason. That happens occasionally in the other three major U.S. sports, but it doesn’t happen in baseball. And no, this isn’t shifting into a “purity of baseball” take, because all of that is out the window in 2020. (Frankly, everything is out the window in 2020, and not just baseball-wise, but I digress.)
Remember, under the new format, the No. 8 team in each league will get to play three games against the best team in the league. All three of those games will be played in the top seed’s home park, but ... there are unlikely to be fans. Outside of batting last and the comforts of home, what’s the real advantage? And it isn’t like the No. 8 seed needs to sweep the series, they just need to win two out of three! How often does that happen over the course of a regular season? Team’s with losing records can beat good teams two times in three tries. It happens all the time.
The door is propped open for average clubs
Twelve months ago, you would find me arguing for this change on behalf of the Twins.
As a where-did-they-come-from upstart squad fighting to wrest the division away from the mighty Cleveland Indians, it would be nice to know that a so-so campaign from the Twins would get them into the playoff dance.
In 2020, however, as one of the clear four or five best teams in all of baseball, more variance is a bad thing. The Twins were already likely to make the playoffs in the typical format. Now, they’re a near-lock to make it. That’s nice, but...
As a division-winner in the new format, the Twins must win another two games and avoid another round of elimination. The league has effectively added a layer of landmines that threatens the league’s best teams. Just ask the Dodgers how hard it already was to win a championship despite being one of the best teams in baseball year-in and year-out.
With the news of the shift in postseason alignment, the FanGraphs odds for the Twins to win the World Series dropped from 7.0 percent to 6.6 percent. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t drop further.
Yes, an expanded postseason will make for great television, and likely some great stories. I support the attempt by the league to inject more interest (read: revenue) into the game. Indeed, the Rays, White Sox, Angels, Mets, and others are likely further motivated by this news, and their fan-bases should be reinvigorated. That’s also a good thing.
But for the Twins, Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros? It’s fair to say that not a single team in that group has a season-end goal of “make the postseason”. The goal for those clubs is clear: a World Series trophy.
And anything that makes those odds shrink is a bad thing.