Too Much Baseball? Expanded Playoffs Get Underway
September 28, 2020

Major League Baseball's pandemic-reduced, brief, and even improbable 60-game regular season came to an end Sunday, but just seconds before the final outs were being recorded, the 16 teams that would advance to the playoffs, had not been completely determined. Talking head sportscasters on several networks seemed genuinely giddy about how much 'fun' the postseason was going to be. Mediocre teams are in, and more than capable of bringing down division winners that are on top of the standings after just ten weeks.

Yes, the final day had plenty of drama. All the Milwaukee Brewers had to do to punch their post-season ticket was win. They didn't. That meant that all the San Francisco Giants had to do was win to get in. They didn't. Austin Slater took a pitch with two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning that looked to be low. It was called a strike and their season was over. With losses by Milwaukee and San Francisco, all the Philadelphia Phillies had to do was win, which would have created a three-way tie with the Brewers and Giants, and Philly would go on the basis of a tiebreaker. They didn't. That gave Milwaukee the final spot on the final day. Not really the playoff push that is desired, or deserved. All three of those teams have losing records, but the Brewers advance, and play the Dodgers in a best-of-three series where anything can happen.

If the playoff format hadn't changed literally the day before the compacted season began, the attention, and the drama, would have been in the American League and its Central Division. The Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins, and Cleveland Indians were all within two games of each other, but with the expanded format, all were guaranteed playoff spots. The White Sox needed to beat the cross-town Cubs to win the division crown. They didn't. Minnesota lost their game, but still won the division because of Chicago's loss. Cleveland won their game, and because of tie-breaker rules, get second place, pushing the Sox all the way down to the seventh seed overall and a third place finish in the division. If it matters all that much, the White Sox have to travel to Oakland for a best-of-three series with the A's instead of hosting a series—likely with Houston.

So now that the field is set, here comes the onslaught of playoff games that might at first look to be a baseball fan's dream. The American League Wild Card round begins with four games on Tuesday. You've got Houston at Minnesota (11am PT, ABC), White Sox at Oakland (12noon, ESPN), Toronto at top-seed Tampa Bay (2pm, TBS), and the New York Yankees at Cleveland (4pm, ESPN). Note the staggered start times, meaning even if you do take the day off from work, you can't really watch more than one game in its entirety. Either pick one and stay with it, or change channels all day.

If you think that's a lot, it's just the undercard. There will be eight games on Wednesday (the American League second games and the National League game ones), and a potential of eight more on Thursday (Game 2 of the NL series and any game three necessary in the AL). Get your pencils and scorecards ready, here's the lineup for Wednesday: Cincinnati at Atlanta (9am, ESPN), Astros-Twins (10am, ESPN2), Miami at Chicago Cubs (11am, ABC), White Sox-A's (noon, ESPN), Blue Jays-Rays (1pm, TBS), St. Louis at San Diego (2pm, ESPN2), Yankees-Indians (4pm, ESPN), and finally, Milwaukee at LA Dodgers (7pm, ESPN, likely to begin on ESPN2 if the Yankees-Indians game runs longer than three hours). Start times beyond Wednesday have not been announced. Are you ready?

Watching ESPN or the MLB Network Sunday afternoon after everything was finalized, you would have thought that this expanded format was the greatest thing since sliced bread, or at least the greatest thing since they let you keep a foul ball hit into the stands. Honestly, though, how is this good for anybody? Teams like the Dodgers, Rays, and Padres have to play an extra series against a team that shouldn't be there in the first place, and while they do get to play at their home stadium, they are also sequestered in a hotel for Covid reasons, creating a local 'bubble'. Fans get to see all this extra baseball, but it's really scheduled in a way that's almost impossible to enjoy.

The mediocre teams love it, of course (the 29-31 Giants almost got a chance to take on the rival Dodgers), and the big payoff goes to the TV networks, which get to make up for lost revenue due to the shortened regular season. Disney, which owns ESPN and ABC, is even putting an 11am game on the over-the-air network just to make room. If you think this is about enhancing the fan experience, or supposedly making the playoffs 'more fair' after a shortened regular season (as the pundits will tell you), that's ludicrous. It's a money grab pure and simple. In this bizarre pandemic year, though, everything has become acceptable, but you also have to know that the expanded playoff format is also a test market for next year.

Now we get to the part of the expanded format that no one is talking or writing about, likely because they haven't looked that far ahead. The potential 24 games in four days will be played Tuesday through Friday. The next round, the League Division Series, doesn't get started until Monday (in the AL, Tuesday in the NL). Not only are there three days off between rounds, but they come on a weekend when fans would be most able to watch. In other words, there will be no baseball on Saturday or Sunday. How does this make sense?

Because there hasn't been mention of it, there's been no reason given. Does MLB not want to compete with football? Perhaps its so the teams that advance can come back with their top starting pitchers to begin the next series. This argument seems weak, though. So what if your normal fourth starter has to pitch the first game of the Division Series? It would be that way for everyone. Maybe the three-game series could have been staggered so there weren't eight games in one day. Understand that this was somewhat piece-mealed for 2020, but it's also being forced down our throats.

The worst part is the network analysts who keep shilling the idea and telling us how great it is and how fun it will be. One of the beauties of baseball in the past was that you had to win something to win something. In 1903, the National League and American League winners got together to play each other in what they called the World Series. It continued that way until 1969 when the leagues were split into divisions. Then, each division winner played each other, and the two winners met each other in the World Series. That ended with the advent of the Wild Card in 1994 (first used in '95 because a strike wiped out the '94 post-season), and then the two wild cards from each league in a one-game showdown beginning in 2012.

If you are wondering, had the post-season remained at its normal ten teams. All of those .500-ish clubs mentioned above would have been vying to play the San Diego Padres in the NL wild-card game. Under that system, there actually would have been baseball today (Monday). The St. Louis Cardinals had a doubleheader in Detroit, but only had to play it if it meant getting in the playoffs. At 30-28, one win would have created a three-way tie with Miami and Cincinnati for the second wild card spot, a sweep would have automatically gotten them in, and being swept would have eliminated them. In the American League, it would have been a Central Division showdown between Cleveland and Chicago, with both finishing at 35-25. So, keeping it the old way would have worked out just fine.

While expanding playoffs seems to often be a ratings winner, all it really does is reward mediocrity and undermine the value of the regular season. Just look at the NBA and NHL, where, with 16 teams getting in, its considered more of a failure to not get in (i.e. Sacramento Kings) than a reward. This year, two teams with losing records (Milwaukee and Houston each at 29-31) make MLB's post-season field. No one finished at 30-30, but the Miami Marlins and Cincinnati Reds both won on the last day to go 31-29. The Marlins (and majority owner Derek Jeter) are being lauded for the franchise making the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Giants, Phillies, and even Mets fans are saying they were oh so close, even with a losing record.

Expanded or not, there will be drama. Expect a first -round upset, but from which team or teams? We'll all find out together. Let's just hope you weren't watching another game on another channel at the time.

Cardinal rule: With all of these teams clinching their playoff spots on the final day, it's a shame we couldn't watch them. You can thank the St. Louis Cardinals for all of the games on the final day starting at the same time. In 2014, the Cardinals had a late game in Arizona, but clinched the NL Central earlier the day when Pittsburgh lost. The Cards and manager Mike Matheny was going to go with ace Adam Wainwright on the mound, but pulled him after the Pittsburgh loss to save him for the playoffs. TBS has the rights to the final Sunday, and chose White Sox-Cubs as its game of the week. Perhaps in future years, TBS could have first pick, and other networks like ESPN could show other games. Remember the final day of the 2011 season? With the collapsing Red Sox and surging Rays in the AL East, and the battle between the Cardinals and Braves for the wild card spot in the NL, it was quite a day, with early games and late games. We don't get that any more.

Max fulfillment: Congratulations to Max Stassi for his finest season in the majors. The Yuba City native batted .278 with 7 HRs and 20 RBIs for the Angels. He also became the everyday catcher after Jason Castro was traded at the August 31 deadline. Max is 29 now, but had been a highly touted prospect ever since his freshman year at Yuba City High School.

Cardboard Cutout Appreciation Day: It had to be done. At Dodger Stadium, and probably many other parks, there was an announcement on the message board thanking the cardboard cutouts for attending this season. The Giants actually had a real Fan Appreciation Day—giving prizes out to real people by reading their names on the air during Sunday's game.

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