Baseball, the first of major American sports to return to play, is finally underway. The new season — which kicked off Thursday — is shorter, starts later and tests a variety of new rules to keep players healthy and make the game more entertaining.
If you follow baseball, you’re probably already familiar with what these rules are: implementing the designated hitter across both leagues, starting extra innings with a runner on second base and practicing an extensive protocol meant to protect players from COVID-19. The most recent addition to these rules is an expanded playoff format which will feature 16 teams rather than the usual 10.
For those who don’t follow baseball, in a normal season, the winners of each division in the two leagues are given the first, second and third seeds based on record. The two remaining teams with the best record are given the final two wild card seeds and play one game, with the loser of that game eliminated from the playoffs. The four teams remaining in each league after the wild card game then play a best-of-five series in the divisional series, with the winners moving onto the league championship series and eventually the World Series.
This season features eight playoff teams in each league. Like a normal season, the top three seeds are the division winners and ordered by record. The fourth through sixth seeds are determined by the second-place finishers in each division, also ordered by record, and the last two remaining teams with the best record fill the seventh and eighth seeds. Rather than there being one game between each league’s bottom two seeds, the first round of the MLB playoffs this year will have the No. 1 seed face the No. 8 seed, the No. 2 seed face the No. 7 seed and so on, all playing a best-of-three series.
Major League Baseball (MLB) is taking the right approach to the game with all of these rule changes because the league understands something fundamental about the season: when 2020 is written into the history books, there will be an asterisk next to every team’s record. Given the lower stakes of this season, this is the perfect time to experiment with new rules to see which ones can be a long-term benefit to the game. Why maintain the status quo when this year has been anything but?
So far, the MLB has done a great job disrupting the status quo, but with an expanded playoff format, the league could have done even more. Before a final format was announced on Thursday, the MLB and the Players’ Association abandoned a rule that would let the top-seeded teams choose their opponents in the first round of the playoffs and, in the process, also ditched plans for a live show where playoff opponents would be chosen. I believe that was a mistake. These additional stipulations would benefit the league by compensating better teams for the added volatility of the new playoff format and by providing another way to entertain fans.
Compared to the normal format, the newly agreed upon 16-team playoff format hurts teams that are projected to win their division by forcing them to win a best-of-three series before reaching the divisional round. Elite teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Astros probably don’t want to play an extra series since the series will wear down their starting pitchers and risk injuries to their players, while under normal circumstances they would have been seeded directly to their respective league’s divisional series. Allowing these top teams to choose their opponents would have given them at least some control over the volatility that an expanded playoff adds.
Teams could have controlled this added volatility by picking an opponent that plays a style of baseball that does poorly against theirs, since records don’t always indicate which team is better — especially on a shortened season. This would have given analysts a bigger role in the team, since they would have paid attention to more teams and figured out how each stacks up against their ballclub. The analysts would have to prove to whoever makes the decision — the general manager, the head of baseball operations or someone else — that a given team would be the best opponent for a top seed.
A live selection show would have given fans insights into these strategic decisions and been a great moment of entertainment. These shows are much more common in esports, and although gamers’ athletic abilities do not match those of MLB players, you can’t deny that a lot of consideration is put into whom these players and teams choose as their opponents.
A great example of such a show comes from the Global StarCraft League in South Korea, which I recommend watching part of — if you don’t mind subtitles. While the format is different than baseball’s playoff format, viewers can still learn a lot about players’ preferences and strategies. I imagine having players or managers on a video conference justifying their choice of playoff opponent would be just as insightful.
The proposal to let teams choose opponents received a great deal of flack on Reddit, where people compared a selection show to reality TV. Fans’ aversion to drama is warranted, especially since the agreement about playoff format was reached mere hours before the start of the season. To the skeptics, I would repeat the old adage: don’t knock it until you try it.
There’s no guarantee that this expanded format will remain for the 2021 season, and the same goes for any other changes to the rules of the sport. If it turns out players, fans or front offices don’t like this playoff format, it can return to the way it was, but I think I think it’s naive not to try something unprecedented, especially when unprecedented is the best word to describe this season.
Contact Michael Espinosa at mesp2021 ‘at’ stanford.edu.