An interesting article on the subject of expanded playoffs, anotehr issue in the collective bargaining between MLB and the MLBPA.

Last week, we covered what figures to be one of the top priorities for the MLB Players Association during collective bargaining discussions — alterations to the service time structure. Today, we’ll look at what should be one of the most important issues for Major League Baseball: potential postseason expansion.

An expanded playoff has looked to be a key issue for the league for quite some time, as MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes discussed in January with labor advisor Eugene Freedman. More playoff teams simply means more games for MLB to offer television partners — deals which have proven extremely profitable for the league in recent years. Under past collective bargaining agreements, playoff TV revenue has gone exclusively to the league. The creation of additional rounds to sell to FOX, Turner or any other broadcast partner would figure to provide the league and its owners another windfall.

The league and Players Association already agreed to one playoff expansion, bumping to 16 teams during the 2020 truncated season. That was a one-off agreement, but commissioner Rob Manfred publicly voiced support for a permanent playoff expansion last year. Manfred has previously floated 14 teams as the league’s ideal number, and Jesse Rogers of ESPN reported last week that MLB has had a 14-team playoff format on the table during its early collective bargaining proposals.

According to Rogers, MLB’s proposal would contain seven postseason teams from each of the American and National Leagues. In addition to the three division winners, each league would feature four Wild Card clubs. The team with the best record in each league would receive a first-round bye, while the remaining six teams in each league would participate in a three-game Wild Card series.

Under MLB’s vision, the two division winners in each league that don’t receive the bye would choose their Wild Card series opponents. The division winner with the second-best record would choose its opponent from the bottom three Wild Card clubs; the remaining division winner would have its pick of the bottom two Wild Card teams still available; the remaining Wild Card winners would face one another. The higher-seeded team in each league would host all three games of the opening series.

While potential postseason expansion looks to be an obvious positive for MLB, its effects on the players could be more mixed. The introduction of a playoff round would have a direct financial benefit for some players. Under the terms of previous CBAs, players on postseason teams received varying shares (dependent on team finish) of gate revenues in October. More playoff games would mean more gate revenues, which would stand to benefit some players each year.

That alone doesn’t seem enough to convince the players to wholeheartedly embrace postseason expansion. For one, the league’s interest in larger playoffs is greater than that of the MLBPA, giving the union a powerful bargaining chip to possibly extract concessions on other issues (i.e. service time structure, luxury tax thresholds) of more import to the players. And the MLBPA no doubt has concerns about playoff expansion’s potential indirect effects on team spending habits.

A bigger playoff field inherently means a greater possibility for every team to make the postseason. With increased odds could come complacency. A club with an already-strong roster may not be as motivated to improve under a 14-team field as they’d be under the current system, reasoning that they’re already comfortable with their current odds. Removing the Wild Card game reduces the incentive for teams to win their divisions, since division winners and Wild Card clubs alike would find themselves in an opening round three-game series (although the potential bye for the top seed would increase the incentive for clubs to pursue the league’s best record).

That’s particularly true in MLB, a league with a comparatively high level of variance in small samples. Playoff series in MLB are less predictable than they are in leagues like the NBA and NFL, a trend reinforced in 2021 when the playoff team with the worst regular season record (the Braves) won the World Series. Based on that high level of playoff volatility, many teams could be content to make the postseason — even as one of the lower seeds — and simply hope for a hot stretch once there. Lowering the bar to entry could make it easier for organizations with already strong big league rosters to be less active in free agency, an obvious concern for the players union.

MLB could counter that possibility would be offset by higher desire to improve among mid-tier clubs. After all, that small sample volatility gives teams with even average or marginally above-average rosters an opportunity to go on a lengthy playoff run. Improving from, say, a 76-win roster to an 84-win roster would be significantly more impactful under this vision than it is under the current system.

Still, the MLBPA has seemingly had reservations about the competitive incentives that come with potential playoff expansion. That’s reflected in their counterproposal, as Rogers reported that the union’s most recent offer involves a 12-team postseason, not MLB’s desired 14 clubs. Details on the MLBPA’s offer aren’t clear, although Rogers noted that proposal involved a significant restructuring that would see each league modified from the current three division setup to two divisions apiece (one containing eight clubs, one with seven).

With the MLBPA already showing openness to a 12-team playoff, it’d be a surprise if the next CBA didn’t involve some form of expansion. Keeping the 10-team status quo seems unlikely, since MLB would presumably prefer a 12-team setup to the current system even if the MLBPA doesn’t go for a 14-team tournament. Union amenability to playoff expansion could go a long way towards landing more favorable outcomes in some other areas the MLBPA finds more pressing.

As for fans, playoff expansion seems largely to be a matter of aesthetic preference. Some will naturally recoil at the idea, which would likely eventually result in a new mark for worst regular season record for a World Series champion (currently held by the 83-78 Cardinals of 2006). MLB has traditionally had a smaller postseason field than other major leagues, a point of great appeal for some fans. On the other hand, some viewers are likely to relish a bigger field. Greater opportunity to reach the postseason means more teams remaining in contention. That’s likely to keep more fanbases invested in August and September each season, which will be a feature for many observers.

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