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Baseball Was Already Broken

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This story was originally published at Baseball Prospectus on September 17.

Nestled at the bottom of a September 15, 2020 Washington Post report on the agreement structuring MLB’s postseason bubble, author Dave Sheinin included this passage:

Manfred also said the expanded, 16-team postseason is likely to remain beyond 2020, adding that “an overwhelming majority” of owners had already endorsed the concept before the pandemic.

“I think there’s a lot to commend it,” he said, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.”

At first blush, it might seem surprising to declare the pandemic-driven expanded playoff structure a success, given that the first iteration hasn’t even begun. With a sixth of the season remaining, pennant races are endangered, especially in the American League: the seven teams outside the playoff window sharing a combined 11.9 percent chance of making the postseason. The National League has seen more competition, though each division features a fairly heavy favorite once the Wild Card round clears the chaff. 

The timing is hardly a coincidence, of course; Manfred can commend all he wants, but a change in playoff structure would need to be ratified by the MLBPA. This is just another of the little feints that made baseball so pleasant to follow this summer, an appeal to the court of public opinion. Before you dismiss it as pure talk, however, do note that most of Manfred’s recent dreams have had a way of materializing. Whatever does happen, the fans will not be consulted.

It’s not hard to understand why the owners are in favor of making this permanent: More playoff games equals more television and gate revenue. It’s the creation of a set of dramatic, vital contests, except that it isn’t really creation so much as transference. Baseball is extracting the drama and importance of 162 regular season contests and concentrating them into a single week in October, where it can be packaged for a national audience. It’s a classic case of chasing short-term profits at the cost of eroding the foundation of the sport, but in this case, it’s necessary because it allows for... even greater short-term profits at the cost of eroding an even greater foundation of the sport.

Baseball’s postseason was already broken. Based on this article, the number of games in a series it would require to arrive at the same level of certainty of a seven-game NBA series... is best-38-out-of-75. The same chaos that makes baseball the best regular season sport is what awards its championships to wild card teams that get the calls, the bounces, and the sun doubles. 

Expanding the playoffs will only flood the game with more of these lottery balls, and the effect will be disastrous. With no way for the favorites to actually be heavily favored (The Dodgers, a .700 team, don’t even have better-than-even odds of winning consecutive playoff series), the window in which a team is justified in spending on free agents becomes incredibly tight. The winters will be barren, and the transaction list in early November will look like an abattoir with all the non-tenders. Baseball’s regular season will become a glorified six-month waiting period, with the occasional spice of seeing some team lose their star for the season to injury. Everything eventually gets sacrificed upon the altar of October.

There is nothing any of us can do about this. There isn’t even anything MLB itself can do about this, given that Manfred is beholden to his owners, the owners are beholden to their debtors and shareholders, and the profit principle rules all. The solution is not an appeal, any more than one can appeal to a river. At best, all that can be done is to steer it. Instead of creating some idealized playoff system that encouraged the owners to behave in the manner that best meets our aesthetic sensibilities, we need to create the best system out of the owners’ behavior. 

The ideal playoff system is one that satisfies all three interested parties:

    • A robust, lengthy playoff system, to appease the owners.
    • A fair system that rewards the best performers, to appease the players.
    • An exciting and dramatic system, to appease the fans.

We’ve never had this. The playoffs of the early ages of baseball, with its meaningful pennants, satisfied rule 2 and sometimes, based on the die rolls, rule 3, but those days are never coming back. The playoffs of 2020 and 2021 will fulfill the first of these demands and will probably meet the third, but erase any vestiges of the already fading sense of fairness. Chaos was fine for an already chaotic 2020, but after a marathon 2021 season, there’s a nonzero chance that the 99-63 Yankees fall to the 79-83 Mariners in three, and the dice tear away the entire facade.

Earlier this season, in happier times, I tried to imagine some systemic changes that could be made to improve home field advantage and, with it, incentivize regular season success. These were as mild as allowing the home team final substitution, and as spicy as altering the color of the seams on the ball when the road team was hitting, to make picking up the seams more difficult. None of them are particularly elegant, and none of them are up to the task of making a seven (let alone three) game series as definitive in baseball as it is in basketball. 

We’re left with a fundamental contradiction: We want regular season baseball and playoff baseball to be two different things. The Super Bowl can look like a regular, well-played matchup between two strong teams, with worse advertising. But football also delivers 0-16 seasons and a surfeit of games out of reach by halftime. 

What remains is luck. We’ve always had luck, as baseball fans, but for more than a century it was fine, because we also had faith: Faith in heroism, in the narrative, in the better team pulling it out at the last not because they were luckier, but because they were better. Stronger. More determined. Bill James tore that house down, and we’ve erected a cathedral out of talent to replace it, but in the bright lights of the playoffs you can see the dust coming out of the cracks. That clutch hitting is a myth, that the grounder in the hole to win the game was just a grounder. Baseball isn’t designed to reward talent, not often enough to make men into heroes.

It’s time to accept that the playoffs of the future are going to look different than the baseball we’re used to: partially because it’s too profitable for them not to change, but also because they always were different, with their high-stakes, short-term strategies like bullpenning and short rest. Rather than cling to an impossible past, we’re better off advocating for an unrecognizable future that at least creates the feedback loops we want: regular season significance. Home field advantage. Clutch performance. 

If the powers decide that we’re to have a 16-team playoff, the logical conclusion is to embrace its effects and shorten the regular season. It won’t mean much anyway; if the league decides that drama is the only currency, at least add games to the postseason to give it more legitimacy. Not that there’s time to get to best-of-75, but every bit helps. 

But if we’re forced to embrace chaos, we should use it to recapture the one thing baseball has lost. Let the owners make their money, let the fans have their short-lived dramatic tension. The key to the livelihood of baseball isn’t a single great moment, because baseball is constantly overwriting its moments. It’s the feeling that those moments are earned, that its magic isn’t just the stage variety. Whether it’s altering the mechanics of the game to force pitchers to gut out their starts, as one often sees in the KBO with its dearth of relieving options, or restricting teams to prevent overspecialization, and reward well-rounded teams, we need a narrative in which teams are forced to surmount their own weaknesses and succeed, rather than just match up talent and roll some 20-sided dice. It may not mean much more, but it’ll be satisfying.

Speaking about the seven-inning doubleheader and the extra-inning ghost runner, Manfred said, “One of the few good things about [the pandemic] is it has provided an opportunity to try some different things in the game.” This statement is perhaps truer than he meant it to be: COVID-19 has devastated many people, allowing the scavengers first crack at the wreckage. Next year, MLB will try some different things with how minor league baseball works, and how postseason baseball works, much to the satisfaction of MLB. Whether their profit impulse can be controlled, or at least redirected toward something sustainable for the sport, is the real playoff matchup of the moment.

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