In a proposal leaked to the media (and written about at many outlets including here at Last Out Media), it was made known earlier this week that Major League Baseball had been in talks with the Major League Baseball Players Union on the potential to not only delay the start of the 2021 season, but to shorten its length to 154 games in an effort to extend the playoffs an additional round. That additional round is presumed to resemble the playoffs that were put in place in 2020.
In the end, all of that talk about changing the season structure was just exactly that. Talk. The Union has given the owners their fair consideration but felt no comfort in changing their schedules this shortly before Spring Training begins. With pitchers prepping for 6+ months of stress on their arms and everyone eager to get settled into their routine the issue was just that. Settled. Baseball will begin on schedule, play in full (or at least attempt to) and will not return to the additional playoff round that while intriguing in 2020 in a short season, just isn’t in the right spirit of Major League Baseball under regular circumstances.
These extended playoff proposals are important to bring up, because it is doubtful that this past week’s kibosh will be the last we hear of them. At this point, after more than 120 years of existence with either 154 or 162 games per team, baseball’s regular season is old news. Technology and media have pushed us in this direction. On any given night between April and September, there are likely to be fifteen regular season baseball games going on. This circumstance has taken the national pastime from shared country-wide experience to regional entertainment staple over the course of the second half of its existence. If a given fan watches all of his team’s 162 games at an average of about three hours per game, that’s nearly 500 hours of baseball over the course of a summer. For context, modern video gamers (a pastime held close to the heart of the younger generation that baseball struggles to captivate at times) can sink anywhere from 20 to 100 hours into a single game before moving onto something new. 500 hours may not be unheard of but is certainly uncommon.
And that’s all assuming that this fan is really going to watch their team six nights a week for six months straight with all the modern entertainment options that exist today. In 1961, the same year that MLB expanded its geographic and seasonal footprint there were only three television networks. Today the average American has access to four streaming services with countless content.
Many people love baseball and genuinely can’t get enough of it, but there is still a reality to reckon with. On a night-to-night basis, the regular season is a time sink without even considering the Saturday Game of the Week, Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN or an MLB.TV subscription.
In this context, it can become understandable why MLB wants fewer regular season games. Calling the professional baseball market oversaturated would be a gigantic understatement. Would more scarcity in the season lead to increased impact on a game-to-game basis, perhaps more eyeballs, and therefore perhaps more revenue? No specific study proves this, but it’s certainly seems to make sense.
What is an even bigger boon though is the playoffs. The MLB Playoffs as a function of our sports society have become awfully similar to what March Madness is for college basketball. If you’re a casual fan, the type that doesn’t even sink a tenth of that 500 hours into their local team, you often just want to be woken up when the post-season tournament begins.
This makes sense too. The playoffs have those missing pieces that the regular season doesn’t have. Each game has immense impact, and without other games to cause a distraction, no one’s attention is diverted from this one product or broadcast. The playoffs make MLB a ton of money. To these points, while the average regular season night where every team is playing will lead to just over 3 million viewers of Major League Baseball based on 2020 data, the 2020 World Series averaged just under 10 million sets of eyeballs per night. Its fair to say the playoffs bring in multiple times as many customers as the regular season does.
And that’s the argument in favor of a shortened regular season and expanded playoffs. Money and short-term attention. Those factors are the reason why we haven’t heard the last of this conversation. A Collective Bargaining negotiation looms and extended playoffs may even not be dead in the immediate. MLB and the Players’ Union still have until the first pitch of Opening Day to come to an agreement that is something other than the standard rules (plus COVID safety protocol) that we saw in 2019. This is important to note. No agreement doesn’t mean no baseball for 2021, but it will mean no baseball after this year.
So, what is the argument for the season structure as we know it? Well for one, integrity of that season. Cutting eight games out of a 162-game slate does shorten the season by definition, but that 154-game campaign is still a heck of a sample, good enough to have been the sample taken until expansion permeated the league in 1961. You can be fairly certain that over that many games that the best teams will rise to the top of the standings. Flukes will still be weeded out over the dog days of summer. Hot starts will fade into third place finishes.
And with that in mind, it is absolutely foolish to let the 8th best team in each league, a possible team below the .500 mark, into the playoffs. If Major League Baseball is looking for a way to give their regular season games even less value than they currently have, if they want people to start disengaging from their home regular season broadcasts even more, they will add more teams to the playoff structure.
Beyond the added lack of weight to games in the regular season, the integrity of the playoffs is affected as well. Between 2015 and 2019, the team with the worse regular season record won 37% of playoff rounds played. That’s right. The team that is worse based off the evidence of a 162-game season has better than a 1 in 3 chance to topple their opponent.
Naturally, this is an oversimplification. Changes to the playoff structure could be made to favor higher-seeded teams and we don’t have any data really on how 8 vs 1 matchups would fair outside of 2020. What we do know though is that the worse teams in baseball still win about 37% of their games (not only from the above statistic, but also the percentage for a 60-102 record) while the NBA (20-62 would be 24%), NHL (same as NBA) and NFL’s (2-14 is 12.5%) worst teams tend to win somewhere between 10 to 25 percent of their games. Baseball is just more upset-prone.
Therefore, is there any good reason or scenario to provide to that lowly 8-seed a chance? They just spent the last 6 months being 7 teams worse than their playoff opponent. Is a three-game series victory (or five or seven) really a bastion of proof that there are a worthy champion, especially considering the fluky nature of the sport? Adding additional playoff teams in the past has been reasonable in providing a fair proportion of worthy and competent teams into the post-season tournament. It made sense to allow eight playoffs teams in a thirty-team league but allowing half of the league compete in the playoffs stretches the boundaries of “worthy and competent” way too far.
And the teams know this too. In a year where MLB teams have bee slow to spend on free agents, is this really the time that MLB wants to choose in incentivizing mediocrity? I’m sure the players don’t. Expanded playoffs are a sneaky way to stagnate wages. If wins are less valuable, then “buying wins” (as Jonah Hill would say) on the open market is worth less value as well. Do not get it twisted, even expanding the playoffs is a cost-cutting negotiation tactic for the owners.
And unfortunately, that’s all this comes down to, dollars and cents… again. Which is why even though it cheapens the full brunt of the product and diminishes the importance of everything outside of a few weeks of October, expanded playoffs are probably just a matter of time whether they are brought to us before first pitch this year, at next year’s sure to be testy Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations or at a later time. Even if we wish they weren’t.
Even if we wish the powers that be would come together and figure out that in the long run the best thing not just for the game but also for their own pockets might just be, you know… a quality product. Not a manufactured cheap thrill.
We already have the forced drama of the one-game Wildcard playoff for that.