Major League Baseball’s playoff format change is a matter of when and not if. Bud Selig is not done creating his legacy and the owners are not done squeezing every dime out of their product. Remember, this is the same league that claimed their statistical data was intellectual property in an attempt to get their hands in the Fantasy Sports cookie jar. Bud Selig and his collection of Major League Yes Men need to decide on how many dates they can afford to take to the dance. Expanding the playoffs by one wildcard team would mean a five team playoff. Only two viable solutions exist in this scenario. Do Buddy and the Execs give the top seeded team a bye or do the two wildcard teams play in a 1-3 game playoff, as the other three teams watch on their clubhouse televisions? Though I am sure Buddy Boy would much rather they watch on MLB.TV.COM to the tune of $7.95 a game.
Another idea would be to add two more wild card teams for a total of six playoff teams per league, with the top two seeds receiving a bye, similar to the NFL’s format. In most cases, unless you belong to a player’s union, mirroring the NFL is a good idea. Baseball’s playoff system is not one of those cases. Ask the ’06 Tigers about the benefits of a week off. Baseball players play 162 games in six months. That factors into about 15 days off from April 1 to September 30. Athletes are like three year old children, they thrive on routine and predictability. A one week bye would lead to unpolished Spring Training like baseball.
Bud and the family stone must also consider the quality of their product if the playoffs are expanded. If the five team format was used during the ’10 season, the Red Sox and Padres would have been the fifth seeds in their respective leagues. Both teams overachieved when considering their talent (Padres) and injuries (Red Sox). Bud would never balk at adding the Boston and Southern California televisions markets. If the six team format was used in ’10 Chicago and Saint Louis would have been the last teams in. Both worthy sports markets, but would those teams improve the on field product? There would have been millions of more viewers to watch Albert Pujols peddle Wheaties and see Manny being Manny. But did we really need to see Chicago and Saint Louis in the playoffs last year? In ’09 the Rangers and the Marlins would have been sixth seeds with 87 wins apiece. Did anyone turn their television to TBS at 8:00pm Eastern Standard Time and say to themselves, ‘I wish there was a more mediocre 87 win team playing tonight’? Few people are doing cartwheels over the idea of adding an additional wildcard team, let alone two. No one wants to see an NBA-like scenario where the first month of a two month format is spent eliminating the victory challenged.
Even the Amish would not accuse Major League Baseball of being overly innovative or spending too much time thinking outside the box. If Baseball would consider doing something innovative, they could turn a bad idea into the most exciting playoff format in professional sports. Major League Baseball needs follow the lead of American Legion and AUU Baseball and use a round robin format in the first round. In this format each of the five teams would play each other team three times, with the higher seed playing at home. Each team would have one day off between series two and three, similar to the schedule that is played during the regular season. The two teams with the best records would advance to their league’s LCS, with the LCS’s being played using the present format.
The first problem some may see is the length of the first round. In 2010 the last LDS ended nine days after the last regular season game. The first game of the NLCS was played on October 16, thirteen days after the leagues last regular season game. With the Round Robin system, players could be given a day off after the last regular season game and finish the first round fourteen days later. A round Robin tournament also eliminates the possibilities of a three game sweep, which leads to lost stadium and television revenue. The only other format that would allow the LCS’s to begin on the same day would be a wild card play-in. The NCAA Basketball tournament added a play-in game a couple years back. Can anyone name the two teams that played in the play-in game last year without reaching for their laptop or smart phone? Another, much less popular solution would be a bye for the highest seeded team. Baseball is not football; A week off does more harm than good.
Logistics could also pose a problem. Major league Baseball would have to wait until the last day of the season to schedule the additional games. Baseball can easily take a page from the NFL’s playbook, pun intended. When the Metro Dome’s roof collapsed in December, the game that was supposed to be played in Minnesota on Sunday afternoon was played in Detroit on Monday night. If a team can figure out how to transport fifty-two football players with all their equipment and find hotel rooms to house them in with only twenty-four hours notice, a baseball team can easily figure out how to transport 25 guys and some gloves and bats with forty-eight hours notice. Baseball is also a geek magnet. There are plenty of statisticians and mathematicians who have the ability and desire to figure out a schedule where five teams each play one another three times in thirteen days.
Major League Baseball is not the BCS. No one can debate the amount of revenue a team could bring in. The top seed would host an additional twelve games. 45,000 seats at $200 to $1,500 a ticket over the course of twelve games is enough to make any owner salivate over their team’s success. The owners of the Marlins and Royals may even spend enough money to field major league caliber teams. There is also a matter of television revenue. The LDS’s, provided each series goes five games (THAT HAS NEVER AND WILL NEVER HAPPEN) allows TBS and FOX to reap the rewards of televising a total of twenty games. A tournament would mean sixty televised games. Those sixty games are televised no matter what, unlike an LDS which might only last, and usually does, three games. The revenue from a first round tournement would dramatically outweigh what Major League Baseball makes from the four LDS series.
Money, ratings and starting the LCS’s in time for the World Series to be played in October are all great things, but what about us, the fans. Despite the owners and players best efforts, Baseball still exists for us. The most important thing to consider is the product on the field. What would be more exciting then watching a Major League round robin tournament? Unless their team is playing, even the most hardcore Baseball fan has trouble maintaining interest through the LDS’s. With a round robin tournament fans will take interest in all the games. There will be situations where another team losing is just as important as your team winning. With higher playoff seeds hosting each three game series, seeding becomes important. Remember, the top seed plays all twelve games at home and the last seed plays all twelve games on the road. The last week also becomes more interesting as playoff bound teams begin to line up their pitching staffs for the playoffs. Do they fight for the highest playoff seed or do they set-up their Ace to pitch the first game of the tournament?
The round robin tournament is not likely to ever happen; it is just too different and too new. Baseball fans tend to be purists and hate change. Somewhere Bob Costas is in a dimly lit bar drinking a tall boy of milk and complaining how the elimination of Indian Rubber ruined a once great game. Baseball, for the first time in thirty years, could thumb its nose at the NFL and say, ‘Na na na na boo boo, we can revamp our product better than you.’ Baseball will go the safe and stupid route. Under the best scenarios, the LCS’s and World Series will start at least a week later then they already do and we will see the first snow delay in World Series history. Don’t worry, Bud, your legacy will remain intact. You will forever be credited as the man who brought a 1960s playoff format to baseball in 1995 and had the foresight to make it even worse a decade-and-a- half later. The new and unimproved playoff system is still a couple years away, but until then, we can dream of a first round that would actually work for everybody from the fans to the owners and be the most interesting and unique playoff format in North American professional sports.