“Spitballing” is a column by Nathan Ackerman about Major League Baseball.
When the March Madness bracket dropped Sunday afternoon, college hoops fans across the country — including right here at the basketball school we call USC — were met with anticipation. They wondered which Cinderella team will claw its way to the Elite Eight, how many No. 14 seeds will knock off No. 3s on the opening weekend, whether anyone can stop Gonzaga (hint: no).
I, for one, was met with the sheer excitement that the second best postseason tournament in college or professional sports is finally here. Yes, second best — because October will always reign supreme.
March Madness is always a 64-team field — well, 68, if you’re being technical, or if you’re a UCLA fan who wants to claim your team made the actual tournament. Despite the weird coronavirus season that has been 2020-21, the NCAA did not decide to expand its playoff field by 60% just minutes before the season began. Major League Baseball, of course, cannot say the same.
So while Spring Training enters its final stages and Opening Day creeps around the corner, we still don’t know whether the league and the MLB Players’ Association will pull a last-minute stunt like they did last year and agree on a broadened playoff field hours before first pitch. Right now, it seems like a no, but the way things tend to work with these two parties, the possibility remains open until it isn’t.
Here’s why MLB should and should not expand the playoff field for a second consecutive season.
The case for expansion
The argument in favor of expanding the playoff field yet again is simple: the green stuff. By now, we know how much sway the bottom line holds in shaping the league’s decisions, and evidently, that’s especially true in a pandemic. We almost didn’t have a season last year because the league and the MLBPA couldn’t agree on how to properly divvy up billions of dollars — which feels like a good problem to have, but that’s a total side note and another conversation.
With coronavirus cases surging basically all summer and fall and zero fans allowed in Major League ballparks during the regular season (and postseason games held in California), expanding the playoff field was the league’s way of profiting when one of its primary sources of income — ticket sales — was gone. More playoff teams means more playoff games means more money to be made off TV contracts.
That’s still a valid argument in 2021, a year that’s expected to see another economic shortfall, though perhaps less severe than 2020, with a longer season and stadiums welcoming at least some fans — the human type, not the cardboard ones.
And though the league figures to earn more money than it did in 2020 (notice how I didn’t say “lose less money,” because teams still profited last year), owners will always look for ways to drive up the aforementioned bottom line. Expanded playoffs would do that.
The case against expansion
The primary argument against expanded playoffs is competitive integrity, which goes hand-in-hand with necessity.
The 2020 season was 60 games long, just 37% of the usual marathon that is a 162-game schedule. From a competitive standpoint — ignoring the obvious truth that money first and foremost determined the 16-team playoff field — expansion made sense.
Baseball is, by nature, the most unpredictable of the four major American professional sports, and it’s entirely possible that some of the league’s best teams won’t find themselves in the mix through 60 games due largely to chance. If the playoff field had remained at 10 teams last year, the New York Yankees — unquestionably one of the five best teams in the American League — would’ve missed out on the festivities. The same goes for the Houston Astros, who stumbled to a 29-31 record in the regular season but eventually took the Tampa Bay Rays to seven games in the ALCS. In 2019, the Washington Nationals would’ve missed the tournament had the season been just 60 games long. It wasn’t, and they went on to overcome their 27-33 start to earn a Wild Card spot and win the World Series.
In a 162-game season, that variance is severely diminished — hence, the Nationals making the playoffs. It’s hard to argue you’re deserving of a chance to play for a title when you can’t finish in the upper third of your league over 162 games.
MLB’s postseason is the best — just take my word for it, Seattle Mariners fans, particularly the one editing this article — partially because it’s the most exclusive. Do you find enjoyment in watching over half the teams in the NBA take two months to decide their champion just so that a No. 8 seed can beat a No. 1 about as frequently as Halley’s Comet passes by the Earth? Me neither.
And, to round it out, the financial incentive for expanded playoffs in 2021 is far less than said incentive in 2020. As of now, the 2021 season will be 162 games, not 60. Every team is either confirmed or likely to welcome fans on Opening Day, and the number allowed through the gates will only grow as the summer wears on. Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers, will be entirely full on day one. While that might be a little soon to open the floodgates, it’s certainly a sign that things are opening up. The wallets of baseball owners will take notice.
Another argument permeating baseball spheres in favor of an expanded field — which I’m putting down here because it’s a bad one — is that it would encourage fringe contenders to be aggressive at the trade deadline or spend more in hopes of busting into the bracket.
But that didn’t happen in 2020. Why would it in 2021, when owners are already crying poor and have shown (with few exceptions) that they won’t break the bank to try to win unless they’re already in position to do so? Frankly, they shouldn’t. If you’re the owner of a borderline contender, would you mortgage your future or tickle the luxury tax for the chance of sneaking in as a No. 8 seed with a losing record and getting absolutely massacred by the Dodgers in the first round? Didn’t think so.
I realize I’ve made my stance on this issue pretty clear, and what started out as an honest presentation of the arguments in favor of and in opposition to expanded playoffs eventually became much more of the latter.
But that was kind of the point. The 16-team format made sense in 2020, even if it disadvantaged teams like the Dodgers and allowed mediocre-to-underwhelming clubs like the Miami Marlins and Milwaukee Brewers in on the fun. In 2021, though, with a full season approaching, with (theoretically) fewer coronavirus-induced pauses and with fans in seats, there should be no pretenders overstaying their welcome.
Keep the field at 10. Save the Cinderella story for the college kids.
“Spitballing” runs every Tuesday.