With hours to go before the start of the 60-game 2020 regular season, the MLBPA agreed to the MLB proposal for expanded playoffs. According to Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY, the first round will feature best-of-three series. ESPN’s Buster Olney adds that the first- and second-place teams in each division would qualify and the remaining two teams would have the best records among the remaining nine teams in each league. Also, per Olney, top-seeded teams would will pick their first-round opponents in a televised show.
So which teams stand to benefit from this temporary change to the postseason structure? Looking at the projected standings from Baseball Prospectus, here’s what the postseason would have looked like with no changes:
AL Wild Card: Indians vs. Rays
ALDS 1: Yankees vs. Indians/Rays
ALDS 2: Twins vs. Astros
NL Wild Card: Cubs vs. Mets
NLDS 1: Dodgers vs. Cubs/Mets
NLDS 2: Reds vs. Nationals
And here’s what it would look like now (some assumptions made):
ALDS 1: Yankees vs. White Sox
ALDS 2: Astros vs. Angels
ALDS 3: Twins vs. Indians
ALDS 4: Rays vs. Athletics
NLDS 1: Dodgers vs. Braves
NLDS 2: Nationals vs. Cardinals
NLDS 3: Reds vs. Mets
NLDS 4: Cubs vs. Diamondbacks
The new format introduces more teams and a shorter first round (the NLDS is usually five games), thus there will be more volatility. This is bad for elite teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, and Twins, and good for everyone else. Teams that would have otherwise been watching the postseason from home are obviously happy about this change, which would include fringe teams like the Braves, Cardinals, Brewers, Diamondbacks, Padres, Red Sox, White Sox, and Angels.
The playoffs already had a ton of variance; the team with the best record rarely won the World Series. The Nationals, for example, won the World Series last year as one of two Wild Cards from the National League. They went 93-69 during the regular season, finishing four games out of first place. They defeated the Dodgers, who won 106 games, in the NLDS. The new playoff format will allow for even more variance. Thus, it would not be surprising to see a No. 8 seed win it all.
Perhaps the most important question of all is: will winning a championship in 2020 be seen as legitimate compared to previous seasons? There’s no objectively correct answer. People value different criteria for different reasons. But, objectively, a shorter regular season means that the best teams aren’t always winning their divisions. An expanded playoff pool with shorter first-round series means that the best teams aren’t always advancing. While the league is likely to uphold the results of the 2020 season as equal to those of previous years, players and teams will be subjected to claims of luck, both good and bad. Those will, as always, be colored by rooting interests and other individual biases.