Wednesday’s developments have the MLB season looking like a very real possibility, with 60-some games followed by a postseason featuring 16 teams. And you know what that means: It’s time to throw legitimacy to the wind and lean into the ensuing chaos. While rolling with a funky playoff setup that features four one-game play-ins per league might seem weird in most cases, that’s exactly what baseball should do this season.
It’s practical, too, since the owners have negotiated at least in part with the sanctity of their playoff broadcast schedules at the forefront. And hey, they have to when those deals net them around $800 million annually. So how can they capture the attention of a sports-starved public while also boosting revenue and preserving schedules?
This isn’t nearly as wild as operating the playoffs like the NCAA basketball tournament, something that had reportedly been on the table in early talks, but it does smell a little like the opening round of March Madness. But wait a minute, having eight teams means seeding them like in the NBA and just playing from there, right? Not if they need to have the postseason completed before November.
Besides, having abbreviated early matchups further devalues the outcomes without providing the instant gratification and high-wire anxiety of a win-or-go-home contest. No one cares about the Yankees playing the Mariners in the first the first of a three-game series. Everyone would tune in to see if the M’s could take the Yanks down in a one-game series.
So here’s how it works: The three division winners are automatically in the division series, just like always. The five wild cards in each league — three second-place finishers and the next two best records — convene at neutral locations. The second-place teams earn byes in the single-elimination tourney, with the other two playing the first game.
That opening round would take place the day after the regular season, narrowing the bracket to four teams per league. Those four matchups (two per league) would come the following day, giving MLB at least 12 consecutive hours of elimination games. Then you’ve got two games to determine the winners of the mini-tournies and solidify the DS fields.
While it’s true that such a setup would mean a team potentially having to win as many as three games just to move on to the divisional round, the truncated season means it’s not as taxing as normal. Another interesting wrinkle is that it could better allow said team to set its rotation for a series. Rather than burning your ace for one wild card game, that top starter could be ready to go on three or four days’ rest by Game 1 or 2 following the play-ins.
As for the neutral site, they could use minor league or college parks. Oooh, wait, they could put all 10 wild cards in Omaha as a nod to the College World Series. It’s centrally located and none of the teams would need to travel again for subsequent matchups should they end up winning. We know it’s already wired up for a full TV broadcast and for hosting multiple games in a day, so that’s all good.
I like where my head’s at on this one.
The real key here is getting a broadcast partner who’s willing to pony up enough scratch to make it worthwhile. Enter ESPN, which had reportedly been interested in growing its postseason partnership with MLB before Turner Sports made a big splash by re-upping its own deal. The Four-Letter could throw nine figures at the league for the rights to televise the wacky new format of the early round(s), which would make up for losing out on the both the CWS and the Little League World Series this summer.
As wild as this all might seem at first blush, the logistics are actually pretty sound when you get down to it. I mean, they’re as sound as anything can be at this point. With the dramatically shortened season already stripping away all of our standard notions, there’s really no sense in MLB trying to abide by some manufactured sense of normalcy. Save that for 2021, when the longer runway allows for a few more adjustments.
For now, let’s just embrace the chaos and let it provide us with whatever semblance of fun we can squeeze from it. Who’s with me?