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A Look into MLB's Expanded Playoff Structure

The Commissioner's Trophy; CC by License 2.0

In a matter of weeks, baseball fans around the world will watch as Major League Baseball’s postseason begins with 12 clubs fighting for World Series glory. In 2022, MLB debuted the new 12-team format after a lengthy push by owners to expand the postseason. This season, the extra wild card berth in each league has helped to create fascinating races as teams jockey for postseason position.

One of the many points of contention of the 2021-2022 MLB Lockout was over the size of MLB’s postseason. Owners entered the negotiations set on expanding from a 10-team postseason to a 14-team postseason. Per a report from Andrew Marchand, ESPN was set to pay the league an additional $100 million for the television rights to the Wild Card round. The MLB Players Association was reportedly eyeing playoff expansion as well, however, their wish was to expand to a 12-team postseason. For a 12-team format, Marchand reported that ESPN would pay in the neighborhood of $85 million.

For ownership, the incentive to expand the playoffs is obviously financial. The deal with ESPN represented a chance to further enhance the revenue-sharing checks paid out to teams. Furthermore, the expansion of the postseason meant that more teams would have the opportunity to enjoy postseason revenue shares. Finally, teams in tight postseason races should be able to keep fans engaged late in the season, potentially cashing in on increased ticket sales and merchandise purchases in September. For the union, expanding the playoffs created the possibility that more clubs would actively pursue high-priced talent as more clubs would be able to view themselves as postseason contenders.

While the idea that expanding the postseason will incentivize more clubs to invest in winning seems to be the prevailing theory around baseball, it is worth considering a more cynical view. Critics of the expanded postseason argue that the move will allow owners to spend less and less money to create a postseason club. If owners find that they can build cheaper teams that will win just enough games to make the postseason and appease success-hungry fans, then they will do just that. Owners of clubs who merely sneak into the postseason would be able to sell fans on the idea that any team who plays in October has a shot to win a championship. Furthermore, these owners will have the opportunity to cash in on their postseason appearances through postseason merchandise, postseason ticket sales, and postseason revenue shares.

Attempting to accurately analyze the effects of expanded playoffs on roster construction and team payroll appears futile in only the second year of expanded playoffs. Ultimately, time will tell how owners will react when building teams. However, the 2022 season indeed showed that the teams who snuck into the postseason with the additional wild card berths were worthy of participating in the postseason. On the National League side, the 6-seed Philadelphia Phillies managed to embark on a magical run to the World Series, where they fell to Houston in 6 games. Results on the American League side were less remarkable as it took just 2 games for Cleveland to dispatch the Tampa Bay Rays.

This year, the American League wild-card race will likely come down to three teams fighting for two spots. The first wild card appears all but locked up by the AL East’s runner-up, whether that be Baltimore or Tampa Bay. Currently, as of 9/19, the Toronto Blue Jays hold the league’s 5 seed with a 1-game advantage over the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers, who find themselves tied for the 6-seed. The New York Yankees find themselves 6 games back of Seattle and Texas and would need a herculean effort to play in October.

On the National League side, the wild card race could not be any tighter at this time. Philadelphia appears safely in the postseason as they hold the 4-seed by 4 games over the 5-seed. Behind the Phillies, the Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks, and San Francisco Giants will fight it out for the final two wild-card berths. Presently, the Diamondbacks have a half-game lead over the 6-seed. The 6-seed is currently held in a tie between the Reds and Cubs with the Marlins only a half game back. The Cubs possess the tie-breaker advantage over the Reds. The Giants sit 2 games back of the Reds and Diamondbacks and are in need of a rally inside the final weeks of the season.

When MLB and the MLBPA began to dream of expanded playoffs, they envisioned what is happening right now: Tight races for a finite number of wild card berths in cities with previously uncompetitive teams. Fans in Miami, Phoenix, Cincinnati, and Seattle are gripped by the spine-tingling finish of the 2023 season as their teams fight for a coveted postseason appearance. While the story of the expanded postseason is still being written, it is obvious that it has created must-see television during baseball’s September stretch drive.


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