I don’t know about all of you, but I’ve never craved stories on which players have reported to spring training in the best shape of their lives more than I do right now. As the labor impasse stretches deep into its third month, with the start of the regular season now in jeopardy, we unfortunately have time to dig into one of the core issues at stake: expanded playoffs. The owners have proposed a 14-team postseason, while the players have countered with a 12-team setup, although undoubtedly will agree to 14 if the owners bend on the salary-specific disputes.
Baseball has always prided itself on the fact that it’s more difficult to make its postseason than the other major sports, with 10 playoff teams currently compared to 14 for the NFL and 16 for the NBA and NHL. It’s a big-event world these days, however, and the lure of TV lucre is too tempting to resist. Don’t act so surprised. More playoff games would bring in additional national TV revenue on top of the annual $1.76 billion that deals with Fox, ESPN and TBS will pay through 2028.
So expanded playoffs are inevitable, but what is the best format to crown a champion? The playoff-less — but exquisitely straightforward — system used in the Premier League in England (each team plays the other 19 teams at home and away) is a non-starter over here in the colonies, while the chaos of March Madness is probably too extreme for a tradition-bound sport like baseball.
I think four important factors should be considered here:
1) The integrity of the regular season. The beauty of baseball is a team proving itself over the grind of 162 games, so regular-season success should weigh heavily in any postseason format, whether in limiting the number of teams that make it or rewarding the best teams with higher seeds or byes.
2) How fair is the playoff format? Does it crown a true champion based on that regular-season success? Do you like random champions or a system where the best teams prevail more often? Everyone enjoys Cinderellas early on in the NCAA tournament, but you don’t want four No. 11 seeds in the Final Four. A format with too many one-game matchups or three-game series can create too many upsets.
3) The fun factor. On the other hand, elimination games are fun!
4) Drama. There should be a buildup of excitement from the regular season all the way through October.
OK, so let’s take a look and give a completely scientific and objective grade to past, present and potential future postseason formats …