Last week marked the beginning of the MLB playoffs and the second straight expansion playoff format. Prior to 2021 (and ignoring the weird eight-seed playoff bracket in 2020), the three division winners and just two wild card teams made the postseason, resulting in a one-game wild card matchup. Last season, MLB expanded the rules to include six playoff teams for both leagues, which, as a result, changed the format of the playoffs. Now, instead of a head-to-head one-game playoff between the two wild card teams, four teams compete in a best-of-three series, including one division winner to complete the wild card series. Some have embraced the change as it does create more playoff games and gives an extra team a chance to make a run, but others miss the thrill of a one-and-done game to determine a winner.
Argument for Expanded Playoffs:
During the last week of the season, there was a mad dash for the final playoff positions. The AL West still didn’t crown a champion, and three teams that could’ve made it: the Mariners, the Rangers and the Astros. Houston secured the West while Texas grabbed the second wild card, leaving Seattle out to dry. However, it created an enjoyable and exciting week of baseball before the playoffs began despite Tampa Bay clinching a wild card beforehand.
Without the expanded playoffs this season, Arizona would’ve missed out. The Diamondbacks just beat Milwaukee in the first round and destroyed the Dodgers in game one of the NLDS. Philadelphia was in a similar position last year as they made it as a sixth seed and wouldn’t have been able to go on that remarkable run to the World Series if it weren’t for the expanded playoffs.
Under the rules that if you win your division, you automatically clinch a playoff spot, many great teams have missed the postseason. This has been an issue for fans for many years, including 2023. Minnesota finished the year with a record of 87-75, the worst out of all the playoff teams. Seattle actually finished better at 88-74 and missed the playoffs due to this rule. Toronto, whose record is 89-73, would’ve also missed the postseason if it wasn’t for the expanded playoffs. While it still isn’t perfect, the expansion is rewarding more good teams with spots in the playoffs. Think back to 2019 when Cleveland was the odd man out in the playoffs despite winning 93 games during the regular season. They finished with the same record as the eventual champions in the NL, the Washington Nationals, but because only five teams at the time made it, they barely missed out.
Lastly, and most selfishly, who doesn’t love more playoff games? It’s nice to be able to watch a full slate of games during the week, and while there were a lot of sweeps, the games were at least entertaining to the end.
Argument against Expanded Playoffs:
In all the best-of-three matchups (including the 2020 season) that have already happened, there’s only been three series that haven’t been a 2-0 sweep. That’s just three out of 16 series that go beyond game two. It also takes away from the hype, knowing that if you lose one game, you can just go back tomorrow and fight for another day. This has been the biggest gripe from a lot of baseball fans as they feel the round has lost its magic. Having a prime-time game with all of America watching, knowing how much is on the line, generated some of the most insane playoff atmospheres of all time. Now, there are four games on, many of them overlapping with each other, and it starts in the afternoon.
We have been blessed with some of the craziest wild card games in MLB history in just the past few seasons. Think back to 2019 when Washington was down 3-1 entering the eighth inning against Milwaukee. The Nationals loaded the bases, and Juan Soto came to bat with two outs. He roped a line drive into right field, but it was misplayed by the outfielder Trent Grisham to allow all three base runners to score, giving Washington the 4-3 lead.
What about 2014, when the Oakland Athletics and the Kansas City Royals went head-to-head? A five-run sixth inning for the A’s looked as if it silenced the Kansas City crowd, but the Royals had some fight in them. Kansas City went on to score three runs in the bottom of the eighth to bring the deficit to within one headed into the ninth inning. A leadoff single by Josh Willingham gave the Royals a base runner. Jarrod Dyson went to pinch-run, bunted over to second by Alcides Escobar. On a 1-1 pitch to Nori Aoki, Dyson took off. His steal of third got him in scoring position for Aoki’s sacrifice fly, and the Royals would go on to win in extras. You could feel the desperation in every single one of these games, both teams fighting for their lives. They always felt as if they were as big as a game seven, but now, they don’t exist.
It really depends on what you value more from this series. Do you want as many good teams as possible to have a chance for a ring, or do you want to see two teams duke it out in a one-game battle for a spot in the next round? There are arguments for both sides of this, and I definitely did not touch on them all, but this will be a big topic amongst baseball fans in the years to come.