Compared with other sports where nearly half the league qualifies for the playoffs in any given year, baseball has always set itself apart for its exclusivity.
It’s hard to make the playoffs in baseball. Only the best teams in each league earn a spot, and sometimes great teams wind up on the outside looking in. Those who do make the field quickly find there aren’t any cupcakes, which means fans can count on high-level matchups from start to finish.
That dynamic was thrown into jeopardy this offseason, but baseball should be grateful the owners and players found a way to expand the postseason without watering it down.
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MLB’s new 12-team playoff structure is a win for all parties involved. It’s a win for the owners, who will reap a financial windfall from the additional playoff games. It’s a win for the players, who will now have more opportunities to make the playoffs and potentially play deeper into October. And it’s a win for fans, who can expect more exciting matchups without the duds a 14-team structure would have inevitably produced.
With the new collective bargaining agreement signed, the expanded playoffs will start this year. So, how will it work?
Over the past decade or so, baseball has used a 10-team playoff where the three division winners in each league automatically advance to the Divisional Series while the top two nondivision champions play in a one-game Wild Card play-in game. The winner of that game joins the division winners in the best-of-five Divisional Series, which is followed by the best-of-seven League Championship Series and World Series.
Under the new 12-team system, the two division winners with the best record in each league will earn first-round byes, and the third division winner will earn the top seed in the new best-of-three Wild Card round. They will be joined by the top three nondivision winners, and the higher seeded team will host the entire playoff round. The Wild Card series winners will advance to the divisional round, and from there things will play out the same as before.
The new system also does away with Game 163 tiebreakers, meaning if two teams have the same record at the end of the season, then an NFL-style tiebreaker will be used to determine who makes the playoffs. One-game playoffs, like the Game 163 the Red Sox and Yankees played in 1978 or like last fall’s the AL Wild Card Game, will become a thing of the past.
If the new system had been in place last October, the playoff field would have looked like this:
In the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros would have earned first-round byes, and the Wild Card series would have had the Chicago White Sox hosting the Toronto Blue Jays and the Red Sox hosting the Yankees for three-game series. For the National League, the San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers would have earned byes, the Atlanta Braves would have hosted the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers would have hosted the St. Louis Cardinals in the Wild Card round.
Obviously that would have worked out great for the Blue Jays and Reds, who were on the outside looking in last October, and another benefit of the new setup is that it reduces the randomness inherent in a winner-take-all playoff game. Even a great team could lose if they run into the right pitcher on the right day, or if their own ace melts down or something else goes wrong.
A three-game series is still basically a crapshoot compared to a full 162-game season, but it will give every playoff team an honest shot in October and should make the Wild Card round feel more like an actual part of the playoffs rather than as a glorified play-in.
Want to spice things up? Here are five storylines to follow to keep the season fresh.
City Connect jerseys to return
The Red Sox will once again wear their yellow City Connect uniforms in 2022, according to a team spokesperson.
The Boston Marathon-inspired alternates were introduced last year and became a phenomenon late in the season when the Red Sox wore them in six straight games during a crucial September win streak. The club official said the Red Sox don’t plan to add any other new uniforms this year and that no specific dates have been set for when the City Connect uniforms will be worn.
Under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement clubs can also now sell advertisements to be worn on player jerseys and batting helmets.
Fitting in all 162
When MLB canceled the first two weeks of the regular season as labor talks dragged on, it said the games wouldn’t be rescheduled and that the players wouldn’t be paid. Funnily enough, once a new deal was reached that suddenly changed, and now the league expects all 162 games to be played.
How will that work? The second week of games from April 7-14 were simply restored to the schedule, basically undoing the league’s cancellation announcement. That part was simple enough, but rescheduling the first week of games will be a little trickier. Jayson Stark of The Athletic had some info on the league’s plans.
According to Stark, the league plans to extend the regular season three days and play what would have been the original opening series then. For the Red Sox that would mean hosting the Tampa Bay Rays from Oct. 3-5 to wrap up the regular season. As for the second postponed series, those will be made up primarily as doubleheaders throughout the year, though some matchups will require serious contortions to fit in.
More marquee showcases coming
Was there a cooler scene last season than the Field of Dreams game in Iowa? The Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees met at the cornfield where the iconic Kevin Costner movie was filmed and delivered one of the best games of the season, with the White Sox winning on a walk-off home run in front of the largest TV audience for a regular season baseball game in 16 years.
It was an awesome showcase for baseball, and fans can expect more games like it going forward.
According to the new CBA, the league and players have agreed to “a robust international play plan in which clubs will stage games or tours in Mexico, Asia, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, London and Paris over the next five years in order to grow the game.”
For a sport that has often struggled to market itself and its stars, this is a great idea that will absolutely help baseball break through in the wider cultural conversation. This playbook has worked great for the NHL with its Winter Classic and for the NFL with its games in London and Mexico.
My free advice for MLB: Play a Midnight Sun Game in Alaska. The spectacle of seeing big leaguers playing a “day” game at midnight on the Summer Solstice would be unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Draft lottery coming in 2023
Tanking is a persistent problem in American professional sports where top draft choices are awarded to teams with the worst record, and it’s become especially problematic in baseball over the past decade. After the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros successfully executed full-scale teardowns to lay the foundation of future World Series championship rosters, clubs across the sport have tried to copy them. The result? A diluted landscape where as much as a third of the league is actively trying to lose at any given time.
That lack of competitiveness is bad for baseball, so in order to discourage teams from racing to the bottom, MLB has implemented the most aggressive draft lottery in America.
Unlike the NBA, in which only the top three picks are subject to the lottery, baseball’s new lottery will determine the top six picks in the MLB Draft starting in 2023. The three teams with the worst records in baseball will have equal odds at landing the No. 1 overall pick (16.5%) and odds will be assigned in reverse order of win percentage from there among teams that didn’t make the playoffs.
While the odds are still good that a last place team will still earn a high pick, the new system adds significant risk that a cellar-dwelling club might only end up picking No. 7 overall.
MLB Network is making a play for younger viewers with new programming, ‘Top of the Order.’
This article is written by Mac Cerullo from The Daily News of Newburyport, Mass. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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