Welcome to the Radical Ideas Series, in which we “fix” baseball not by merely limiting mound visits or even instituting pitch clocks but by revolutionizing the game’s competitive structure with way-out-there — yet at least vaguely plausible — changes.
We’ll present three radical ideas this week, starting with today’s. Our goal isn’t (necessarily) for these ideas to land on MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s desk. Instead, they’re intended to stir conversation about the state of the sport — and what would happen if …
For the first few decades of the 20th century, there was a big debate about how long hope springs eternal in the baseball breast.
“Hope springs eternal in the baseball breast until about this time in August,” a Tennessee sports page read in 1907 (note: emphasis is ours in this and the following quotes). “Hope springs eternal in the baseball breast, only to die out around June or July,” according to a 1952 Newport Daily News story. Two years later, the same publication quoted “someone” who said hope springs eternal (in the baseball breast) “only to wither and die out before late June.” Oakland Tribune, 1930: “Hope springs eternal in the baseball breast until around the middle of May or the first of June.”
In 2018, though, we can see playoff odds. Every day, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs and FiveThirtyEight run thousands of simulations of the season, count up how often each team makes the playoffs in those simulations and tell us just how hopeful we should be — or, more distressingly, how hopeless. It’s hard for hope to spring eternal when we know as much as we do these days. It’s hard for a lot of teams to even pretend.
This season, on Opening Day, the White Sox had an 0.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs’ odds — roughly one in 1,000. The Marlins were also at 0.1, the Tigers at 0.7, the Royals at 0.9 and the Reds at 2.0. All five teams fell further in the season’s first two weeks. So, too, did the Padres (from 2.6 percent to 0.5 on April 12), the Rays (4.9 percent to 0.3), the Orioles (4.9 to 0.1), the Rangers (7.7 to 1.6) and the A’s (9.2 to 5.1). That’s a third of the league with a combined 1-in-12 chance of claiming a single playoff spot, including a mere wild card. That’s three weeks into the season. This is a problem if your product is baseball games sold by the barrel.
Our plan to fix this
Every team makes the playoffs. You can’t have low playoff odds if you’re guaranteed to make the playoffs.
How it works
On Sept. 1, the playoffs begin. The worst team in each league plays the second-worst team in a winner-take-all game. One travel day later, the victor in that game plays the 13th seed — in the 13th seed’s park — in the same format, and the winner of that stage plays the 12th seed, and so on, with stages getting progressively longer until the league champions face off in the seven-game World Series. All playoff games, until the league championship and World Series, take place in the higher seed’s home park.
Three reasons it works
1. If they’re going to sell us baseball games that matter, those games should actually matter. Last season, there were 441 games in which the home team had zero percent playoff odds. More than 40 percent of all games were hosted by a team with single-digit odds, and 1 in 6 games featured two teams that were in single digits, competing for nothing. (These games drew, on average, about 5,000 fewer fans than the average game.)
Beyond that, there’s this: Even the games between competitive teams usually don’t matter, technically speaking. Last season, the Rockies won the second NL wild-card spot by one game over the Brewers, but otherwise, no team’s playoff outlook was affected in any way by a single game. Every other team either won its spot by at least two games or missed the playoffs by at least two games. (The Indians would have had home-field advantage over the Astros by one game had they played each other in the playoffs; they didn’t.) In retrospect, not one walk-off victory, blown save or anything else actually made any difference to any of 28 teams.
Now, those wide margins aren’t preordained, and fans don’t know until the end whether the 14-inning loss in June will end up costing their team a playoff spot in October, but on a basic level, we all know that in a 2,430-game season, the stakes of a single game usually end up being low.
If every team makes the playoffs, then every team is in it all the time — no team enters April, or even September, out of it. Almost every team, from the Marlins to the Astros, has an incentive to win every day because jumping a single spot in the seedings roughly doubles a team’s chances of winning the World Series, just as falling a spot halves those chances. There were 17 teams last year within a single game of another team in their league. More than half of all games would have had a direct impact on the final playoff seeds. Six more teams were within two games, and only three teams — the Twins, Dodgers and Nationals — weren’t within three games of another team.
2. Ever since baseball expanded from two postseason teams to four (in 1969), there has been a clash between two sports-tournament ideals: One is that a tournament should be wild, just absolutely bonkers, and introducing chaos is what makes for memorable outcomes. The other is that a tournament should sort out who the best team is, reward that team with a championship and avoid undercutting a long and grueling regular season with a nihilistic coin flip. Every expansion of baseball’s postseason (to eight teams in 1995, to 10 in 2012) has added to the bonkers possibilities (wild-card teams have been as likely to go all the way as the team with the best record in baseball) at the expense of the best-team ideal. Baseball’s home-field advantage is small, and in a short series, the being-the-better-team advantage is, too. No playoff format has figured out how to give a 97-win team a fitting edge over an 83-win team in a week of baseball.
This would. Despite it being possible for the worst team in a league to win 15 straight rounds of playoffs and take the World Series, it is extremely unlikely. Even a 10 seed would be around a 1-in-50,000 shot to win it all, by my estimates. In fact, this format would benefit the bad teams a little (by giving them a sliver of a chance and something to play for) but benefit the very best teams the most (by giving them a shorter path to the championship). More than half the titles would be won by teams that led their leagues in regular-season wins.
3. Ah, but the bonkers that would happen along the way! Last year, the Oakland A’s went into September with a 58-75 record; they’d have been the 14th seed in the American League. Then, for no obvious reason and for no real gain, they got hot. They won five straight and 14 out of 17 and ended the season on a 17-7 run. Historians will forget this stretch of good baseball, as will the 9,329 fans who showed up in Oakland to see the A’s play the Mariners on Sept. 25. But had it been timed just right, that stretch could have carried the 14th-seeded A’s all the way to a five-game matchup against the No. 5 seed. Rookie Matt Olson, who slugged .741 with nine homers in that stretch, would be a playoff legend. Starting pitcher Daniel Mengden‘s 1.54 ERA in September would have defined his career.
Allowing every team to reach the postseason creates the possibility for a truly exceptional run and for the sort of upsets that grab an entire nation’s attention. Baseball’s current postseason doesn’t really have underdogs. It has the best team and the slightly worse teams, but nobody is making an inspiring movie about the 83-win Cardinals going all the way in 2006. In this format, there would be underdogs. A truly bad team really would occasionally bump into a truly good one in a high-stakes matchup. This is good for the broadcast business: Humans who have no natural rooting interest will tune in to root for an underdog. It’s good, too, for anybody who just likes some variety.
The logistical challenge I think we can solve
This would cause incredible scheduling turmoil. Good teams don’t want to take a month and a half off before the playoffs finally get around to including them. They’d say it would make them rusty, and they might even be right. We need to figure out a way to keep them playing.
We just keep the regular season going — through the end of September, as we do now. All the teams that aren’t engaged in a playoff series stick to the regular schedule, and the seedings continue to change as regular-season games are won and lost. For example: On Sept. 1, the 15th-seed Marlins and 14th-seed Padres play each other. The Marlins’ and Padres’ regularly scheduled opponents would play each other in a two-game series, and those games count as regular-season games. Everybody else plays their regular schedule. The 13th seed at this point obviously can’t fall lower than 13 but could still climb to 12, just as the No. 1 could still fall to No. 2, and so on. This ends up with the No. 1 seed having to sit idle for 12 days; maybe they can go camping. The point is this: Almost all the games matter, all the way to the end.
(I’m going to assume all ballparks remain available on short notice, just as they seem to be in October now, and the burden of booking travel is, as in the current October format, manageable, if inconvenient. I’m cutting the regular-season schedule back to 154 games and using those extra eight off days in September, so the regular-season schedule can match up with the travel days in the playoffs. I’m … hoping it never rains. I still have the seventh game of the World Series ending on Nov. 1.)
Mostly because players deserve to play for something and because the sport really works only if we believe they’re playing for something. As it is, a full third of the league exists more or less outside the realm of hope and faith. Joey Votto‘s value to most of us is as a stat-creation machine for our fantasy teams. Joey Votto’s value to the standings is to play spoiler and ruin another team’s weekend. For one of the five best players in the world and one of the great careers of this generation, that seems like an incomplete existence. At least once every season, Joey Votto should be allowed to play in a packed stadium with the World Series (at least technically) on the line. Baseball gave us one Felix Hernandez, and we blew it. It gave Daniel Mengden the month of his life, and we told him it basically didn’t count.
Maybe this all worked a few decades ago, when hope still sprang eternal in the baseball breast. Nowadays, we know better. If they want us to hope, we need a more hope-inducing system.