The lockout is over, and a rapidly approaching MLB season will have a new, bigger postseason format.
October will now be the domain of 12 teams. Each league will send six teams in, with the single-elimination wild-card games replaced by a best-of-three round.
Extra playoff teams were a top priority for owners. They originally pushed to move from the 10-team system to a 14-team field, and reportedly already struck a TV deal with ESPN that involved up to $ 100 million in extra revenue for the expanded playoffs. The union’s 12-team pitch made it into the final deal instead, and still stands to generate an extra $ 85 million in that ESPN deal.
To the extent any team will have a chance to recalculate its ambitions in the flurry of offseason moves to come between now and opening day, the expanded field could lift some fringe contenders’ hopes and ease pressure on others. (And hey, at least the playoff format is decided before literal opening day this year, unlike in 2020.)
But throwing open the gates to more teams could fundamentally alter a sport that has historically used a grueling regular season to separate the wheat from the chaff before October’s free-for-all. What happens when the barriers to entry are lowered to levels approaching the ones used by the NFL, NBA and NHL?
How will the 12-team bracket work?
Well, to start, the new admissions to the playoffs are easy to figure out. The three division winners from each league would remain, but instead of the next two best records getting in, it would be the next three. Of note: Game 163 is no more. Any ties would be settled via a preset list of tiebreakers, not an extra game.
This format does complicated the advantage of winning your division – because only two division winners will get a bye into the division series, the champ with the worst record will still be forced to win a best-of-three series against the worst wild-card team.
There won’t be any reseeding after that round, so it’s possible the No. 2 seed could face the No. 6 seed while a league’s top seed faces the No. 4 seed. Also not ultimately part of the format: The “ghost win” that the union proposed to give the division winner in the wild-card round an advantage by baking in an automatic win, making their best-of-three series a two-game set where they just had to win once.
So, all told, it’s a straight bracket, just bigger.
Seeds No. 1 and No. 2 in each league get byes. No. 4 plays No. 5 for the right to face the top seed. No. 3 plays No. 6 for the right to play the second seed.
Beyond the wild-card round, the playoffs will be the playoff’s you’ve known since 1995, just with a chance for some even more unlikely Cinderellas.
Will more playoff slots change how teams act?
MLB seems to view its postseason format much like a Reddit investor gazing upon the STONKS market. The numbers will go up regardless of how much sense it makes. One wild card became two in 17 years. Now two will become three in only 10 years. And since the owners pushed for a 14-team field in this round of bargaining, it’s not hard to foresee it again being a goal in the next CBA negotiation in five years.
The players whittled it to 12 teams, making the case that it will better preserve an incentive to spend and pursue wins.
I took a look at what teams would have made a 12-team playoff over the past 10 years (minus 2020). It’s not a perfect glance because, as the players know, the playoff format influences team behavior, but it’s a hint at what to expect.
Over the past nine full seasons, the median extra wild-card team would have won 86 games. Only one sub-.500 club would have snuck in, whoever emerged from a three-way, 80-win tie in 2017 among the Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays. But several other hypothetical playoff teams would have just scraped over that line, including the 83-win 2021 Cincinnati Reds.
Even the 12-team format threatens to wring the league dry of even competent teams. The first teams out of October over that span won a median 83 games.
We won’t totally know how this changes teams’ competitive calculus until we see it in action, but there are reasons to be concerned it might put some less-than-thrilling trends into overdrive.
Take the Cleveland Guardians. In the extremely tentative projections Baseball Prospectus rolled out during the lockout, they look like an 81-win team right now despite a paltry payroll. The competitive thing would be to spend on an outfielder – the only outfielder in the organization projected for above-average offensive production by FanGraphs’ ZiPS system has never played in the big leagues. But the lower bar for postseason entry could lead Cleveland’s notoriously cost-conscious front office to ride it out until the trade deadline and see how close the team is to contention. If they make it, a short series isn’t a huge worry for a team built around ace Shane Bieber.
There are other teams who might feel more emboldened to spend – the Seattle Mariners, for example, might feel more realistic in splurging for Trevor Story or Kris Bryant if they only have to beat out one of the AL East’s four contenders instead of two.
Are the playoffs getting too big for a sport with 162 games?
Those are the most immediate, tangible ripple effects to watch for. But there is a larger question that the baseball world will have to grapple with: How much postseason inflation can a sport with a 162-game season withstand?
College football is having a (more legally and morally complicated) version of this conversation right now. A regular season that used to shine because of its outsized importance risks losing its luster when losses aren’t disqualifying.
Baseball’s move isn’t that dramatic, and an impossibly random postseason has been overshadowing the thorough, almost scientific trials of the regular season for several decades. Still, the game is set up to distinguish between 82-win teams and 92-win teams. That is a decisive, crucial gulf in the quality of a baseball team, and the new playoff format will sometimes throw out the results of a six-month stress test in favor of three games.
It’s not that this is the wrong way to run a sport. The NBA basically functions like this already – there’s the season, and then the actual stacking of teams for the collective memory begins and ends with the playoffs.
The thing about the NBA is it fits. The brightest stars usually win. It makes sense. There are plenty of flashpoint moments in a big game, and across a season, to keep baseball enthralling for fans regardless of how much of a crapshoot the postseason becomes, but the results that define a season in the record books will make less and less sense the more teams get to enter the fray in three-game spurts.
A sport’s method of determining its champion should mirror its character. Baseball’s drama is naturally slower-pulsed. At its best, it plays out across months, or at least a few turns through the rotation. The Atlanta Braves won the 2021 World Series, but the San Francisco Giants’ unlikely conquest of the NL West was the most riveting narrative.
Whether the postseason shift makes itself felt remains to be seen. The 12-team format may just be the first of several steps in an evolution that could soon include a 32-team league or realigned divisions. The sport’s rhythm could find a new normal by other means.
But no matter how much MLB would love to turn October into March Madness on a diamond, it can’t change the basic heartbeat of the game.