MLB is considering an expansion to its playoff format that would include seven playoff teams in each league, with six competing in a best-of-three opening round for a spot in the divisional series, according to Joel Sherman of the New York Post. The change could be implemented as early as 2022.
There are obviously plenty of things to unpack with this idea, and there are no doubt many baseball fans upset at the prospect of further change to the fabric of the game. But there's a particular line of thinking that is worth particular attention because of the way it will shape discourse around the concept.
Sherman's report includes the following sentence, presented as fact:
If more teams are viable for the playoffs, they will spend more to chase a spot. A club that projects itself internally to, say, 81 wins would think about adding to get to 84-85 and have a chance of being even one of seven playoff teams per league.
At first glance, the perspective makes sense. Indeed, a select group of clubs might decide to deepen their rosters in hopes of tasting October baseball. But the takeaway ignores the broader incentive an expanded playoff field would create: a race to mediocrity, not excellence.
Why would average teams pursue expensive superstars if they could reach the postseason with a win total in the low 80s? Why would above-average teams try to retain their best players (such as Mookie Betts) if they're likely headed to a best-of-three play-in scenario regardless of their moves?
Best-case scenario, then, the slight boost in motivation for middle-of-the-road teams to get better would cancel out the diminished incentive for good teams to improve, maintaining a status quo that has been heavily criticized for encouraging wealthy owners to be cheap. At worst, the landscape would shift further from the arms race for elite rosters that fans deserve.
There are plenty of examples of average teams that have made splashes this offseason that in the proposed playoff format might not be so motivated to load up. Would the Diamondbacks sign Madison Bumgarner knowing their 85-win team from a year ago would probably be enough to reach the playoffs? Would the Reds stock up on talent? Maybe not.
It's a dilemna well-explained by Dan Szymborski of FanGraphs on Twitter:
In other words, this kind of system encourages *more* teams like Boston to trade their Mookie Betts, not fewer. It creates a system in which any team that doesn't have a good shot at the #1 seed *ought* to focus on winning ~87 games.
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) February 10, 2020
There are perhaps reasons why an expanded playoff format would work for baseball. Those cases will surely be laid out in the coming weeks. But arguing that it would lead to more team spending seems like a stretch — and possibly the opposite of what would actually occur.