Just when you thought the 2020 MLB season couldn’t get any more weird, how about expanding the playoff field from 10 to 16 teams — on the night of the first regular-season game?
The league and players union agreed to the new format for this season only, meaning eight of the 15 teams in each league will make the postseason after the 60-game sprint that began Thursday.
Which teams benefit most from the 16-team format, which ones are hurt and is this a good thing? We asked three of our baseball experts — MLB reporters David Schoenfield and Bradford Doolittle, and editor Dan Mullen — to weigh in.
Wait, so what will the playoffs look like?
All first- and second-place teams in the six divisions qualify, with the division winners slotting in as each league’s top three seeds. In addition to the three second-place teams in each league, the seventh and eighth seeds will go to the remaining teams in each league with the best records. Tie-breakers will be set up so that no additional games will be necessary. Those details are still to be determined.
The first-round matchups will be best-of-three series with all three games played in the higher seed’s ballpark. From there, things pick up as usual, with the division round a best-of-five, and the league championship series and World Series both best-of-seven.
Which teams benefit the most from the new format?
Bradford Doolittle: 1. Bad teams that get lucky. 2. Mediocre teams that play mediocre. 3. Good teams that are unlucky, whether it’s by a spate of injuries or one-run losses.
David Schoenfield: Well, besides the teams that otherwise wouldn’t have made the playoffs, the team that jumps out to me is the Rays. While it’s not inconceivable that they can win the AL East, the most likely scenario is a second-place finish and what would have been relegation to the wild-card game — which no teams want. Now they can throw out Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell in a short series — and no team will want to face that trio.
Dan Mullen: I see two distinct teams helped most by this format: 1) Offense-first teams with top-end talent that might not have the depth to win a division but have a few players who could get really hot and carry them in the playoffs, and 2) teams with a couple of aces who can get them into the postseason and then dominate in a format with even more winner-take-all showdowns.
In the first category, I’d include the White Sox, with impact bats such as Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert capable of going off at the right time, and the Angels, who could be a really tough out if the new format allows Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon to play in October.
And in the second, how about the Indians and Cardinals? Both teams have some serious starting pitching but weren’t locks to get to the postseason — and they just saw their odds of getting there improve greatly.
Which teams get hurt the most?
Doolittle: Elite teams. The teams best built to dominate just saw title probabilities already degraded by the short season further eroded by a format change.
Schoenfield: The Dodgers. More chances for Kenley Jansen to blow a crucial game in a short series or for Dave Roberts to bring Clayton Kershaw out of the bullpen instead. I kid, Dodgers fans, I kid! I would say the teams that would have ended up as the No. 1 seed in both leagues — with the Dodgers and Yankees the favorites to do that. In the old format, they would face the winner of the wild-card game in a best-of-five series, but that winner likely would have used its ace to move on (and maybe even used its No. 2 starter in relief, like the Nationals did with Stephen Strasburg in last year’s wild-card game). Now the No. 1 seed is more likely to face its opponent’s ace in the first game.
Mullen: The Big Three (Dodgers, Yankees, Astros). Remember when the Nationals got hot and beat the Dodgers and Astros last October? Remember when the Giants rode their pitching at the right time as a wild-card champion in 2014? Of course you do. Well now we’re adding even more teams that could get hot at the right time and knock the superteams out. This isn’t quite March Madness, but it could very well be an upset-filled October.
What is your 16-team playoff field?
Doolittle: AL: Yankees, Astros, Twins, A’s, Rays, White Sox, Indians, Angels
NL: Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals, Braves, Padres, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Reds
Schoenfield: AL: Rays, Twins, Astros, Yankees, Indians, A’s, Angels, White Sox
NL: Nationals, Reds, Dodgers, Braves, Diamondbacks, Mets, Cubs, Brewers
Mullen: AL: Astros, Yankees, Twins, Rays, A’s, Indians, Angels, White Sox.
NL: Dodgers, Braves, Reds, Brewers, Mets, Nationals, D-backs, Padres.
Gut reaction: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Doolittle: My brain and my suddenly uneasy gut both tell me that the one saving grace of the format is that all of baseball’s legitimate contenders should land a playoff slot. But the path for all of them to survive the bracket has become even more subsumed by randomness. Given the cluster of teams around the middle of the pack in baseball and the existing 10-team format, we were probably already going to have 20 to 25 teams hanging in the race into the last week. I don’t why we’d want more faux contenders than that. Oooo … it’s a red-hot race for the No. 8 seed between the 27-29 Reds and the 26-30 Mets!
Alas, as much as I hate the idea of expanded playoffs, I’m enough of a realist to understand why the chance to recover lost revenue is too much to pass up — for this season. It would be terrible for this format to remain in place for a normal, 162-game season.
Schoenfield: The wild-card game, while exciting, has always been a flawed way to determine moving on in the postseason — one and done in baseball is no way to treat a team that has sweated for 162 games to make the postseason and may not even get a home game. Maybe we go back to that (I hope not), but in this season it makes sense to experiment and let more teams in. I don’t know if a 16-team postseason — like the NBA and NHL have — is the future, but this will be a good test run to see if fans and players like it.
Mullen: This is a GOOD thing. It might feel like a bit of a scramble in 2020, but what doesn’t? Overall, adding more teams to the field means more excitement in October and more teams in the race for the majority of the season, which will boost interest in a lot of markets come September.
How does the playoff expansion to 16 teams affect the MLB betting markets?
We asked ESPN gambling expert Doug Kezirian to weigh in with his betting perspective here.
Kezirian: The most direct impact is felt by sportsbooks that offered Yes/No proposition bets on each MLB team to make the playoffs. Some books allowed bettors to wager on any team to either make or miss the playoffs. Clearly now, the “Yes” wagers have a stronger likelihood of hitting and the “No” wagers are less likely to cash. William Hill director of trading Nick Bogdanovich said those tickets are still valid because there was no fine print about a 10-team playoff format. That also applies for all division, pennant and World Series futures tickets across all sports books.
Once the report surfaced on Wednesday, some sportsbooks took down their future odds. This new expanded format could benefit some long shot tickets. With a dominant division winner now forced to win an extra series, their odds will now have a larger payout. It comes down to the basic premise of combined probability, so the Dodgers and Yankees have each moved from +350 World Series co-favorites to 4-1, given the added difficulty of winning a three-game series. This also opens the door for long shots to sneak into the playoffs and catch fire. The Diamondbacks (45-1 to 33-1), Padres (30-1 to 22-1), Giants (175-1 to 125-1) and Rockies (100-1 to 75-1) also saw their odds lowered.