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Rob Manfred’s desire to permanently expand the playoffs is dumb and bad

Teams like the Brewers would no longer have any incentive to try any harder than they have this year

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers
Everyone is angry about this stupid idea.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

I like it when the Milwaukee Brewers play well enough to make it into the playoffs. It hasn’t happened nearly as much as I’d like in the 32 years I’ve been alive. I would like it to happen more.

But the idea of permanently expanding the playoffs to 16 teams — 8 in each league — is so bad and dumb that I can’t even bring myself to support it, even on the basis of the Brewers making the playoffs more.

Let’s put aside for a moment the feeling it waters down the meaning of regular season games, which are already sufficiently watered down by the fact that there are 162 of them and the day-to-day results largely don’t matter.

The bigger damage, in my view, is that it further removes incentives for teams to acquire good players that are fun to watch over 162 games.

Sure, you need enough good players to keep you in the playoff race, but by nearly doubling the number of teams making the playoffs in each league, you’re drastically lowering the bar on how good a team needs to be to make the postseason. And sure, you still need more good players than most to make it to the World Series and truly compete for a title, but let’s be honest here — the people signing the paychecks for the teams we root for largely only care about the extra playoff revenue, and not necessarily the shiny Tiffany trophy you might get at the end of October.

We can largely throw out the results of this season as a fluke for a lot of reasons — small sample sizes galore, bad schedules, the very real and large off-field things that are weighing on players’ minds every day — but if there’s one thing we can take as a lesson from baseball in 2020, it’s that the last couple playoff spots in an 8-team-per-league field would likely be filled by teams struggling to post a winning record.

We know how disappointing the Brewers have been this year, even among those who had tempered expectations to begin with. They’re genuinely fielding one of the worst offenses the team has had through a month and a half in franchise history. It’s hard to feel good about the performance of anyone who isn’t a pitcher, and even then, there have still been a number of extremely frustrating things about the pitching staff — like Adrian Houser and Josh Hader.

And still, the Brewers are 1 game back of the 8th wildcard spot. One! Only a game! They could have that spot by the end of the day and still be multiple games below .500!

It’s entirely possible the eventual holder of that spot still finishes above .500. But if you can be 4 games under .500 with a week and a half to play and still be within a game of that sweet postseason payday, what motivation does an owner have to pay the extra $10 million for the 1 Win Above Replacement that would normally be associated with a playoff push?

Even in a year where the economy hasn’t been ravaged by a pandemic, if you could make the playoffs at 82 wins and almost certainly would be a playoff team at 85 wins, where is the motivation to get much better than that, especially knowing there are realistically only a couple teams in each league that truly have enough to be World Series contenders?

And if you’re one of those World Series contenders, what’s the motivation to keep spending if additional rounds of playoffs mean more chances to get bit by some bad luck in a short series? Would the Dodgers or Cubs feel confident in a three-game series in the first round against the Brewers with the way Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes have been pitching? What about facing Jacob deGrom in the first game of three against the Mets, knowing if you don’t beat him, you have to win two in a row?

Baseball isn’t the NBA, where the teams with the best players generally advance, despite allowing 8 teams in per conference (and, surprise, that 8th team in the weaker conference frequently struggles to reach .500). Baseball isn’t football, where again, the better teams with byes will generally end up in the Super Bowl.

Baseball is a game that’s so random that it needs 162 games just to get a solid handle on who is actually good and who isn’t. And even then, racking up the most wins during the regular season is far from an indicator of who ends up being successful in the postseason.

Lowering the threshold to get into the postseason AND inviting more chaos in October may get more eyeballs interested in the playoffs, but it’s a terrible way of figuring out who the best baseball team is every year, while also lowering the incentives for BOTH the teams at the top and the bottom to spend on that extra player or two to put them over the top.

Which, of course, is likely the point from the perspective of Rob Manfred and the owners.

Lower the incentive of teams to make moves, and you’ll lower the salaries, all while the owners take in more money with expanded television rights. As long as you make the playoffs, why should those in charge care how good you actually are?

Why should the Brewers try to find a legitimate option for third base or first base this winter if they can roll the dice on another round of Jedd Gyorkos and Justin Smoaks that will get them back to this same position next year — a game out of the playoffs with a week and a half to go?

Congratulations, Rob Manfred, you’ve turned everyone into the Herb Kohl-era Milwaukee Bucks. Just get that 8th seed and you’re golden, no need to try any harder than that.