Rays Tales: Why expanded playoffs are not necessarily a good thing

Teams that already had a solid chance to make the major-league postseason now face more randomness with 16 teams involved.
The Rays celebrate their 5-1 win over the A's in the American League wild-card game on Oct. 2, 2019 in Oakland, Calif.
The Rays celebrate their 5-1 win over the A's in the American League wild-card game on Oct. 2, 2019 in Oakland, Calif. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 25, 2020|Updated July 26, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Trying to decide what to make of the agreement struck just before Thursday’s leaguewide opener to expand the playoff field from 10 teams to 16 for this season is vexing.

You could make the case it’s a bad idea at a good time.

That opening the door to the postseason so wide to more than half the teams, maybe even some with losing records, and diminishing the benefit of winning a division further dilutes what once had been the most select field in pro sports is all worth it to maintain fan — and also player — interest throughout the final month of this 60-game pandemic-impacted season.

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Or that it’s a good idea at a bad time.

That expanding the field to boost interest and — more importantly — revenue through additional postseason TV programming and potentially, if coronavirus numbers improve, ticket sales makes tremendous business sense and provides a free one-year trial run in an already asterisked season. But that changing the rules after teams had made roster (and even medical) decisions and formed strategic philosophies based on only five teams (three division winners, two wild cards) making the field is not fair.

For the Rays, it seems like a bad idea at a bad time.

The Rays have a very good team, one that seemed quite likely to make the playoffs under the old rules, projected to battle the Yankees for the American League East title.

Sure, things can happen to impact those chances. Disappointing performances, injuries and, obviously this year, illness, as key players will become suddenly unavailable for COVID-19 causes (positive or delayed tests, symptoms, exposure).

Related: Brandon Lowe leads Rays to first win

The new format provides a legit contender such as the Rays a safeguard, in that now the three divisions winners, the three second-place finishers and the two teams with the next best records all make it. (So, potentially, a fourth-place finisher in a five-team division could be popping bottles — if those still can be popped.) And, maybe, it helps offset whatever unfairness the unbalanced schedule provides for teams facing only opponents based on geographical divisions but competing for the same wild-card spots.

And it eliminates the risk of the Rays having a very successful season come down to the coin flip of the one-game wild-card showdown, which is a good thing (though they have won both of those they have played, and on the road). And, in theory, it plays to their pitching depth, as the first round is now a best-of-three (with all three hosted by the higher seed), which should allow them to flex their strength.

But …

The ultimate goal is winning the World Series. And while finishing ahead of the Yankees in the East will still be a battle, the Rays had seemed a solid choice under the old format to make the playoffs, even if just as a wild card.

The new plan takes that certainty and introduces more randomness to it. Admitting three extra entrants to the tournament — and taking away the first-round “bye” that the three division winners got — creates more opportunity for better teams to be knocked off by lesser ones. If this system had been in place in the 25 seasons since the split to three divisions in 1995, per Elias, 46 teams with .500 or worse records would have made the playoffs.

The Blue Jays are a good example. They’re a team that probably isn’t good enough over a 162-game season, but Toronto could ride the confidence of its young hitters over the shorter schedule and finish among the fourth through eighth AL teams. The White Sox are another. And with veteran players, the Angels, too.

Another benefit is for teams that are well-armed but might be short on offense, such as the Indians. If one of those squeaks into the playoffs, they could roll with dominant starting pitching.

Plus, there is a broader impact to the change.

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Much of the buildup, and part of the appeal, to this sprint of a season has been tied to every game counting, how one game out of 60 is like 2.7 of 162. But with winning the division maybe a disincentive, and more leeway to still make it in, teams might change that approach. Maybe step off the gas, hold off on pushing starters or having relievers work back-to-back games, acknowledging that winning the division isn’t worth it, and deal with the mixed messaging that sends their players. As odd as it sounds, teams might rest players during the 60-game season to keep them fresh for what could be a 22-game postseason.

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The case that this is bad for the Rays is not overwhelming. It’s worse for a prohibitive division favorite, such as the Dodgers. In a year when the Rays weren’t as good, you could argue it helps them, especially competing with the big-bucks opponents in their division. And if there ever was a season to experiment, this would be it.

But given the position they’re in, and the opportunity they have, inviting more teams could ruin their party.

Numbers game

Through 1968, only two major-league teams went to the postseason, which was the World Series. After baseball started division play, four teams made it from 1969-1994, then eight after splitting into three divisions and adding a wild card in 1995, and 10 with the addition of the second wild card in 2012. Expanding the playoff field to 16 — even if only one year — brings MLB more in line with the three other major pro sports:

Sport Teams In Playoffs Pct.

NBA 30 16 53

MLB 30 16 53

NFL 32 14* 44

NHL 31 16 52

* New for this season

Rays rumblings

Among the more reasonable — and printable — comments about the Rays’ social justice-themed media posts on Friday morning: Were they wise in taking advantage of the opening-day stage to share their message, or did they take away from what was supposed to be a day to celebrate the return of baseball somewhat exclusive of any other issues? …. Jim Bowden of The Athletic picks the Rays’ Kevin Cash to win AL manager of the year, noting “he’ll finally get the credit he deserves for the shrewd and deft decisions he makes on a game-by-game basis.” He also has Yoshi Tsutsugo as a rookie-of-the-year candidate. … Given the health and safety precautions to limit touch through reuse, the Rays expect to use 1,800 baseballs a day (for batting practice, cage work, drills, in games) compared to 720 in past years. … The Rays’ opening-day roster includes players from six countries, plus Puerto Rico. … Tsutsugo was the sixth Ray to homer in his major-league debut, joining Brent Abernathy, Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, Brandon Guyer and Willy Adames.