MLB Postseason: The MLBPA shouldn’t take postseason expansion

PORT ST. LUCIE, FL - MARCH 7: Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association talks to the media prior to the spring training game between the New York Mets and the New York Yankees at First Date Field on March 7, 2018 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
PORT ST. LUCIE, FL - MARCH 7: Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association talks to the media prior to the spring training game between the New York Mets and the New York Yankees at First Date Field on March 7, 2018 in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) /

The MLBPA may think the reported MLB postseason expansion proposal is just a negotiating ploy, but they should reject it—as a few players seem to do.

The good news may be that the MLBPA thinks commissioner  Rob Manfred’s spread-the-cookies-around proposal for seven postseason teams in each league and more wildcards is just a negotiating ploy, for now. The not-so-good news is that the players’ union isn’t exactly averse to expanding an MLB postseason that needs to be contracted, not expanded.

According to The Athletic‘s Even Drellich, the union “is open to the idea of expanding the playoffs, seeing the potential for a positive effect on competitiveness and salaries. But that’s a general interest, rather than a commitment to the vision MLB has at present.” And union chief Tony Clark says, “Any measures that aim to incentivize competition are worth discussing. For playoff expansion specifically, the devil of those discussions will be in the details.”

Incentivizing competition, he says? Clark may care to look around his rank and file. There are rumblings from more than a few players that Manfred’s proposal will do quite the opposite. The delightfully irrepressible Washington Nationals relief pitcher Sean Doolittle calls expanding the MLB postseason “a really interesting idea,” because who doesn’t love the MLB postseason while holding concurrently that it doesn’t mean diluting competition will enhance it.

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“[L]owering the bar to get into the playoffs isn’t necessarily the best way to increase on-field competition and make the sport more appealing to fans,” Doolittle tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

Just as was said once of statesman/philosopher Edmund Burke, Doolittle chose his side like a fanatic but defended it like a gentleman: “Under this proposal, a 75 win team might be a playoff contender. Will teams continue to try to improve when they have to do less to make the playoffs? We need to be thinking about ways to drive competition and incentivize winning so fans get the best version of the game.”

Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, a character in his own right, is likewise unamused by such prospects, but he chose his side like a fanatic and defended it like the bull charging the china shop with malicious assault. “No idea who made this new playoff format proposal, but Rob is responsible for releasing it, so I’ll direct this to you, Rob Manfred,” Bauer tweeted Tuesday. “Your proposal is absurd for too many reasons to type on twitter and proves you have absolutely no clue about baseball. You’re a joke.”

Bauer’s may be the sort of tone you’d equate to swatting a mosquito with a shotgun, but he’s probably not even close to alone in believing Manfred is a clueless joke. The commissioner’s lot these days is less than a happy lot. The more the deeper Astrogate details pour forth, the more he seems bent on amputating rather than fortifying the minor leagues, the more he reaches for rules changes of dubious strategic and metaphysical game value, the less he’s seen as a viable administrator and overseer.

But one tweeter responded to Bauer thus: “I personally see zero reason to be upset about this from the outside looking in. You wanna help clue in the fans on why you, the player, doesn’t like the opportunity for more teams to be in the playoff in a sport that’s unfortunately lost popularity?” Since Bauer hadn’t responded to that by the time I sat down to write, I’m more than happy to respond—as a writer professionally but first and foremost as a near-lifelong baseball fan myself.

Maybe Bauer, the player, far prefers true championship competition. Maybe he’s not alone among today’s players in wondering whether it’s too simple and too unworthy of a true competitor to settle for a wild card shot. Maybe Bauer, who’s sometimes seen as a throwback type in hand with being seen (don’t laugh) as a forward if eccentric thinker, appreciates the real value of a real race to first place or bust, no consolation prizes.

You can stop me if you’ve seen me say it before, but I submit that one reason baseball struggles for fan primacy is something its lords and princelings barely seem to acknowledge at times: Real baseball fans simply can’t always wrap themselves around the idea of the thrills and chills down the stretch watching the great and glorious game’s combatants fighting to the last breath to finish . . . in second place.

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Real competition requires baseball’s return, as best as possible, to the real incentive that if you don’t find your butts parked at the top of your divisional heap at the regular season’s end, you get to say, “Wait ’till next year.” (Yes, yes, there are those teams for whom this year is next year. But no one threatened them with dire consequences unless they went into the tanks, did they?)

Doolittle acknowledged the point in the breach when he spoke of whether teams would try to improve when making the MLB postseason requires less effort. Tankers gonna tank, until or unless Manfred and his administration crackdown on the syndrome, but the added wild cards might give even those who refuse to tank a disincentive of sorts.

One more time, please indulge my own thought: Eliminate the wild cards entirely. Give each league’s division winner with the best season’s record a round-one bye. Let their other two division winners slug out a best-of-three division series. Let the winner of those meet the bye teams in the best-of-five League Championship Series. (The way the LCS was born in the first place.)  Let the best-of-seven World Series return to its proper primacy.

Yes, you’d have less “postseason inventory,” to use the phrase that was used in a few of the early reports about the seven-postseason-team prospect. Maybe someone could convince television as well as the owners that they surely won’t lose and might even stand to win bigger if there was less “inventory” but more truly competitive and less saturating MLB postseason.

The present system delivers saturation to the point where even baseball’s most lifelong committed fans might tire of the game even during the World Series. No matter how uproarious a given Series might be. (God and His servant Casey Stengel know how uproarious it was to watch Doolittle’s Nats hand the Houston Asterisks their heads on plates entirely in their own Astrogate playpen last fall.) Devising a revision that would turn saturation to waterlogging isn’t exactly the way to resurrect the passion for real competition, which is diluted more than enough already.

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