Imagining Expanded 2021 MLB Playoffs
What would an expanded 14-team playoff field look like this season?
When Major League Baseball meets with the MLBPA this offseason to iron out a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, there is going to be many different topics of dispute on the table. From the universal DH, to seven-inning doubleheaders and the extra-inning rule, there will be a lot that has to be agreed upon before a new CBA is signed.
One of the major things that will be likely be included in this new CBA is creating an expanded playoff field, as nationally televised games are a huge source of revenue for the league. Last year, due to the unprecedented nature of the 60-game season, we had a ‘Wild Card Round’ of the playoffs for the first time, as 16 teams made the postseason.
Each team squared off in a three-game Wild Card Series to determine which four teams advanced to the typical Division Series round. While a 16-team playoff field is likely off the table this time around, there has been plenty of rumblings surrounding the implementation of a 14-team system being part of the new CBA.
This would expand the number of Wild Card teams from two to four in each league, keeping more teams in the playoff race down the stretch of the season. Then based on last year’s format, the team with the best record in each league would receive a bye, while the other two division winners would compete with the four Wild Card teams in a three-game Wild Card round.
Division winners and the Wild Card team with the best record would all get home-field advantage for the entirety of this new Wild Card round.
As we approach the final week of the 2021 season, we thought it would be fun to take a look at the standings now and imagine what the playoff race would look like if this new format was in place a year early.
National League Wild Card
Entering play on September 23rd, 11 days away from the end of the season, here is the current Wild Card standings in the National League:
|NL Wild Card Teams||W||L||PCT||WCGB|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||97||55||.638||+19|
|St. Louis Cardinals||82||69||.543||+4.5|
|San Diego Padres||76||75||.503||1.5|
|New York Mets||73||78||.480||5|
As Ken Rosenthal points out in his latest article for the Athletic about the 14-team playoff field, this year’s National League race does not exactly promote a need for expanding the playoffs.
The St. Louis Cardinals are the only team outside of the Dodgers that really do warrant a playoff berth with the way they have played down the stretch. Under the current format, that is exactly what is going to play out.
Cincinnati has been two games under .500 since the All-Star break, and while the Phillies are four games over, they have played .500 baseball in their first 20 contests in September. Over a 152-game sample, these teams have proven to be nothing more than mediocre.
Meanwhile the San Diego Padres and the New York Mets have simultaneously endured miserable second half collapses, going from being viewed as playoff-locks to laughingstocks. The two teams are a combined 48-74 since the All-Star break, both featuring winning percentages below .400 during that span.
Yet with the expanded playoff, the Padres would be right in the race down the stretch, while the Mets would be a strong series away from getting back into the race. Still, neither team would be likely to make the playoffs unless they played great baseball in the final 11 games of their season.
NL Wild Card Round Matchups
One of the fascinating implications of this playoff format is how teams would try to maneuver themselves down the stretch. The assumption, as of now, is that seeding would still prioritize division winners. This would make the Dodgers the “four-seed” of this expanded playoff field. Because of this, nothing would change, as the Cardinals would draw the worst straw as the second Wild Card team would be set to face L.A.
Meanwhile, the Reds and Phillies would be battling it out to see who got to face the division winners of the NL Central and the NL East, with the San Francisco Giants earning that first round bye due to having the best record in the league, en route to winning the NL West.
Because division rivalries are fun, let’s just assume the Phillies edge out the Reds and earn the third Wild Card spot, setting them up for a matchup against the Atlanta Braves. Meanwhile the Reds would face their own division foe in the Milwaukee Brewers.
|Cincinnati Reds vs. Milwaukee Brewers||American Family Field – Milwaukee|
|Philadelphia Phillies vs. Atlanta Braves||Truist Park – Atlanta|
|St. Louis Cardinals vs. Los Angeles Dodgers||Dodger Stadium – L.A.|
American League Wild Card
|AL Wild CArd teams||W||L||PCT||WCGB|
|Boston Red Sox||88||65||.575||+5.5|
|New York Yankees||86||67||.562||+3.5|
|Toronto Blue Jays||85||67||.559||+3|
Now we have a race!
While the National League this year is not a ringing endorsement for an expanded playoff, the American League certainly presents a much stronger case for warranting one.
Each of these teams is at least 12 games over .500 and all can make a case for deserving a spot in the postseason. Anyone would be at risk to fall out of the playoffs entirely entering the final week, although the Red Sox would seem to be as close to a lock as it gets.
Meanwhile the race between Oakland and Seattle for the final spot could come down to the wire. If Seattle could hold off the A’s, they would finally end their 19-year playoff drought.
AL Wild Card Round Matchups
With the format that has the top-two Wild Card teams squaring off in the Wild Card round, no one would be robbed of this year’s much-anticipated Wild Card matchup between the Red Sox and the Yankees. We would just get a three-game series of it, instead of a one-off playoff game.
Right now under the current playoff, the Tampa Bay Rays really don’t have much left to play for. They have the AL East all but sewn up, with only home-field advantage left to worry about. With the new format, the Houston Astros would be 2.5 games back from Tampa for the first round bye, which is far more valuable than just getting home-field advantage in the ALCS.
If the playoff bracket held true from where it is today, here are the matchups we would get in the American League:
|Toronto Blue Jays vs. Houston Astros||Minute Maid Park – Houston|
|Seattle Mariners vs. Chicago White Sox||Guaranteed Rate Field – Chicago|
|New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox||Fenway Park – Boston|
Should MLB Adopt The Expanded Playoff?
Any traditional baseball fan will immediately turn down the prospect of an expanded playoff, as it would diminish the value of the 162-games season. Baseball has always been a marathon, where the great teams are weeded out through a painstakingly long season.
If you can endure the six-month long season of playing games nearly every day, then you have effectively earned your spot into October and a chance to win a World Series title. By expanding to a 14-team playoff field, mediocre teams like the Cincinnati Red or the Philadelphia Phillies could enter the dance and shock the world with a few hot weeks. We all saw that play out firsthand back in 2019, when the Washington Nationals nearly lost the NL Wild Card Game, before going on to win the whole damn thing.
And yet the reality is, expansion is inevitable.
The NFL continues to expand their playoff, while the NBA has implemented a play-in tournament to add more interest to end of their season and get more nationally televised games with stakes. This is going to happen with MLB, like it or not.
Now one way that Major League Baseball could go with their expanded playoff is following that NBA model and creating a play-in tournament for their Wild Card teams. Ken Rosenthal noted this in his article for the Athletic, that Major League Baseball has thought about the prospect of putting four Wild Card teams in single elimination tournament to decide who advances to the Division Series.
Now this year, that would be incredibly unfair to a team like the Dodgers, who would now have to survive two crapshoot Game 7-type scenarios to advance. Still, this would only incentivize winning your division even more.
Regardless of the format that comes next year, Major League Baseball is not going to leave any money on the table in future when it comes to playoff baseball. So enjoy this year’s one-game Wild Card matchup, because it is likely the last time you will see it played this way.