You can say a lot of things about Major League Baseball but one thing you have to give them is this — they’re creative!
As league officials try to figure out how to put on a 2020 season amidst a global pandemic, a number of ideas have been floated as trial balloons. There was the all-Arizona idea, which essentially creates a baseball eco-bubble where all of MLB would be based in the state for the entire season. Another was to create two leagues — a Cactus League and Grapefruit League, where all games would be played at spring training sites in Arizona and Florida.
In both scenarios, players would be forced to sequester from their families for months on end, something players like Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw, and the Phillies’ own Zack Wheeler said they wouldn’t be thrilled about.
Folks, if Mike Trout says he ain’t doing it, it ain’t happening.
Which brings us to the latest idea, as reported by Bob Nightingale in USA Today this week.
Major League Baseball officials have become cautiously optimistic this week that the season will start in late June, and no later than July 2, playing at least 100 regular-season games, according to three executives with knowledge of the talks. They requested anonymity because the plan is still under consideration.
And not only would baseball be played, but it would be played in their own major-league ballparks, albeit with no fans.
MLB is considering a three-division, 10-team plan in which teams play only within their division – a concept gaining support among owners and executives. It would abolish the traditional American and National Leagues, and realign the divisions based on geography.
Of the three major solutions reported so far, this one makes the most sense. It would allow players to stay at home with their families and restrict travel, two major issues that needed to be addressed in any plan.
According to Nightingale, the Phillies would play in a division with the powerhouse New York Yankees, the Mets, the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Toronto Blue Jays, and Miami Marlins.
That would be a tough draw for the Phillies. Sure, they’d lose the Atlanta Braves, who would play in the new Central division, but one would assume the Yankees would win the new East. Not knowing how the wild card situation would work, let’s assume three wild cards per division. That would mean the Phils would compete against the Mets, Red Sox, Rays and Nationals for those three spots. Is Boston going to suffer a repeat of last year? Will the Rays be as good? What are the Mets? For that matter, what are the Phillies?
Nightengale’s story did not mention how the playoffs would be structured or how many teams would reach the postseason. It’s tricky because with three divisions of 10, you cannot simply have each division play a playoff tree inside itself. You’d have three division “champions” left over, and I’ve never seen a World Series with three participants.
So how would the postseason work? Here’s the only idea I can see that makes any sense.
Let’s assume that Major League Baseball wants to keep the number of playoff teams at 12. It’s impossible to create a straight bracket with 12 teams, because you need squares of 2 to whittle things down to a tidy semifinal and World Series. If baseball wanted to do a straight seeding system, they would need to reduce the number of playoff teams to 8 (not likely, as owners want more playoff teams, not less), or 16, which would mean more than half the teams in baseball would reach the postseason. It would simply be too many teams and too many games.
So, let’s stick with 12. How do we make this work? Here’s my guess.
First, you’d have three division winners and three wild card teams in each division, for a total of 12 playoff teams. That would give you nine wild cards. In my scenario below, the three division winners and the wild card team with the best record would get first round byes, while the eight other wild card teams would be seeded and play in either a one-game playoff or three-game playoff series, in which the higher-seeded team would host all three games.
In the scenario above, the wild card team with the worst record (WC9) would play the wild card team with the second-best record (WC2), with WC2 hosting all three games of a playoff series. Wild Card Team 3 would host WC8, WC4 would host WC7 and WC5 would host WC6.
Can you imagine four one-game playoffs? Or four best-of-3 series to start off the postseason?
After that “wild card round,” you’d move to the round of 8, or your Division Series. At this point, MLB could either let the brackets remain what they are, in which the team with the best record in baseball would play the winner of WC5 vs. WC6. So let’s say the Yankees finish with the best record in baseball. They would play the winner of the series between the 5th-best wild card team and the 6th-best wild card team, just like we see in the NCAA tournament. The division winner with the second-best record (DW2) would play the winner of the series between WC4 & WC7, as illustrated above, and so on.
An alternate plan would be to let the division winner with the best record (DW1) pick their Round of 8 opponent, presumably the team with the worst record among those that played in the previous series. The division winner with the second-best record (DW2) would get next pick, followed by DW3 and WC1.
In either scenario, you’ve now got an 8-team tournament, which is easily whittled down to a Final 4 and then, a Fall Classic. This is the only scenario that makes any sense for a 12-team format with three division winners and 10-team divisions. The math doesn’t work otherwise. And yes, this scenario essentially equates winning the top wild card spot to being a division winner. If you have a better idea, I’m all ears.
So, there you go, Mr. Manfred. October baseball has been solved. You’re welcome.