Six Modest Proposals: A Reply to Rob Manfred

Rob Manfred hasn’t had the best of offseasons. (via Arturo Pardavila III)

(Co-author’s Note: Despite my name alone being displayed under the title, and the viewpoint the text will assume, this article is a collaboration with my friend and occasional THT contributor Paul Golba. The ideas originate mainly with him; the writing originates with me.)

Nobody can accuse Rob Manfred of being unwilling to try fresh ideas. In an offseason that already saw several rules changes to MLB, the Commissioner floated a proposal for a massive change to the sport’s playoff structure. The plan reportedly won raves from television networks that might be in a position to air games from the augmented playoff schedule, as well as from MLB Network’s Bob Costas. Reaction from actual fans has been decidedly more mixed.

In Manfred’s plan, there would be three division winners and four Wild Cards in each league. The team with the best record in each league would have a first-round bye. The second-best division winner would then choose its first-round opponent from the three lowest Wild Cards, followed by the remaining division winner getting next choice. (These choices would be made on a live broadcast.) The top Wild Card would get the leftover opponent. The teams would play best-of-three series, with the higher seed hosting all three games. The winners would join the bye teams in the League Division round, and the postseason would proceed as it does now.

Matt Swartz made a prompt reply to the Manfred proposal on our pages, offering his ideas for how to run an expanded playoff system. That article was still in the future, though, when I had my first discussion of the matter with Paul Golba, my frequent co-Grand Tourist and periodic co-author. We shared a dislike for the scheme, though not everything it proposed rubbed either of us the wrong way.

It slowly dawned on me, though, that Paul and I were talking past each other, not quite on the same page. The cause soon became clear: Paul had gotten a distorted version of the playoff plan. I explained the actual one, and things briefly went on-kilter…before we dragged them back off-kilter.

Paul, you see, preferred his mistaken plan to the actual one. This led him, and eventually me, to start proposing additional better plans. “Better” began by meaning “preferable to Manfred’s plan” but soon shifted to mean “more amusing to us, and still maybe better than Manfred.” At some point, we may have slipped over to “commenting satirically on Manfred’s plan by suggesting something even dumber.” You will judge that for yourselves, and I don’t mean that rhetorically.

These are the six postseason plans we eventually came up with. They are listed here close to their order of origination, and close to their order of increasing, ahem, originality and ambition. For our purposes, we will label the Manfred proposal as Plan Zero. (Sadly, we must disappoint afficionados of bad movies, because we did not get up to Plan Nine. Nothing we could think of would be as goofy as an Ed Wood movie.)

Plan One: The Final Four, March Madness Style

Instead of dragging two of the division winners into the Wild Card round, we’ll leave it entirely to the Wild Cards. The four Wild Cards face off — No. 1 hosting No. 4, and No. 2 hosting No. 3 — in single games. The winners face off in one more game, with the winner of that contest advancing to the League Championship Series.

This is what Paul originally thought Manfred’s plan was, except it still had the best-of-three rounds to it. We streamlined it back to what one of us calls “knockout” games, and the other calls “suicide” games. Come to think of it, the best term might be “Thunderdome” games. Two teams enter; one team leaves.

Some fans don’t like Thunderdome games. Lots of teams that have had to play Thunderdome games don’t like them. (The Washington Nationals excepted.) Too bad. Wild Card games are supposed to be painful and risky. If you want to avoid them, win your division.

The advantages to this plan are that it expands the playoff ranks without diluting the value of winning the division and provides more winner-take-all baseball at the cost of extending the postseason by two days at most. A disadvantage is lowering the playoff “bubble” so you could plausibly have a losing team get in—but get used to that with all the scenarios that have four Wild Cards per league.

Or more. But we’ll get to that.

Plan Two: The Final Four, Alley Style

Again there are four Wild Cards, and again they are pared to one before the division winners get involved. This time, however, we put them through a stepladder tournament. The No. 4 Wild Card visits No. 3 to play a Thunderdome game. The winner of that flies off to face the No. 2 seed. Two teams enter; one team leaves to go to the home of the top Wild Card. One more game determines who plays the league’s top team in the LDS.

This form of playoff has been in use in professional sports for decades, though not in an obvious place. The Professional Bowlers Association uses it for its tournaments (hence my “alley style” quip). After initial rounds of many bowled games, the top five scorers are put into a stepladder format to decide the champion. No. 5 plays No. 4, the winner plays No. 3, and so on to the title match. The format goes back at least to the 1970s, when my very young self watched bowling on ABC. (Chris Schenkel, you are not forgotten.) Indeed, the PBA playoff format may be older than MLB’s playoffs.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

This quirky plan has the advantage, not just of preserving the value of a division win, but of adding value to a high Wild Card spot. Instead of the top Wild Card having maybe a 30 or 35 percent chance of reaching the LDS (due to two home games), it has at least a 55 percent chance due to playing one game, at home, against an opponent with a possibly strained pitching roster. Also, with three games in three days, it won’t stretch the schedule any more than Plan One did.

Ah, I didn’t mention that bit, did I? The three games on the stepladder schedule will be on consecutive days. To become Wild Card champ from the lower end of the draw, you’ll have to win one game, travel to your next city, win again, then travel to a third city and win there. Squeaking into the Wild Cards earns you a trip through an exhausting gauntlet.

Paul has already thought up the slogan, suitable for T-shirts: “Win Your Game and Get On the Plane!”

If we want to embrace the madness fully, we could make them travel by bus. The Rays wins their first-round game at Tropicana Field, but the second seed is the Angels, 3000 miles away? Quit your whining. That’s why they invented radar detectors. Get on board and floor it: You forfeit if you aren’t there by first pitch. The Commissioner’s Office wants a reality-show vibe? We’ll give them The Cannonball Run, with Rob Manfred as (dun dun DUNNN!) Captain Chaos!

Plan Three: Double Duty (without Ted Radcliffe)

While I’m flaunting my deep experience (sounds so much better than “age,” doesn’t it?) with references to 1980s movies, I might as well lean into it by stealing from Sylvester Stallone’s arm-wrestling epic Over the Top! (Or from the College World Series. Your choice.) It’s time for double-elimination!

This plan is split into two scenarios. Sub-plan 3A involves putting each league’s four Wild Cards into a double-elimination bracket. If we want to goose fan interest, we can let the top seed choose its first opponent, but it’s not obligatory. They play a standard two-and-through round, in which the 2-1 survivor of the loser’s bracket does have to win twice against its eventual 2-0 opponent. The winner makes the LDS, as we’re getting used to.

Sub-plan 3B gets more complicated. First, we have five Wild Cards per league instead of four, making eight playoff teams apiece. Each league has two double-elimination brackets, headed by the best and second-best division winners. Here, we finally borrow from Manfred’s work.

Those two division winners, starting with the higher finisher, alternate in selecting the teams they want in their brackets. It’s just like picking teams in playground ball, except the lamest get chosen first. Selection Day will come the day after the regular season ends, and if there is any showmanship in the depths of MLB’s front office, it will be glorious in its ritualized humiliation of those .500 teams raised to the dignity of playoff contenders. (So, exactly like playground ball.)

The brackets work as in scenario 3A, and the two winners in each league face off in the League Championship Series. While 3A would extend the postseason several days, 3B actually could shorten it, depending on the off-day policy for the bracket play. With every playoff team involved in 3B’s brackets, though, the effect of burdening Wild Cards would be lost, so they probably would choose to be generous with travel days.

This proposal steals borrows from the college baseball ranks, but our next one goes further afield, into another sport altogether.

Plan Four: Soccer Ripoff, Part One

Every four years, the World Cup Final tournament opens with several groups of teams engaged in round-robin play. The top finishers in each group advance to the single-game knockout stage. Qualifying rounds before the final also involve round-robins. This playoff method is even well-established in the World Baseball Classic. Perhaps it’s time for MLB to adopt it.

Again, the plan is split into multiple scenarios, similar to those for Plan Three. Sub-plan 4A pits the four Wild Card teams in a series of games, each team playing all the others once. Whoever finishes the round-robin with the best record advances to the LDS.

There is a hiccup here. A three-game round-robin is pretty likely to produce a tie at the top of the standings. With two teams at 2-1, this isn’t tough: whoever won the head-to-head game advances. With three teams at 2-1, the problem gets knottier. The World Cup breaks those ties with goal differential (goals scored minus goals allowed), then with goals scored (as a light inducement toward more offense). The World Baseball Classic tiebreaker gets weird, starting with fewest runs allowed divided by defensive innings played in the tied teams’ games, then lowest ERA in same, then highest batting average in same.

The Wild Card round-robin would need to do better than that. (Arguably, it could not do worse.) To start, I would suggest a tweak to how extra-inning games count. Winning one should be worth a hair less than a nine-inning win; losing one a trifle better than a nine-inning loss. Advantage goes to the team that wins its games in regulation, or hangs on at least 10 frames before tasting defeat.

After that would come run differential, against all teams rather than just the tied ones—meaning teams would have an incentive for running up the score. Suck it up, folks. There’s no crying in baseball! (This would also give viewers an incentive to keep watching blowouts in the round-robin: every run may count.) Then you could have fewest runs allowed per inning. If they’re still stuck, use regular-season records. After that, I give up. Go with a home run derby.

Sub-plan 4B, like 3B, would put all the league’s playoff teams into a round-robin. I lean against this because it removes the incentive for winning one’s division, but maybe you could compensate with home-field advantage in each game for the better regular-season record. Also, you would need an even number of teams for the round-robin. Technically, you can round-robin with seven, but that means not all teams would play their final game at once. This used to happen in the World Cup, until 1982, when West Germany and Austria colluded to cheat Algeria in a match known ever after as the Shame of Gijón.

So no, let’s not do that.

This big round-robin could (sub-plan 4B-alpha) determine a single pennant winner, or (sub-plan 4B-beta) choose two teams to face off in the LCS. It could even (sub-plan 4B-gamma) select four to go into the LDS round, if you think the viewing public has enough patience for that.

There is, however, an even more ambitious way to employ round-robins to shape and winnow the playoff field.

Plan Five: Boogedy Boogedy Boogedy!

For over 15 years, the NASCAR Cup Series has used a playoff system to enhance its points-based championship. Leading racers are chosen at a cutoff date, and they become the only competitors eligible to win the championship. In the current version of the system, further races eliminate more drivers, until a mere four have a chance to claim the championship in the season’s final race.

This system, concentrating attention on the best drivers as the season nears its end, could work in baseball. Complaints from some quarters have said baseball’s regular season is too long, diffusing fan interest, especially in cities whose teams are well out of contention by the late stages. This provides a possible remedy.

In auto racing, the system (now blandly called the NASCAR Playoffs) was once called the Chase for the Cup. Baseball could borrow Manfred’s own recent dismissive description of the World Series trophy, and call its version the Chase for the Piece of Metal.

The main baseball season would be shortened to 120 games. At that point, the top six teams in each league would advance to the first phase of the Chase. The remaining teams perhaps could play on for a while, but it’s cleaner if it’s just the end for them. As you’ll see, though, I have a plan to keep them interested in baseball during the fall.

The playoff teams then start a new schedule. They play the other five playoff teams in their league six times, three home and three away, for a total of 30 games. This acts effectively as a sextuple round-robin (see above), but it needn’t be promoted that way. After those thirty games, the two teams in each league with the worst records are eliminated. (Ties will be broken first by record in the regular season, to give some inducement to play all-out for the whole schedule.)

A fresh round begins, the four teams in each league again playing the others six times apiece, for a total of 18 games. The top two finishers in this round advance, with combined records in previous rounds being the first tie-breaker. Those survivors face each other in the League Championship Series, a traditional best-of-seven.

Counting the two round-robin phases, the best eight teams would be playing a 168-game season, a bit longer than what they play now. With the Wild Card game and LDS eliminated, we’d be reaching the LCS and World Series about the same time we do with the current format. That provides welcome continuity in what is admittedly a seismic change in how baseball seasons work.

But what about fans of the 18 teams left out? For their benefit, I propose stealing from yet another pro sport: NBA basketball. For several years the NBA held its draft lottery during the playoffs to give fans of lesser teams something to pique their interest during an otherwise barren time. Their lottery for 2020 has been moved to after the Finals are done, but MLB could pick up the good idea they dropped.

On an off day in September, perhaps between the two round-robins, we would start up the ping-pong machines. The specifics of the system can be left to MLB to thrash out, but two things are non-negotiable. First, those have to be baseballs in the lottery machine instead of ping-pong balls. Second, the Powerball decides the number-one pick.

Admit it: you’d watch—which is the whole point.

Plan Six: Soccer Ripoff, Part Two

Take a deep breath, because we are plunging into waters very unfamiliar to most American sports fans. Many leading soccer leagues across the world determine championships purely through regular-season play. Those same leagues also determine championships via playoff tournaments. It isn’t quite redundant because the playoffs include teams from lower classifications who get to play against, and occasionally beat, the top-rank squads.

I will use English soccer as an example. There are 10 levels of professional soccer in England, and their FA Cup tournament draws from them all. The knockout rounds start with teams in the lowest two levels then add higher-level teams in subsequent rounds. Only some teams from the lower six levels get to participate, but everybody in the highest four plays, and those teams would need to win many fewer games to win the tournament. In practical terms, only the top-league teams can expect to win the Cup, but David vs. Goliath upsets are treasured. A non-league (level 5-10) team manages to advance and beat a Premier League (level 1) squad about once a decade.

English soccer, and that of many other countries, therefore has parallel tracks. Teams are playing both in their own divisions for the League championship and in a cross-level knockout tournament for the Cup championship. Fall out of contention in one, and you still have the other to give your fans hope for a triumph.

Is this what MLB, with its clutch of teams hopelessly out of it by Memorial Day, needs to kindle 30 sparks of hope? Perhaps, though technically it wouldn’t be 30; it would be more than 100.

Picture this: The tournament begins in early April, in the depths of A-ball, with single Thunderdome games narrowing the brackets. Every couple of weeks, new teams enter the scrum from rising classifications, until some time in June the big-league squads get into the act. Fortnightly games keep the regular schedule from being overwhelmed yet maintain momentum and fan interest. Finally, late in September, the last two survivors duke it out for the cup title—just before the league playoffs begin.

Would this cup be a de facto second MLB championship, as it is in England and other countries? That would be an immense change to baseball, quite possibly one revolution too much. A less unsettling result could be to give the winning team a bye to the championship series in its own league. Dodging a round or two of playoffs would be worth all the effort even to powerhouse teams, especially if some dumbbells come up with bizarre twists on the rest of the postseason structure.

But…what if it isn’t a major-league team that wins the cup? What if some Triple-A squad, or even lower, runs the table and shocks the world? What do we do then? I see two answers. First, give the bye to that team’s MLB parent club. It’s their players, in their developmental system, so let them reap the reward. Second, just roll with it. Let the minor-leaguers play for the Piece of Metal. Who wouldn’t watch a Cinderella run like that?

Of course, lower-level teams aren’t independent operators in American baseball as they are in English soccer. Their rosters are controlled higher up and could be subjected to manipulation in order to raise, or lower, their chances. What is to be done?

I say nothing. Let it happen. It adds subplots to the cup tournament. It adds intrigue, which in this case may be a euphemism for insanity. At this stage, who says that’s a bad thing?

What Kind of Fan Are You? Take This Quiz.

That makes seven proposals for a reformed playoff system: one by the chief baseball executive who could shepherd it through, and six by a pair of ordinary fans who took a mistaken version of that proposal and ran very, very far with it, chortling all the way. Each one of those proposals leaves us with a question: Would that be an improvement on the playoff system we have now?

I could claim to have the answers, but I won’t. Instead, I will leave it to you, the readers. Look over what’s been suggested. Decide for yourself whether each of the proposals would make for better baseball than the system in place today. Count up the ideas you think are better, then consult the handy table below to see what this says about you as a baseball fan.

Proposals That Are Better Than the Current Baseball Playoff System:

Zero: You may or may not be old-fashioned, but you definitely value stability. The closer the game stays to the structure it had a generation ago, or a century ago, the more you like it, at least for the sake of continuity with the past. Rob Manfred has not been easy on your nerves, to say the least—but thank goodness he’s stopped pushing that pitch clock thing for a while.

One: You have a willingness to embrace reform, but your standards are high. You know ill-judged changes can be difficult or impossible to roll back, and there’s something in baseball over the last few years that fits that category for you. Thus chastened, you were selective about the options offered to you here. Still, you found something to champion, if perhaps cautiously.

Two or Three: The current state of baseball, especially in October, leaves you dissatisfied. You need a fresh approach to restore your devotion to the game and are willing to take a chance to get it. If the daring change doesn’t work, no biggie. They can try something else.

Four to Six: You’re glad somebody finally is looking to shake things up in a stodgy game. Modern sports need modern ideas to stay relevant, and the more in the mix, the better. There are limits, but not that many when the aim is to bring compelling excitement back to baseball. Welcome to the 21st century!

All Seven*: Glad to have you as a reader, Commissioner Manfred.

* Not counting the lottery idea, of course. Nobody likes that.

References & Resources


A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Pesach
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Pesach

In option #1, why would the WC winner advance to the LCS??

dukewinslow
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dukewinslow

Vanderbilt beating the Marlins in a regional style bracket would be….. hilarious. It’s unlikely, but baseball is high enough variance for it to happen.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

For the record, Plan One is what I thought the playoff structure would be with 7 teams, having heard nothing other than the proposal was for 7 playoff teams in each league. It seemed like the logical way to do it. And, yes, Shane and I did have that talking past each other conversation. When Shane explained to me the actual proposed plan I half thought he was making it up. It’s a pretty terrible idea.

B N
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B N

Most of these would just be too bonkers, but an Alley Style with 3 wild cards might be the right kind of crazy. We’ve already seen somewhat similar things with tie-breakers followed by Wild Cards, which could also still happen, leading to a team needing to win like 4 consecutive elimination games just to get to an LDS.