Major League Baseball announced it would be extending its 2020 postseason back in late July. This announcement followed their decision to shorten the regular season from 162 games to a mere 60 in efforts to minimize audience and player exposure to COVID-19. The decision comes as the first time the MLB playoffs have been changed since the introduction of the wild card round back in 2012.
The playoffs typically run as follows: five teams from the American League and five teams from the National League make it into the playoffs. Once all teams are qualified, four rounds of the playoffs begin one after the other: Wild Card, Divisional, League Championship, and World Series.
This year, eight teams out of fifteen from each league (AL and NL) will qualify for playoffs, consisting of two division winners (East, Central, West) with two additional Wild Card teams. There will also be a slight change to the Wild Card round which expands the number of playoff games played too. All teams will participate in the Wild Card round, which is a best-of-three series (#1 vs. #8, #2 vs. #7, #3 vs. #6, #4 vs. #5). The #1 or #8 team will play the #4 or #5, and the #2 or #7 will play the #3 or the #6 in the divisional round. The rest of the playoff formatting will stay the same as during previous years. One other thing to note is that from the divisional round on, teams will play at a fixed location so that there won’t be any long distance traveling from one team’s stadium to the other. For example, the American League Championship series is already set to be played at Petco Park (home of the San Diego Padres) and the National League Championship series will be played in Arlington, ending the “home field advantage” factor throughout the postseason.
At first glance, the changes aren’t too dramatic. However, the fact that more teams are allowed into the playoffs, and more playoff games will be held, contradicts the initial reason that the regular season was shortened: to limit risk of COVID-19.
Early in the regular season, various players and coaches contracted COVID-19, which resulted in a suspension of team schedules for a few days. Since all teams were still required to complete their sixty-game schedule to qualify for playoffs, many teams had to schedule multiple double headers in order to make up any postponed games. The St. Louis Cardinals, who had to postpone many games due to their players and staff contracting the virus, had to make up twenty-three games in the final eighteen days of the season (which resulted in five double headers). Miami’s pro-team had to make up many games in September as well. The Marlins had to play a whopping twenty-eight games in their final twenty-four days, which resulted in constant play from Friday September 4th through Sunday, September 27th.
That being said, what will the MLB do if members of the playoff teams are exposed to COVID-19? The entire playoff series would likely have to be postponed for at least a week or two.
The MLB is motivated to expand their playoff season in the hopes of increasing their ratings to counterbalance the high volume of games cut from the regular season. When the league announced the extended playoff schedule, they made it clear that these regulations will only hold for the 2020 season, anticipating a return to standard playoff formatting for next year.
“This format is only in effect for 2020. As with all things related to the pandemic, there is always a chance of scheduling and other changes in ’21. But any temporary or permanent changes to postseason structure must be collectively bargained,” a reporter from MLB said.
On a lighter note, many fan bases were excited to hear that additional playoff spots were being offered, which afforded some cuspy teams a greater likelihood of qualifying. The San Diego Padres (#4 seed), Miami Marlins (#6), and Cincinnati Reds (#7) are teams in the National League who haven’t made the playoffs recently but got in this year. Of note in the American League, the White Sox (#7) made the playoffs for the first time since 2008. These lower seeds would not have made the cut for playoffs under the previous format. That being said, the MLB should pay close attention to the response fans have to the extended opening round. If this results in an overwhelmingly positive reception, maybe the league would consider permanently switching the playoff format to include more spots, so that more teams could have a shot to compete for a World Series Championship.