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Major League Baseball and the Players Association agreed to an expanded postseason for the shortened 2020 season, as a way to make up for the revenues lost by not airing any games for the first three months of what would have been the regular season. Now, though, MLB begins part two of their expanded postseason plan: convincing you it is not just a temporary, pandemic-related bug, but instead the kind of feature you should be hoping sticks. Here’s commissioner Rob Manfred, in the Washington Post:
“Manfred also said the expanded, 16-team postseason is likely to remain beyond 2020, adding that “an overwhelming majority” of owners had already endorsed the concept before the pandemic.
“I think there’s a lot to commend it,” he said, “and it is one of those changes I hope will become a permanent part of our landscape.”
It would be very interesting to hear what commendable things the expanded postseason brings to the table, outside of “it will make the teams more postseason revenue because we can package, sell, and broadcast more postseason games.” Making it so 16 of 30 teams earn a postseason berth cheapens the regular season — which, I will remind you, is normally 162 games long and takes literally half of the calendar year. If you think the regular season can be a slog now, just wait until nothing matters because some .500 team gets hot in October and wins the whole thing.
And there will be teams hovering around a .500 win percentage (or even below it) that make the postseason. Even this year, when teams weren’t able to prepare in advance to not have to try very hard to make it to October, there is a sub-.500 team, the Giants, currently holding a postseason spot, and another, the Astros, with a .500 record. When teams know they don’t have to put in the effort, and that they can still get a cut of postseason revenue regardless? Those figures are going to increase. Or decrease, as it were.
Remember, the sudden influx of 100-win teams has a lot to do with quality of competition. As more of the league tanks or just flat-out doesn’t try to improve much beyond at the margins, it’s easier for the good teams to look like great teams. It’s also easier for the mediocre to look like good teams, since they can prey on those who can’t even quite get to mediocre in order to goose their record. And those bad teams are historically bad: it took a pandemic and a shortened season to curb the rise of 100-loss teams, of which MLB had seven of between 2018 and 2019.
The above linked post is from around this time last year, and you should keep this takeaway from it in mind when considering the expanded postseason news:
So, why have we spent 700-plus words this morning talking about these records? Mostly because they aren’t an accident. The outcome might not be intentional, but the design is, and it comes from teams at the top stopping their spending push (Yankees, Dodgers, Nationals, soon to be joined by the Red Sox) at the same time the middle teams, those that should be investing to try to climb to that next level, instead deciding they are not going to do that. And the clubs at the bottom are as bad as they’ve ever been in MLB history, if not worse because there are more of them, and it’s all because they’re losing on purpose in order to win later. Or, more accurately, to tell you the plan is to win later, when in reality it’s to preach about the importance of financial flexibility teams don’t intend to use, or how now is not a good time to try, not yet, even when it seems like the not trying is at its end.
If the league was already full of teams aiming to win 83 games because it’s cheaper than trying to win 90 and they might get lucky and win 90, anyway, what is going to happen when the threshold for making the postseason drops? A bunch of teams looking to win 75 games and occasionally being rewarded for it because a prospect hits their stride sooner than expected, or an inexpensive, low-end free agent has a surprise epiphany and subsequent breakout? We’re going to end up in a scenario where owners know they’ll be getting increased shared revenue from an expanded postseason, and more revenue than that if their teams manage to make it there themselves. And little incentive to spend any of that increased revenue, because why try when not trying might get you to the postseason, anyway?
The words of former commissioner Peter Ueberroth, courtesy John Helyar’s Lords of the Realm, remain as vital to understanding the behavior of MLB’s owners and teams as ever:
“Let’s say I sat each of you down in front of a red button and a black button,” he said at one early meeting. “Push the red button and you’d win the World Series but lose $10 million. Push the black button and you would make $4 million and finish somewhere in the middle.”
He paused to look around. “The problem is, most of you would push the red one.”
Ueberroth chided them for checking their business sense at the door. “You are so damned dumb.”
It’s true that, at one point, the owners would have pushed the red button. Now, though, thanks to the above chiding and the subsequent years of profits over everything else, of not needing to win for a season to be a success in the eyes of the businessmen holding these teams, of owning a baseball team not being about the baseball at all, they almost universally would push the black button. Bud Selig was part of the group of owners being yelled at by Ueberroth, and his own time as an owner at the helm of the Brewers and his priorities while commissioner tell you all you need to know about whether he agreed with the new philosophy. Manfred is his handpicked successor, his right-hand man for much of his time as commissioner, and he’s continuing the work Bud began in the role.
Owning an MLB team is about slamming that black button as often as possible. It’s about taking on massive debts to acquire a club, paying them off with the essentially guaranteed revenues owning an MLB team brings, further increasing the franchise value whether you ever actually invest in the product itself or not, and then flipping the team to someone else to wipe away the rest of the debt and bring home more than was spent on the initial investment. The baseball on the field is incidental to all of this, the thing that exists mostly to let the owners cook the books in the same way the existence of Paddy’s Pub in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia lets Danny DeVito’s character cook the books. Frank could just like, run a bar instead of using it as a front for shell corporations and for hiding money, or MLB teams could just like, try to win at baseball instead of using the team as a front for shell corporations, but why do that when you can instead not do that? It’s much less work and risk to not do that when you already know the scam works.
So, expanding the postseason is just expanding the scam. Teams won’t have to try as hard. Even fewer free agents will likely be signed, and for less. Players might be non-tendered more often because there is less need for knowing what you’re going to get out of a player, so why spend on a known quantity when you can spend less on an unknown? What’s the punishment here, when the league is trying to keep a team like the Pirates from being laughed at and historically hapless by lowering the bar so much that even Pittsburgh might accidentally make the postseason every now and again?
The good news is that there is zero reason for the Players Association to accept this permanent expansion of the postseason. They should know exactly what this will do to their own players, that it will just give teams even more reason to not care or try than they’ve already shown. Be ready for this to become a significant story, though, as the league attempts to paint the players as withholding all of this extra awesome special baseball from you, when it’s really the league which is always the one trying to limit the quality of the baseball you can consume.