An expanded postseason means reduced effort

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Obviously, it’s a little too early to say for sure that increasing the number of teams that can make the MLB postseason will never increase the in-season level of competition for those spots. But, as I wrote at Baseball Prospectus on Wednesday, the early returns aren’t looking even a little bit promising.

In the new collective bargaining agreement reached between the league and the Players Association in March, the postseason expanded from 10 teams to 12. This was expected, as MLB’s desire for a larger postseason was one of the major points of leverage the union had coming into negotiations, and it was considered a win that the PA was able to avoid giving the league what they actually were looking for, which was a 14-team arrangement. And thank Baseba’al for that, because if you think the laissez-faire attitude of the league towards building competitive teams is bad now, just imagine how much worse it could be.

None of this was a surprise, of course. When MLB first showed interest in expanding the postseason on a more permanent basis following the pandemic-influenced postseason expansion of 2020, I wrote that:

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?

And now, from this week’s BP piece:

Too many teams aren’t bothering to build rosters that will give them a chance at being competitive, so, once the season begins and they perform with the level of mediocrity they aimed for, they’re simply counting down the days until the projections count them out. Moving to a 12-team postseason didn’t change this calculus for teams either before or after the lockout: the Reds, winners of 83 games and a third-place finish in the NL Central in 2021, cut Wade Miley, let Nicholas Castellanos walk, and traded away others rather than spend money they could make back by successfully reaching and advancing in the postseason. The A’s are even more egregious in this regard, as they won 86 games a year ago, traded away players that were more desirable than the ones the Reds dealt, and all this while knowing they were going to get revenue-sharing checks once again at season’s end, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement.

Cincinnati’s playoff odds are 2.6%, by the way, while Oakland’s are 0%.

The Reds could have chosen to keep spending even as their finances recovered from the shortened 2020 season and its lack of paid attendance, knowing that they had a decent chance of making the postseason (and the revenue that comes with that) and keeping fan interest high, but instead, they sold off pieces or let them walk, and were left with a team that still cost them more than maybe they were in a comfortable position to handle, but also sucked, and without any of the upside for additional earnings that effort would have brought. And the A’s, well, you know how I feel about the A’s.

Again, this satisfaction with inexpensive mediocrity, as much as having a significant chunk of the league in “rebuilding” mode post-Astros and post-Cubs, is what has led to the rise in 100-win teams in the last few years. Win totals were inflated for the middle, with clubs like the Guardians knowing they could get worse and cheaper without suffering for it given the state of the rest of their division. Hell, the 2019 Twins won 100 games in 2019 despite going 32-37 against teams with a better-than-.500 record! And all of this meant even worse teams than usual at the bottom, and more of them.

There are two more postseason spots to fight for, but the league doesn’t have teams that want to fight for them, which means things might get worse on this front before they get better. If a team just happens to trip and fall into one of these new spots, great! If they have to try to get into one of those spots, well, why bother with that? Especially when, with 12 spots available in the first place, you might still make it without doing so on purpose. Over one-third of the league is already functionally out of the postseason race just two months in, according to the PECOTA standings I based my piece on, both current and historic. There is just one division that looks like it’s actually going to be closely contested in a way where the loser of that local battle won’t make the postseason at all, and that’s the AL Central — and even that’s not really a given, considering how poorly the White Sox began their season relative to expectations, and might be more PECOTA not quite having given up on them yet.

Maybe I should be a bit more patient, and wait for the first full offseason with 12 teams in place before making any sweeping statements on the matter. On the other hand, you didn’t need hindsight to know that this was the direction things were going in, and an expansion of the postseason was basically the most guaranteed thing to come out of a new CBA: teams have already been building towards a future where effort is optional and detached from making a profit, and making it even easier for them to call their season a success by increasing the number of playoff teams is only going to encourage those behaviors.

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