Coming into the 2020 MLB season, fans knew they would deal with unprecedented developments.
First, there was no agreement about what players should be paid. MLB lost more than a month of the season trying to cross this hurdle. Then, the Marlins and Cardinals both shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Players chose to opt-out this season, though players like Nick Markakis and Yoenis Cespedes made truly noteworthy exits (and re-entrances).
The road to the 2020 MLB Playoffs was fraught with repressed tension: players who believed team owners were selfishly in it for themselves, would-be team buyers who (uncomfortably) tried to expand their business portfolio and the entire state of California tried taking on the Houston Astros.
No other 60 game stretch has ever held this much entertainment value.
But in any good story, its end is just as important as its beginning. Here, that means the 2020 MLB Playoffs. It all looks different somehow, like baseball on an alien planet, with three game series and five game series and no off days and teams playing in ballparks they shouldn’t be.
The initial shock value makes it all very weird, but is any of it a bad thing? Let’s take a look at the 2020 MLB playoffs as a whole, and see what has worked…and what really hasn’t.
Fans have had ample time to prepare for the new playoff structure. The announcement came on the first day of the abbreviated season. At the time, it seemed as though Manfred was trying to placate any anger from the Players’ Association. In essence, he hoped the expanded playoffs were a fair exchange for what time he lost in salary negotiations.
This structure allowed for 16 teams. Every division’s top two teams would qualify, with the two best Wild Card teams in each league rounding out the field. So let’s start with just that part of the equation. Did this work like MLB expected?
Arguably, the answer was a resounding yes. Teams like the Dodgers and A’s performed up to league-wide expectation. Clubs like the Royals and Pirates ended up in the basement. And the middle of the league was a lot more murky.
The Astros snuck into the playoffs despite a losing seasonal record. The last three days of the National League playoff race were a tumultuous mess. The Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers even hung in the mix for a while but fell just short of a playoff berth. The race really was exciting.
Fanbases new to the postseason were the biggest winners here. The (Buffalo) Blue Jays clinched a playoff appearance for the first time since 2016 and for just the third time since 1993. The Reds played white-hot in September to earn the seventh seed in the NL. And the Slammin’ San Diego Padres stole everyone’s heart by earning their first home playoff series in 14 years.
Those expanded opportunities are exactly what Manfred hoped to achieve under expanded playoffs. One of MLB’s greatest criticisms is how difficult it is for teams to advance to the postseason. Many years of losing have often preceded a team’s long-awaited competitive apex.
Over 60 games this year, teams had just enough time to establish their identities and put out their best lineups. And MLB rewarded this type of effort with coveted playoff spots.
More teams equals better baseball. At least when there are only 60 games on which to judge the caliber of a ‘playoff team’.
Mark this one as a success.
The Road to a Championship
Thinking in sequence, for a team to win the World Series this year, they need to win 13 games. Win a best-of-three, followed by a best-of-five, then take four wins during a best-of-seven, capped off with four wins in the World Series.
Longtime fans will know that the only difference between series rounds in the the 2020 and those of previous years is that initial best-of-three. This round best imitates a crucial series at the end of a normal season, one that a team must win to clinch a spot in the postseason. So the argument for a best-of-three again seems like ‘more baseball equals better baseball,’ which might not be as true as it seems.
Three lower-seeded teams pulled off an upset in round one. But when it came time for the division series, only the Astros managed to advance to the ALCS. Did an extra round of the playoffs really change which teams had the best chance of advancing? Or did more games tire out teams that much faster?
Take the Yankees-Indians matchup in the first round. New York murdered Shane Bieber, Cleveland’s ace, in the opener in route to a 12-3 win. Needing only one more win to take the series, the Yankees played a four hour 50 minute game, were delayed by rain and won after a go-ahead single in the ninth. Certainly Cleveland hoped for a different result, but between a bullpen meltdown and fluctuating weather patterns, the Indians had limited control in a shortened series.
Or consider the case of Astros bullpen. After rookies Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier pitched gems in relief for a Houston sweep in the first round, the ‘Stros won in four against Oakland but couldn’t win the final game of the ALCS. The Rays taxed Houston’s bullpen all series.
The Astros earned eight wins before that final game of the ALCS. For comparison, a playoff team in a normal year that had won eight games would already qualify for the World Series.
But the 2020 MLB playoffs stop for no one. Teams were asked to win more postseason games than anyone ever has. So while more playoff teams might equal better baseball for fans, it’s a tall task for teams playing in those games.
For now, chalk up this aspect as problematic. Not successful, not detrimental. Increased expectations just make a World Series title that much more difficult.
Neutral-Site Games & The MLB Bubble
This is the reality of living in a COVID-19 world.
Miami, though they won a three-game series, never played a home game in the 2020 playoffs. The Yankees, who came within one game of the ALCS, faced the same storyline. Consider that the Dodgers, who won an MLB-best 43 games, won their first series but had to migrate to Arlington, while Houston and the A’s played the ALDS in Los Angeles.
And yes, while it’s cool to see two different Dodger outfielders making amazing plays at the fence, it feels a little strange that the Rangers aren’t the ones at bat. Winning the most games of any team usually lends to home-field advantage. Knowing your outfield’s dimensions and having a supportive crowd are two elements usually critical for a team’s success. Usually.
Add in the confusing decision to allow fans in attendance during the NLCS in Arlington and the MLB bubble seems more at a glance more farcical than scientifically-supported. There were no fans in sight for the American League Championship in San Diego.
Fans can either attend all playoff games or none. Series should either be in empty stadiums or consistently social-distanced venues. There can’t be an in-between.
Baseball, whose season lasts half of a calendar year, is historically well-suited toward home fields and spirited fan support. Major League Baseball is not like the NFL, where one day of fan energy leads to a weeklong high. The World Series was not intended as a neutral-site championship.
While fans might not be able to celebrate a series win in person in real time, science suggests this a bubble is the best solution in the long run. Neutral-site playoff series are not ideal, but there’s been no evidence Manfred expects this structure for the long term.
Make no mistake, the MLB bubble and few fans are definitely negatives, but most in baseball understand the need for these in light of world’s current state.
No Off Days
This provision has perhaps affected teams’ strategies the most significantly. Bullpens have often been overutilized. Key hitters have gotten no rest to break their postseason funks. Players have been forced to deal with injuries at record speed.
With no need for travel, commissioner Manfred expedited all postseason games leading up to the World Series. That meant consecutive days of baseball for three consecutive postseason rounds.
Out of this, different rotation strategies cropped up among playoff teams. Do teams use their best starter in game one of the first round? Do you save him for the deciding contest? Should teams figure in a bullpen game just to keep all their relievers fresh? These are but some of the many questions that have surrounded postseason play this year.
Constant competition on the diamond has also emphasized baseball’s societal presence over the past month. Baseball has been on the airwaves five nights a week for seemingly the first time playoff history. No unnecessary travel days. No series that lasts more than seven days. It all combines in the closest thing to baseball paradise ever conceived.
Eliminated teams’ fans probably have the most to say about this baseball excess. With games lasting three to four hours, many would not choose to watch 20 hours of weeknight baseball before the World Series even starts. It should be noted that this has been a developing problem across the game, and the 2020 MLB playoffs serve only to accentuate this issue.
This one’s mostly a positive. All baseball fans want baseball that isn’t a hassle to watch, and the current schedule provides for these needs. So long as your team is still evading elimination.
2020 has done nothing if not complicate everyone’s life. In baseball, that meant a 60 game season, new rosin bag rules and plenty of time spent waiting.
Baseball is back. It might not be perfect, but it’s as perfect as fans can expect for the immediate future. The Dodgers and Rays match up in the World Series that starts on Tuesday as the two best teams in the league.
It’ll be big money versus big smiles. A historic franchise pitted against a 1998 expansion team. One team continues to surprise while the other surprises their continued championship drought. And that’s a series most of baseball will get behind.
At least there won’t be any games at the Trop, right?
Featured Image Courtesy of Matt Thomas, MLB Photos and Getty Images
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