A Radical Idea for Major League Baseball: Make the Whole Season the Playoffs
Here's a radical idea for Major League Baseball cooked up in a smoky lab late at night. It may not be for you, and you may hate it, but please, try it on for size and at least consider the benefits before dismissing it out of hand. It involves a complete overhaul of tradition and would yield a vastly different product. There's a chance that product would be vastly superior. That it would keep fans of more teams engaged deeper into the year. That would greatly increase the importance of regular-season games and ensure more interest in the sport on the national level.
It starts by retaining the American and National Leagues but scraping the idea of divisions altogether. All 30 teams would play each other in a best-of-five series throughout the year. The home team for the first three-game leg would alternate between years. Once all those sets we completed, the non-sweeps would then be completed after the traditional All-Star break in the other team's ballpark in the same order, resuming with Games 4 and 5 where necessary.
Instead of keeping track of raw win-loss totals, the standings would be dictated by series win-loss records. For instance, an elite team may go 22-7 on the year in their regular-season. A bad team may go 8-21. Obviously, there's a built-in tiebreaker.
Under this proposal, the top two teams in each league would get a bye into the second round of the playoffs and homefield advantage, much like the NFL. The Nos. 3-7 seeds in each league would then play an opening round best-of-seven to determine the final eight remaining teams, who would play best-of-7s through the World Series to determine a champion.
Got all that? I know it's a lot. So let me explain the potential benefits while addressing some concerns. First, yes, this will result in fewer Yankees-Red Sox and Cubs-Cardinals games. Traditional rivalries may suffer. I'd posit, though, that more teams in MLB don't have a blood rival than do. And that one of the biggest missteps in the current schedule is that fans aren't able to see their team play every other team. At the very least this new proposal would change that. Seems like a damn good way to grow the game and increase the visibility of not only all the stars, but all the organizations. Fans would be far more incentivized to follow knowing that something is always on the line.
Essentially, this would turn the entire season into a playoff. Playoff baseball is the best thing the sport does. It's a panacea for the attention spanned. Imagine knowing that each and every night would bring a crucially important game for your home team. Imagine every single game for every single team having stakes. Would you watch more baseball? Would it feel more exciting?
Rewarding the four best teams in the sport with entry into the quarterfinals would preserve effort from the top of the table. Expanding the playoffs so 14 of the 30 teams would ensure more than half the league was ferociously invested late into the year. Reducing the actual number of games played (the max single-season total here would be 145 if all 29 series went to a winner-take-all) and the accounting (162 data points dropping down to 29) would keep hope alive for lesser teams to get hot and work their way back into the playoffs. It's not realistic for teams 16 games out of first place now to fight back. It would be realistic for a middling team to win four or five straight series over a particularly hot stretch.
Consider how spectacular it would to return from the All-Star break and know that every game for the rest of the season is a must-win. It's crazy to even consider yet entirely possible. That closing portion of the season would be an insane stretch an appointment television. It would also open up a new avenue of strategy into the sport. Watching managers and front offices decide how to use their resources judiciously would be fascinating.
To answer two potential pitfalls: yes, this would transform how we think about stats. And yes, some teams would play fewer games and have the end of the season/beginning of the playoffs stacked high with off-days. There are positive spins to both.
First, there's a fundamental misunderstanding about the value of stats in baseball. No number is going to sell the game to new fans. The numbers are for existing fans. To flex their knowledge and delight in their long-running relationship with the game. Fairly or unfairly, the verdict is in as it comes to leveraging this nice element of the sport. It has not been impressively successful. Why not try to capture what makes the NBA and NFL earn so much discussion on the national stage? Why not lean into stories and narratives — something playoff baseball creates organically all season long?
Baseball is an incredibly complex game and asking fans to learn all the intricacies is asking a lot. Why not leverage what everyone already understands — winning and losing and choking and clutch genes — and make that the lead story? People already love watching the rich crop of young superstars play the game. Wouldn't it be more fun to see every Fernando Tatis Jr. homer or Shohei Ohtani shutout matter even more? It seems like MLB has a chance to have its cake and eat it too. To get people to fall in love with the players and the game while most importantly falling in love with the stakes and tension.
In terms of rest-vs.-rust concerns, the playoff bye is a pretty damn good carrot to dangle. So too is the allure of being able to reduce the workload for entire pitching staff. Teams would be incentivized to win early and often as the savings could be passed down to each and every arm. Rotations would be fresher and time given to get fully healthy.
Paramount in this plan is the ability to work a flexible schedule that allows the deciding Game 4s and Game 5s to shine. MLB could own the sports calendar in July and August with this stretch, leaning into a March Madness type broadcasting plan that would put a meaningful contest on national television every single day. Or two or three. Fortune favors the bold.
In my 30-plus years as a baseball fan, I've learned one thing. Playoff baseball is the best. This plan, admittedly in rough-draft mode, maximizes that unique feeling as much as humanly possible. It transforms the sport. Some would argue too much. But I promise that it would be a more exciting season. That the most worthy, battle-tested teams would be rewarded. That the traditional postseason we know and love would remain intact, only coming on the heels of months of momentum.
It's probably too crazy to ever be considered. It's also crazy enough to work.