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The NBA playoff format shows why the proposed MLB playoff changes could backfire

Washington Mystics v Las Vegas Aces - Game Four
Washington Mystics v Las Vegas Aces - Game Four
Modified 01 Apr 2020, 17:29 IST

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily represent the views of Sportskeeda.

The proposed changes to the MLB playoffs, which involve expanding the number of teams into the playoffs as well as letting teams pick their matchups, is not wholly insane. There are decent justifications for these changes. As the Washington Post reports, the proposed new format would give teams less of an incentive to tank and would make for exciting drama as teams would be able to pick their matchups.

Well, that is the theory. But if you want to see how it does in reality, look at the NBA. The NBA has the most expansive playoffs. Over half the teams make it to the playoffs and the first round alone takes nearly as much time to complete as the entire MLB playoffs. And yet if anything, tanking is even more rampant in the NBA.

Certainly, some of this can be explained by differences between the two sports. The #1 pick in the NBA is significantly more valuable than the #1 pick in the MLB, as LeBron James can do far more for his team compared to Mike Trout. And the weakest team in the MLB playoffs, even in the new format, likely has a greater shot at playoff glory than the 8th seed in the NBA playoffs.

But there are major similarities between the two sports, especially when compared to the NFL which has the most exciting playoff format out of the four major professional leagues. And a key part to why this playoff reform would fail is because it apparently will not come with changes to how the regular season is played.

162 vs 81 vs 16

The NFL with its 16-game season has room for a lot more variability which can cause mediocre teams to rise above their station or good teams to enter a tailspin from which they cannot recover. A quick glance at the NBA or MLB shows how standing can be significantly different at the 16-game mark due to the higher variability. In this current NBA season, both the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves debuted to strong starts, only to fall off and be virtually eliminated from the playoff race by the All-Star Break.

The downside of more variability is that the best teams do not necessarily rise to the top. And over an 81 or 162 game season, we eventually see the best teams secure their position. By the halfway point or the two-thirds mark, we generally have a good idea of which MLB or NBA teams are going to make the playoffs.

Proponents of this playoff plan would argue that by expanding the playoffs, mediocre teams would be able to keep gunning for one of the lower playoff spots which would create more exciting games later in the season. But even if we accept that we want mediocre teams in the playoffs to begin with, this comes with a downside for the top teams.

Many of the top teams know that even at the end of the season, a bad losing collapse can knock them out of the playoffs. Just look at the Chicago Cubs last season, or the 2011 Red Sox or the 2007 Mets. This encourages teams to keep playing hard even at the end of the season.


But that incentive collapses as those top teams know they will still be in the playoffs even if they have a bad losing streak. Teams will clinch the playoffs faster, which means that there will be more resting. Once again, the NBA is another example of this phenomenon. The top teams know even 20 games in that they’ll do good enough to make the playoffs without fighting for it, so there’s nothing wrong with Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James taking a few games off to rest and recover with treatments having battered their bodies like a kickboxer during the season. This is a bad look for the teams and is disappointing for the fans who buy the tickets to watch the best players play.

Fix the regular season

The bottom line is that the MLB is attempting to change its playoff picture to look more like the NBA right when the NBA is proposing changes to its own playoff format. And given how successful the NBA has been over the past few years, the MLB is clearly proposing its change not just to try to alleviate tanking or improve the quality of games, but to also make money. More teams can rake in that sweet playoff moolah, while top teams choosing their competition will increase notoriety and drive up ratings.

But while that may be better for the pocketbook, these changes will hurt the game both during the regular season and the playoffs. The MLB is not the NBA, as baseball is a very different game. There is no reason to ape the way the NBA does things as opposed to sticking with tried traditions which create exciting games every year.

Published 19 Feb 2020, 16:18 IST
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