New 12-team MLB postseason, explained: Everything you need to know

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The 2022 season will mark the introduction of an expanded postseason under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Baseball is back, but, at least in October, it won’t look the same in 2022.

Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association reached a deal on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement on Wednesday, bringing an end to a 99-day lockout that had crippled the sport. Included in the agreement are an increase to the Competitive Balance Tax, an increase in the minimum salary, and rules changes like the universal designated hitter.

Also in the CBA is a move to an expanded postseason field beginning this season. Owners wanted a 14-game format; the players, mindful of how that could compress salaries, bargained down to 12 teams. How will it work and who does it benefit?

Here is a guide to how October baseball will look in this new era.

The format

Six teams instead of five from each league will play on into October. The divisions will be the same, but there will now be three Wild Card teams.

The “rest versus rust” argument—whether teams benefit from having an extended layoff or are hurt from being idle—will come into play each postseason. In 2007, the red hot Colorado Rockies had an eight-day wait to begin the World Series and it showed as they were quickly swept by the Boston Red Sox. But having a few extra days to rest their top pitchers and give their hitters, who just endured the grind of 162 games, a break would also sound appealing to most teams.

That will make not only winning the division but finishing in the top two a priority. The two division winners with the best record will earn a bye. The other four, meanwhile, including the third division winner, will play a best-of-three series.

The postseason will play out like the NCAA tournament, meaning no reseeding after the first round. If the sixth seed manages to win their series, they will play the second-ranked team instead of the first seed.

After the Wild Card round, the rest of the postseason will play out just as it has since 1995: a best-of-five Division Series, the best-of-seven League Championship Series, and, finally, the World Series.

The players suggested a “ghost win” be awarded to the higher-ranked team, essentially giving them a 1-0 lead to begin the series. It would’ve worked similarly to the NBA’s play-in tournament, where the 7-8 seeds have to lose twice to get eliminated while the 9-10 seeds only have to lose once. This suggestion, though, was not included in the CBA.

Why?

As Deep Throat tells Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, “follow the money.” An expanded postseason means more money in the coffers of the owners.

A 14-team postseason, which they originally wanted, would’ve been worth $100 million in broadcast rights from ESPN. With only 12 teams, that number drops to $85 million.

The owners made the argument that an expanded postseason would help the players. More teams in contention mean more teams willing to spend to upgrade their roster. The players, though, were initially skeptical: why would a team spend more to win 100 games if 90 would be enough to make the postseason?

With the addition of another team in the postseason, more games down the stretch will be meaningful. In 2021, nine teams in the American League were already at least seven games back of a playoff spot to begin August; just one that wasn’t in a playoff spot at the start of the month, the Yankees, ended up making it. In the National League, eight teams, more than half the league, were essentially out of it with nearly two months left (although the Cardinals ended up making it thanks to a 17-game September winning streak).

How will it affect who makes it?

The concern with expanding the postseason is that it will dilute October baseball, with too many mediocre teams. But history doesn’t necessarily support this argument.

Over the last five 162-game seasons (not counting 2020), it took an average of 90 wins to make the playoffs in the AL and 88 in the NL. Three times it took more than 90 wins in the AL to secure a playoff berth, while no team made it with less than 85 wins.

If there had been a 12-team playoff in any of these years, the number of games required to make the playoffs would’ve dropped to 88 in the AL and 86 in the NL. Just two wins separated who made the playoffs in the traditional, 10-team format and the expanded format that will debut in 2022.

The 91-win Toronto Blue Jays would’ve made the postseason last year under this format. In 2019, it still would’ve taken 93 wins—by the Cleveland Indians—to make the playoffs. Only once would a team with a losing record have made the postseason: in 2017, the Rays, Royals, and Angels tied for the sixth-best record in the AL at 80-82.

What’s gone

Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World.” Bucky “bleeping” Dent. Matt Holliday sliding into home.

All these iconic images belong to tiebreaker games, when two teams, the regular season not enough to separate them, had to play an additional game to settle the playoff race. That’s now a thing of the past.

With the condensed schedule between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, there will no longer be tiebreaker games should two teams finish the regular season tied. Instead, MLB will implement an NFL-style tiebreaking system, basing who moves on and who goes home based on metrics such as record against common opponents.

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