The 2020 MLB season looks like nothing we’ve ever seen in the sport’s century-plus history. A 60-game schedule with 28-man rosters, frequent seven-inning doubleheaders, a universal DH and runners magically manifesting on the bases in extra innings have all been chalked up as necessities to get through a pandemic-shortened season that had a limited ramp-up period and was set to take place in a span of just 67 days. This year’s 16-team playoff field was implemented as a means to help curb some of the broad-reaching revenue losses that have hit all 30 clubs.
Unsurprisingly, however, it seems as though MLB is mulling the permanent implementation of some of these aspects. Speaking at an online event hosted by Hofstra University this week, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said he hopes to make the expanded postseason format permanent, adding that he believes the opposition to the universal DH is waning and stating that the extra-inning rule has been received better than he anticipated (YouTube link to the entire 71-minute appearance).
“I’m a fan of the expanded playoffs,” Manfred said of this year’s 16-team field. “…I think getting back to that three-game series in the first round is a positive change. I think the initial round could have the kind of appeal you see in the early couple days in the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be crazy — just a lot of baseball in a compressed period of time. We’re going to have a bracket, obviously. People love brackets and love picking who’s going to come through those brackets. I think there’s a lot to commend it. It is one of those changes that I hope becomes a permanent part of our landscape.”
Nothing is set in stone on that front just yet, but the concept of an expanded playoff structure had been discussed and was generally supported by the “overwhelming majority” of owners prior to this year’s implementation, per Manfred.
Postseason expansion has indeed been floated speculatively in the past, although pushing all the way to 16 teams was an even more radical jump than ownership initially sought in return-to-play negotiations. Back in March, the league was reportedly looking at a 14-team structure, although that presumably would’ve served as a gateway to the 16-team format that is now in place. It’s also odd to tie the three-game Wild Card series to postseason expansion, as the league could simply have pushed the existing, sudden-death Wild Card Game into a three-game series without adding more teams to the field.
The league can spin the reasoning however it chooses, positioning the broadened structure as a win for fans — that surely is the case in many instances — but the ultimate goal is the greatly increased revenue associated with extra postseason play. With or without fans in attendance, adding six teams to the field will cause television revenue to soar. It’s been reported that this year’s expansion could generate $200-300MM in additional television revenue, and the potential for broadened gate revenue in subsequent seasons only creates further incentive for teams to endorse the larger field.
Manfred wasn’t so straightforward with his own personal endorsement of the universal designated hitter, but he strongly implied that he feels the on-field product is enhanced by the DH in the National League.
“I think that playing with the designated hitter every day, the best I could tell you right now, has softened the opposition to the DH in the National League,” said Manfred. “The experience of doing it, the offense that it injects into the game, the way it makes it more exciting — I’m not sure it’s going to last, but I do think it has definitely changed some minds in the National League, which is obviously where the opposition to having a single set of rules has been centered over the years.”
Regarding the most radical rule change in 2020, Manfred suggested that placing a runner on second base in extra innings not only has a chance to stick beyond 2020 but has been well-received to this point. The concept has been polarizing, at best, among fans on social media — MLBTR readers were against it four-to-one back in June, though that was of course before seeing it put into practice — and has also been panned by some players.
“The extra-inning rule has been more positively received than I would have expected,” said the commissioner. “I told people, I said publicly before Covid, that I didn’t see this rule coming to the Major Leagues. I think it has a chance now. It’s been good. People see it as a strategic rule. It’s a whole different thought process that goes into handling the extra innings. I think it’s a good thing.”
Not every rule change is likely to stay in place. Manfred cast doubt on whether seven-inning doubleheaders would remain in place beyond the 2020 season, characterizing the traditional nine-inning length of games as something that isn’t likely to be altered on a permanent basis.
Looking further down the road, Manfred again touched on the topic of expansion to 32 teams. The commissioner has long been a proponent of adding two new teams to the league but acknowledged that the Covid-19 pandemic — the revenue losses and the time dedicated to navigating a season amid it — have likely pushed expansion down the road a ways.
“Expansion makes great sense for baseball, just based on the math,” said Manfred. “Fours work way better than fives. We have five-team divisions right now, 15 teams in each league. Those fives are rough when you go to make a schedule. … Getting to 32 [teams] is a really appealing idea from a schedule format perspective.”
Manfred didn’t delve into potential sites for new teams, though he did go back to a previously stated belief that international expansion beyond the U.S. and Canada would be good for the game’s growth, citing Mexico’s existing baseball culture as a “great opportunity” for the league to explore at some point.
Eventual changes to the rulebook, the structure of the season and the very composition of the league have long felt inevitable, but it’s certainly notable that the league has implemented this many changes to the 2020 season with the looming expiration of the 2016-21 collective bargaining agreement. The impending negotiations on a new CBA undoubtedly played a role in the MLBPA’s decision to only agree to expanded playoffs in 2020, as the expanded format can now be a point of leverage in future negotiations rather than the status quo heading into those talks.
Even if some of the league’s desired changes for the 2021 season don’t come to fruition on the heels of this year’s experimental campaign, don’t be surprised if (or when) they are once again major talking points as MLB and the MLBPA again come to the negotiating table in a year’s time.