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Proposing an MLB In-Season Tournament: What would it look like?

by Tim Moran

Early December saw the conclusion of the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament, and the results were overwhelmingly positive. Between positive fan response and significantly increased ratings, Adam Silver’s gamble to take a page from professional soccer certainly paid off.

One then has to wonder if Rob Manfred and Co. have taken notice. I, for one, fully hope they have—an in-season tournament would greatly benefit the MLB and its fans. While the offseason hot stove cools off before a final push near Spring Training, let’s analyze what such an event could look like.

Why would MLB do this?

Ever since the CBA negotiations a couple of years ago, MLB’s grueling 162-game season has been a topic of contention. While players prefer many games because it means more salary, the commissioner’s office has considered a slight drop in season length. Rob Manfred even mentioned the possibility of a 154-game schedule this past summer. Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that each MLB contest carries very little relative weight.

It’s hard to get fans to the ballpark in late April when it’s 44 degrees outside and the team’s playoff chances go up or down ~0.2% based on the outcome. The NBA recognized this issue in part due to star players sitting out early-season games simply for rest. Sure, load management isn’t a problem in pro baseball. But the fact that an 82-game schedule makes early-on contests feel forgettable points to an even greater meaninglessness across 162 games. Adding a tournament would massively boost the hype around April and May ballgames.

In addition, a short tournament would likely result in multiple below-average teams advancing to later rounds. Major League Baseball is known for its parity in the postseason, and an in-season tournament would be no different. Given my own experience watching the Sox, I can confidently say that I made greater efforts to watch games in 2020-2022 when the team was more competitive than in prior years. Fans of bad teams, who otherwise usually know by mid-May if they’ll be out of the playoffs, will have something to tune in for.

How could MLB do this?

Generally speaking, the NBA organized its tournament adeptly. Major League Baseball would be wise to borrow much of the structure. Thus, I’d propose building the tournament on group play featuring originally scheduled series, and then a final few sets of games for finalists at a common location. No ad-hoc flights or interruptions to the normal flow of the season.

Each division would make up its own group. Notably, the NBA was missing this rivalry aspect of its tournament. Divisions in the NBA are symbolic, so it makes sense, but for the MLB, having bragging rights over your division is a major incentive. One three-game series against each team in the first half would count as a tournament series, randomly assigned such that two are at home and two on the road. Winning a series counts as a point, and the team with the most points (out of four) advances to the final six. Of course, the overall record across the 12 games would be the primary tiebreaker, with head-to-head as the secondary.

Now, what to do with these six teams? Winner-take-all knockout round during the All-Star Break (screw it, All-Star Week) of course! By expanding the four-day break into a week-long affair, the MLB could increase rest for the second half and drive more tourism to the host city. The schedule could look something like this:

  • Monday: In-Season Tournament #3 vs. #6 and #4 vs. #5
  • Tuesday: In-Season Tournament semifinals
  • Wednesday: In-Season Tournament championship
  • Thursday: Celebrity game, etc.
  • Friday: Home Run Derby
  • Saturday: All-Star Game
  • Sunday: Rest

Just one to three games would be added to the schedule for knockout teams, a very tolerable difference. Also, if MLB is worried about expanding the schedule even further into October, it would be a great time to implement the 154-game schedule. 

It may seem unjust to utilize single games instead of series for the knockout round, but if MLB did it for the Wild Card Game for years, they can do it for this. Besides, it’s necessary to keep the All-Star Break short and adds hype to each matchup. As for the winnings, a trophy and $500K proved enough to motivate triple-digit millionaires like LeBron James and Anthony Davis to exert maximum effort. In turn, a trophy and $300K should be a sufficient reward for the 26 winning ballplayers.

While many possible structures could make sense for an MLB in-season tournament, this format makes the most sense to me. Emphasize rivalries, minimize hassle, and maximize the All-Star Break. Whatever your preferred configuration, any tournament would be a monumental win for MLB and its fans.

Thoughts on this tournament structure? Let us know in the comments below!

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Featured Photo: Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

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