Playoff expansion is coming to Major League Baseball. It’s still uncertain when and in what form, but a bigger October is on the way.
Amid plenty of disagreement, both Major League Baseball owners and the MLB Players Association have included postseason expansion proposals in recent CBA offers, though the sides are still split on 14 (the league) or 12 (MLBPA) teams.
Competing in a division against the high-spending Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and high-achieving Tampa Bay Rays, more playoff teams seems like a clear win for Toronto Blue Jays fans who enjoy October baseball, right? For both past and future Blue Jay teams, the answer may not be an obvious yes.
The Historical Toronto Impact of Playoff Expansion
With a little revisionist history, we can take a look at the last 15 years of Blue Jays seasons and compare how the teams would’ve fared under tweaked playoff formats:
Toronto’s 2021 was a clear reminder of the difficulties of life in the AL East. The franchise’s best season in a half-decade—91 wins—resulted in a fourth-place finish in the division and an outside look at the postseason.
Any form of playoff expansion would’ve helped the 2021 Jays, but, as shown above, they would’ve been the only team in the last 15 years to benefit from the union’s proposed 12-team format (with three division winners and three wildcards from each league). You have to go back to the 1999 Jays (84-78) to find another Toronto team that would’ve benefited from six American League teams in the playoffs.
The 14-team format is more Blue Jay-friendly, with five additional playoff appearances coming in the last fifteen years. A format with four wild card teams can negate some of the impacts of divisional strength, largely neutralizing a strong AL East. The league’s proposed format would allow an entire division to make the playoffs if a season somehow played out that way.
One key factor our historical perspective doesn’t account for is the format change’s impact on team building and competitive windows. Teams playing in the modern AL East knew they had to hang with the Red Sox and Yankees for a shot at the playoffs, leaving little room for optimism for .500 clubs like the 2000s Jays. Many years even good teams have sold if greatness wasn’t within reach.
On top of the one new playoff appearance in the 12-team format, the Jays would’ve finished within five games of October baseball seven times in the last 15 years. Maybe some of those teams turn into buyers in the offseason or at the deadline with more postseason spots to play for? There would certainly be additional incentive for some iterations of Toronto baseball, even for teams clearly lagging behind the AL East’s best.
Moving Forward With Expanded Playoffs
One argument against the benefit of playoff expansion for the Blue Jays, at least in the short term, is more playoff teams creating more playoff randomness, hurting the World Series-aspiring Jays. Fewer teams in October create easier World Series paths for teams who can make it to the postseason.
With current ZiPS standings projections slotting Jays at 89-73, one game back of the division lead and eight games up on a playoff spot, they’re a clear playoff team in the eyes of projections. While adding one or two more AL playoff teams creates room for error, it also adds more randomness to the MLB’s postseason tournament. For playoff locks, that randomness is bad.
However, long-term, it’s hard to see how playoff expansion is anything but a benefit to Toronto. While they have lofty aspirations today, and a core capable of delivering on them, that may not always be the case. A 12 or 14-team expansion creates more room for lengthy and sustainable success in the AL East, something the Blue Jays have never been able to achieve.