If the MLB playoffs are expanded, Max Scherzer wants to try a round-robin format

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The gist is to replace the wild-card game and Division Series with a round-robin tournament. Scherzer doesn’t have every detail worked out. His initial structure, though, includes six teams in each league — the three division winners and three wild-card clubs — for two weeks of round-robin play. Then the top two finishers in each round-robin meet in the Championship Series. Then, per usual, the winners of each Championship Series advance to the World Series.

“There are so many ways you could do this,” Scherzer, 36, told The Washington Post last week. “But at the end of the day, the integrity of the [round-robin] format holds true better than a three-game series.”

Scherzer, the Washington Nationals’ ace, is on the executive subcommittee of the players’ union and a member of MLB’s rules committee. He’s had a clear view of rules discussions throughout his career, including the recent tug between expanding the playoffs or not. In short, the owners want more postseason games because they want to make more money. The players, however, are generally resistant to playing more games, especially if postseason revenue sharing stays skewed toward the owners. This will be just one of many items debated when a new collective bargaining agreement is negotiated next winter.

And last summer, as games restarted amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league expanded the playoffs just hours before the regular season began. Scherzer was no fan of the four-round, 16-team playoff that unfolded in October. His biggest problem was that after two months of play teams had their fates decided by a three-game series (the first round was 1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7, 3 vs. 6 and 4 vs. 5 with the higher seed hosting each game). He would be even more averse to that following the typical 162-game schedule. So that’s where the round-robin concept comes in.

“The three-game series is not the way to go,” Scherzer said. “It was almost cringeworthy.”

The goal, Scherzer believes, is for the playoff format to spit out a combination of the best and toughest teams. He doesn’t believe the eighth seed ousting the top seed with two wins accomplishes that. He does think a round-robin would force low seeds to prove themselves across a number of games, thus earning admission to the next stage. He just isn’t quite sure how that looks.

If there were six playoff teams in each league, and each team played each other twice, that’s 10 games to fit in before the middle of October. Room for travel days is required, too. In 2019, the last year with MLB’s usual playoff format, the regular season ended Sept. 29 and the NLCS started Oct. 11. That’s only 12 days to squeeze in round-robin play and movement between cities. It’s a little too tight.

If this format was of interest, one possible solution is to shave a few games off the regular season and start earlier. But that creates a fresh list of complications — salaries and service time among them.

“Two weeks of baseball … it’s a much better idea of who’s the best team than three days,” Scherzer said, adding that he has mentioned this idea to the players union. A pro-labor concern with playoff expansion is that, with more spots, teams will be even less incentivized to spend in free agency and give long-term contracts to homegrown players. A faint hope with the round-robin format is that contending teams would see a need to build up for a tough test — and fringe teams would build for the chance to get in and make noise, though with six spots available instead of eight.

One outstanding question is how the round-robin format benefits division winners. In the current playoff system, the three division winners sidestep the one-game wild-card playoff. The top seed then faces the wild-card game-winner, which has likely already used its top pitchers to advance. There are clear advantages to finishing first.

But they are less clear if the opening round includes five matchups with every other playoff team. A potential perk is for the top seed to host most (if not all) of their round-robin games. The top seed playing the sixth seed first would mean the top seed has its best pitchers against the club with the worst regular season record, conceivably increasing its odds for a good start. Then tiebreakers present another conundrum. As Scherzer noted, the possibilities are vast and a bit mind-bending.

Don’t be fooled by Scherzer’s disdain for the pitch clock MLB rolled out in the spring of 2019. He embraces experimentation. He even seeks it. He is “all in favor” of the “double hook DH” (brought forth by the Athletic in January). The DH, another hot-button issue, will inevitably come to the National League as a part of the next CBA. But Scherzer will push for the NL to adopt the double hook DH, which means a team loses its DH whenever it pulls its starting pitcher. Scherzer believes it would preserve NL strategy and make managers think more critically about lineup construction and in-game decisions.

“Well, we have seven-inning doubleheaders, we have a runner on second to finish the game,” he said. “I think it’s possible.”

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