Expanded playoffs in MLB

I read an article in Sports Illustrated by a baseball writer named Joe Sheehan the other day, and after finishing it, I couldn’t get to the computer to fire up my blog-writing software fast enough. The article was called “More is Less”, and had the following subtitle:

Miss pennant races? Think the regular season should matter? Then an expanded postseason isn’t for you.

I was halfway through the first paragraph of the article before I realized that I read what I expected to read, not what was actually there. It said “an expanded postseason isn’t for you”. I can’t imagine how an expanded postseason isn’t better for everyone.

Sheehan says that adding an extra wild-card team to the playoffs will “finally destroy any notion that regular-season excellence matters”. He illustrates his point with a scenario in which the winner of the second wild-card spot (Team A, in fifth place) has a big lead over the sixth place team and therefore “cruises” into the playoffs, allowing them to rest their starters during the last few games of the season, while the fourth place team (Team B) finishes hard because they’re trying to win their division and just fall short. This means that the Team B, who finished ahead of Team A potentially by “10 or 12 games”, needs to play a well-rested Team A in the first round and the team that finished lower in the regular season could end up winning that series. I’m not saying that this scenario is not possible, of course it is. But that’s what we sports fans call “The Playoffs”. I suppose Mr. Sheehan thinks that the fact that the President’s Trophy winner rarely wins the Stanley Cup the same year is a failing of the NHL.

The thing is that this scenario could happen even without the wild cards. Say we’re back in the days when there was just two divisions in each league, and the winners face off in the League Championship Series. Now say the winner of the weaker East had a 90-72 record but clinched the division with a week left in the season, and the winner of the stronger West finished at 100-62 but didn’t clinch over the second-place 99-63 team until the last day. The team with the worse record is well rested and has a big advantage over the exhausted team with the better record.

I hate to tell you this, Mr. Sheehan, but the regular season is the seeding process for the playoffs. Ask any baseball player which they would rather do – have the best record in the regular season, or win the World Series? Any athlete in any sport will tell you that winning the regular season title is meaningless if they don’t win the Championship.

Mr. Sheehan came up with a theoretical scenario in which expanding the postseason might negatively affect a team in a particular situation (note that the team that was affected in his scenario did make the playoffs, so a lot of teams might think that’s a pretty nice problem to have). But let’s look at a real-life scenario – the 2009 American League. On September 1st, the Yankees, Tigers, and Angels were leading their divisions. The Red Sox were 6½ games back in the East (and leading in the wild card race), the Twins were 3½ games back in the Central, and the Rangers were 6 back in the West. None of the races is over, but if there is no wild card spot, the East and West are much less compelling. 6 or 6½ games out with a month left to go is certainly not insurmountable, but even if Boston sweeps a four-game series against New York, they’re still 2 back, so a lot would have to happen for the Red Sox to make the playoffs. The Rangers are in the same situation in the west, but nobody else really has a chance in either of those divisions. With a wild card spot, the Red Sox make the playoffs, and Texas and Tampa are only 4 and 5 games out respectively. Right away, you can see that having a wild card race means that excitement in these cities would be much higher – excitement not only for the fans, but for the players as well. More excitement for fans means higher attendance and more TV viewers, which is good for ownership and for baseball in general. More excitement for players means harder-played and likely more exciting games, which further increases fan interest. And that’s not just fans in those cities – fans of the other front-running teams will be watching more to see the team they might face in the postseason. I don’t see how adding the wild card spot is bad for anyone.

With a second wild card spot, there’s still excitement in Boston but now if things stay the same, Texas will make also  the postseason and Tampa is only one game out. The Mariners are 9 games out of the first wild card spot, but only 5 out of the second. More exciting games, more excited fans in more cities, more TV viewers. Once again, everybody wins. Winning the division is still valuable – you make the playoffs and have home field advantage while playing a weaker team.

This doesn’t turn MLB into the NHL, where teams barely over .500 make the playoffs (the 2009 Canadiens were 39-33-10) , or even worse – the NBA, where the 37-45 Pacers made the 2011 playoffs. (Of course, I’m a fan of the National Lacrosse League where 80% of the league makes the playoffs, including the 5-11 Minnesota Swarm in 2010. But I digress.) Even with a second wild card spot, only the top five teams in each league (out of 14 or 16) see postseason action.

It is, and should be, possible for a team to lose in the playoffs to a team below them in the regular-season standings. In Mr. Sheehan’s view, this makes the regular season meaningless. But what if there were no wild card spot in the 2009 season? The Yankees get a bye (fans love those, don’t they? They get to watch their team play fewer playoffs games) while the Twins and Angels play each other. But what if the Twins take out the Angels and then the Yankees? It certainly could happen – weirder things than that have. The Yankees won sixteen more games than the Twins in the regular season but don’t go to the World Series. Doesn’t this also make the regular season meaningless?

I am a Blue Jays fan, and the Jays haven’t played a really meaningful game in September for well over a decade, and this is true for many other teams as well. Maybe the entire regular season isn’t meaningless but the last month or so is, for the vast majority of teams. Adding an extra wild card team in each league means that some of these teams have a better chance of making the postseason. They may not be in a Pennant race, but they will be in a playoff race, and for teams that haven’t been in an actual Pennant race in years, that’s almost as good. September will be more compelling and exciting and therefore meaningful for these teams. Isn’t making the regular season meaningful something that you’re trying to accomplish?

So Mr. Sheehan, if you want to make sure that the regular season is really meaningful, you’d need to eliminate the divisions entirely and just have the first-place AL team play the first-place NL team in the World Series. The W-L records can’t be compared because they play with different rules and against different teams, and so there’s none of this worse-record-beats-better-record stuff that you don’t like. But you tell the owners that you’re reducing the post-season from eight teams and three rounds to two teams and a maximum of seven games and see how they welcome this dramatic drop in playoff revenue. You tell the fans of the fourth- and fifth-place teams that the fact that they didn’t make the playoffs is somehow good for baseball. This scheme may be better for the ultra-purists, but not for anyone else.


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