Expanded Playoffs Could Be a Battle Worth Losing for "Purists"

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

The word out of the General Managers meetings in Orlando is the plan to expand the major league baseball playoffs to 10 teams is moving full speed ahead. According to numerous reports, Commissioner Bud Selig, who has been pushing the proposal with a heavy hand, intends to finalize a recommendation after convening his special committee at the winter meetings in December. Ultimately, any plan would have to be approved by both the owners and players before being implemented, but the early signs point toward acceptance from both.

The initial negative reaction to expanding the post season centers on potential damage to the integrity of the regular season as well as the possible dilution of the playoffs by permitting lesser teams to participate. Both of those concerns are certainly valid, but don’t they exist under the current system anyway?

I think the more teams you have in it, the month of September will obviously be more meaningful. The minuses: two of them obviously are the integrity of the schedule and the history of the game, where you know the best teams always moved forward. But we really crossed that bridge, didn’t we, when we went from two teams to four teams, and then four teams to eight teams? So that bridge has been crossed. I’ve changed. I could add more teams.” – Toronto Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, quoted by AP

Beeston’s fatalist attitude isn’t exactly what you’d like to hear from one of the lords of the game, but does he have a point?

What History Would Have Been Like with a Second Wild Card

  “Second” AL Wild Card W L Rank   Actual AL Wild Card W L Rank
2010 Red Sox 89 73 5   Yankees 95 67 2
2009 Rangers 87 75 4   Red Sox 95 67 3
2008 Yankees 89 73 4   Red Sox 95 67 3
2007 Tigers/Mariners 88 74 5   Yankees 94 68 3
2006 White Sox 90 72 5   Tigers 95 67 3
2005 Indians 93 69 5   Red Sox 95 67 2
2004 Athletics 91 71 5   Red Sox 98 64 2
2003 Mariners 93 69 4   Red Sox 95 67 3
2002 Red Sox/Mariners 93 69 5   Angels 99 63 3
2001 Twins 85 77 5   Athletics 102 60 2
2000 Indians 90 72 4   Mariners 91 71 3
1999 Athletics 87 75 5   Red Sox 94 68 4
1998 Blue Jays 88 74 4   Red Sox 92 70 2
1997 Angels 84 78 5   Yankees 96 66 2
1996 Mariners 85 76 5   Orioles 88 74 4
  Average 88.8 73.1 4.7     94.9 67.1 2.7
  Median 89 73 5     95 67 3
  “Second” NL Wild Card W L Rank   Actual NL Wild Card W L Rank
2010 Padres 90 72 5   Braves 91 71 3
2009 Giants 88 74 5   Rockies 92 70 3
2008 Mets 89 73 4   Brewers 90 72 3
2007 Padres 89 74 4   Rockies 90 73 2
2006 Phillies 85 77 4   Dodgers 88 74 2
2005 Phillies 88 74 4   Astros 89 73 3
2004 Giants 91 71 5   Astros 92 70 4
2003 Astros 87 75 5   Marlins 91 71 3
2002 Dodgers 92 70 5   Giants 95 66 4
2001 Giants 90 72 4   Cardinals 93 69 1
2000 Dodgers 86 76 5   Mets 94 68 4
1999 Reds 96 67 5   Mets 97 66 4
1998 Giants 89 74 5   Cubs 90 73 4
1997 Mets/Dodgers 88 74 4   Marlins 92 70 2
1996 Expos 88 74 4   Dodgers 90 72 3
  Average 89.1 73.1 4.5     91.6 70.5 3.0
  Median 89 74 5     91 71 3

The two charts above display the actual wild card winner and what would have been the second wild card in each league since 1996 (the first 162-game season of divisional play). As you can see, the wild card really hasn’t diluted the post season in the American League, as evidenced by the average and median wild card record of 95-67. Adding a fifth team, however, would include a participant with an average and median record of 89-73, which doesn’t look as good. Then again, the National League wild card really hasn’t been much better. While a potential second NL wild card would also have posted an average record of 89-73, the wild card team already in place has only been two games better.

The first question to consider is why has the American League wild card been so strong (the answer to which may also explain why the league as a whole has been vastly superior over the past decade)? Of the 15 American League wild cards, 11 have come from the East division, and eight of those teams finished second to the Yankees. What appears to be happening is a sort of Yankee-effect in which American Leagues teams, particularly those in the East, have been forced to improve their organization-wide efficiency in an attempt to keep up with the growing dominance of the pinstripes. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Boston, which has won almost half of the American League wild cards.

It is notable that the potential second wild card team in each league would have had essentially the same record over the past 15 seasons. What this suggests is that regardless of the fluctuations in league quality, 89 wins will probably be the average total for a second wild card. Of course, with the incentive of an added playoff spot, it remains to be seen what impact that will have on team records. Will fewer teams be willing to make mid-season trades, thereby lessening the ability of the elite clubs to strengthen themselves down the stretch? If so, the overall records of all playoff teams could suffer. Or, will the middling clubs all bolster themselves and, in the process, define the middle up at the expense of a much softer underbelly? It seems as if the impact could go either way.

Normally, the idea of diluting the regular season would be abhorrent to me. After all, baseball’s heart and soul is its 162-game marathon, and not the one-month sprint conducted in October. However, based on the information above, I am not sure there would be much of a dilution, at least not much greater than what exists now. In fact, if constructed with just a little bit of common sense, an extra wild card might actually return integrity back to the regular season.

If the eventual proposal advanced by the Commissioner’s special committee serves the purpose of placing both wild cards at a disadvantage, then it would actual once again place great importance on winning a division title. In this year’s AL East “race”, the Rays and Yankees, both of whom were assured a playoff spot, made a mockery of the regular season by playing the last month like Alphonse and Gaston. Under a proposal in which the two wild cards would first have to hash it out in a short series, teams would no longer treat September with such indifference. Ultimately, that would serve the purpose of increasing the relevance of the regular season without diluting the playoffs, especially if the American League’s superior wild card environment was to normalize more along the lines of the National League.

As a purist, accepting expanded playoffs may just be another example of losing a battle to win the war. That same philosophy has been used by teams to eschew division titles when they had the safety of the wild card as a back-up. Because it’s become so prevalent, baseball might as well put that Machiavellian strategy to good use.

10 thoughts on “Expanded Playoffs Could Be a Battle Worth Losing for "Purists"

  1. As I’ve said, Im not a huge fan of lowering the bar. Maybe my perception simply stems from the AL, where it looks like you’d have a 95 win team frequently matched up with a significantly inferior opponent in a very short series. I think the first wildcard helped solve the issue of having a very good team kept out due to the vagaries of the division system. This just feels like a dilution of the playoffs.

  2. While I’m currently not a fan of the proposed second Wild Card (though like anything else, I imagine that once it’s implemented we’ll all forget we were ever up in arms about it over the first place), and my personal preference — despite the fact that this will never happen — is to get rid of the unbalanced schedule and Interleague Play, destroy the divisions and go back to two 15-team leagues, which would require moving a National League team back to the AL and awarding playoff spots to the teams with the four best records; William’s argument is probably the best I’ve read so far in explaining why the addition of another WC might not be as bad as it initially sounds.

    • I love that plan, but it’s not gonna happen. Baseball wants to protect rivalries at all costs.

      • I know you’re right, although you also bring up an interesting point — how much does the average fan really care about rivalries these days? The players all love each other; so the rivalries are clearly persisting because of the fans, but I just wonder whether people still feel as strongly about playing specific teams as baseball thinks people do.

        I mean, as a Yankee fan I am sick to death of the Red Sox, and quite frankly for me the whole rivalry ship sailed after they finally won it all in 2004. There was definitely an excitement about trying to keep Boston away from the World Series what with the whole not-having-won-since-1918 thing, but now they’re just any other team.

        For me, I just look forward to baseball. I don’t care who the Yankees are playing; every team is our rival.

        Also, as a postscript to my first post, I realized it’d have to be two 14- or 16-team leagues if there’s no Interleague Play. So in this fantasy hypothetical we get to contract the league or expand by two. And let’s face it, given how flush baseball is there’s no chance they’re dumping any franchises. The more interesting question is, what cities make the most sense for two expansion franchises? I’d love to see a baseball team somewhere in Tennessee or the Carolinas, or perhaps Las Vegas, though I know that’s even less likely than this proposed scenario.

        • I think fans do care about rivalries, especially the big ones (Yanks/Sox, Cards/Cubs and LA/SF), and attendance and ratings do seem to show that. In many ways, rivalries are more about causual fan interest because, as you mentioned, diehards care about every game.

          The reason I think the divisions and the unbalanced schedule work (aside from economic reasons like travel) is because otherwise what rationale is there for the playoffs? If each league plays a balanced schedule, then why bother having a playoff to determine the best team when that has already been determined by the regular season. With the unbalanced schedule, you can argue that each division is basically its own entity, so the records really don’t compare on an apples-to-apples basis. That environment necessitates a playoff. Of course, the WC is a monkey wrench for numerous reasons, but at least adding a second one would make it a much more unattractive position to be in. I really don’t mind an 89-win WC beating a 95-win WC because neither team should be in the playoffs anyway.

  3. You can’t get rid of interleague play if each league has 15 teams.

    I don’t see any way of implementing this that wouldn’t be downright silly. I do think the unbalanced schedule is a bad idea. I think it was done to keep division winners over .500.

    • Interleague initially made the unbalanced schedule unworkable because you could even things up. Then, with three divisions, you had the silliness of playing as little as 1/4 of all games in the division, which, created inherent unfairness. The only fair choice in my mind is one division with a balanced schedule and no playoffs, or several divisions with an unbalanced schedule and playoffs. Any other arrangement seems to work against itself.

  4. Why not just call it the play in game? You have the 3 division winners plus the winner of that game make the post season. Sure some might say it’s unfair to have the entire season come down to one game but that just makes winning the division even more important so you don’t have to play in that game. I like the idea of a winner take all game as an exciting way to begin the post season.

  5. I am dead-set against adding another wild card team, for what it’s worth. (Nothing.) My reason is that it introduces yet another opportunity for the World Series to go to an inferior team.

    The purpose of the regular season is to weed out those inferior teams. Let’s say Team A is 10% better than Team B. The odds are very good that over the course of 162 games, Team A will finish ahead of Team B, in the same way that if you place 162 bets in a casino, the odds are very good that the casino will come out on top. Under the present playoff format, the Team B’s of the world are mercifully weeded out. Not as well as they were weeded out 50 years ago, but still….

    Now let’s say the bar is lowered, so that Team A and Team B both get into the playoffs. Team B plays Team A in a 7-game series. What are the chances that the inferior team can knock off the superior team in a 7-game series? According to Leonard Mlodinow (probability expert), the chances are 37%. To return to the casino analogy, you have a far better chance of beating the house on 7 rolls of the dice than on 162.

    So if you want a world where inferior teams can become World Series champions more often, open the floodgates. Using Beeston’s logic, if we’re going to have two wild cards, why not four? Why not eight? After all, it would make September so much more meaningful. Of course October would be a joke….

    I realize all our objections are futile. Ultimately, bits of paper featuring the pictures of dead presidents will make the decision.

  6. My perspective is that of concern for the quality of games, affected by the weather. Don’t mind sharing the excitement as widely as possible, but do not want the competition affected by temperatures too cold for baseball. So, only if they can start sooner, or compress the schedules, should they add a layer. Also, the delays of waiting for other series to conclude cause pitchers and hitters to lose their rythym, and skew results.