Expanded Playoffs Adopted… and I Like It!

Right up front, I LIKE the expanded playoffs adopted officially by MLB today.  I went on record supporting this concept a couple of years ago and I stand by that support.

Beginning this fall, there will be TWO Wild Card spots in both the AL and NL, instead of one in each. In a perfect world, I’d have no Wild Cards at all, but that realistically is never going to happen. This is the next best thing.

I know that scheduling issues meant that, for 2012 only, the LDS will have a goofy format where the first two games are played in the lower seeded team’s stadium and the following three in the higher seeded team’s place. That’s not ideal, but they’ll go back to a 2-2-1 format next season, so whatever.

Image: MLB.com

The primary reason I like this concept is that it returns emphasis where I believe it belongs… on winning your Division title.

Players and managers (and thus most fans) have become conditioned, since 1995, to establishing their team’s season-long goal as being to “make the playoffs.” This is the way it is in the NFL, NHL and NBA, and while MLB has had fewer playoff spots than other major sports leagues, that same mentality has established itself in baseball since the Wild Card was implemented starting with the 1995 season.

Since that time, it has no longer mattered if you win your Division or not, as long as you managed to win enough games to beat out all of the other Division “runners up.” Several times over this period, teams that have locked up the Wild Card spot have stopped bothering to even compete for their Division championship, preferring instead to rest players and set their rotation for the playoffs. In at least one case, a team very clearly tried NOT to win their Division, in an effort to get the first round match-up they felt most comfortable with. That cannot be allowed to happen.

It won’t happen again.

There are only two real objections raised to the new plan.

One is that it results in the likely outcome that a strong second place team in one Division is placed at too great a disadvantage to Division winning teams of lesser talent and abilities. We’ll call this “the Yankee objection” and it goes something like this:

“The Yankees are always the best team in the American League, even when they let another AL East team win the Division and this format will mean that when the Yankees do allow someone else to win the AL East, they won’t get in to the playoffs on equal footing with the AL Central and AL West Division champions who are never ever as good as the Yankees. Therefore, the Yankees will gain their rightful place in the World Series less often than they deserve.”

To this I say, “If you’re so much better than everyone else, win your f’ing Division or shut up.”

The other objection, raised by a lot of players and managers, is that it just isn’t fair to make a team go through a 162 game season and then have their playoff hopes hinge on a single game. Everyone is conditioned to believe that you’re supposed to get a series of some sort in the postseason to establish your right to move on or go home.

And I agree… for Division champions.

But we’re not talking about Division champions here. We’re talking about two teams that didn’t win a damn thing over the course of that 162 game season. By all rights, they shouldn’t get to play ANY more baseball. They finished no better than 2nd place in their Divisions.

But we need an even number of teams in the “real” playoffs for each League, so one of those losers has to be let in to the postseason party. That’s fine, I guess, but this business of letting that also-ran team enter the playoffs on equal footing with the teams that DID win their Division needed to end.

So, once again, my answer to the whiners who think their 2nd place finish should entitle them to getting to play more than a single play-in game is pretty similar to my response to the first objection… “If you don’t want your playoff hopes determined by a single Wild Card game, win more games.”

In the end, Major League Baseball is saying that they want Division Championships to matter more than they have since 1995 and this change absolutely guarantees that teams will go flat out to win their Division, rather than settle for a Wild Card spot.

There are other benefits of this change, of course, but they are not so much real reasons to make the change as they are pleasant byproducts.

More teams will be in contention for one of those Wild Card spots late in the season. This is important, not only to fans in the markets directly affected by their team continuing to have a shot, but across the entire fan base, because it will mean more fans continuing to pay attention to more games at a time of year when baseball loses a number of eyeballs to football games. The playoffs and even World Series have become less watched in part because, by the time the playoffs roll around, fans in most markets have lost interest in baseball and have been watching football for over a month.

I also really like knowing there will always be two “win or go home” games every season. The down side of having playoff “series” is that there are years when not a single postseason game has the drama of both teams needing a win to avoid elimination, because there are years when no playoff series goes the full five or seven games. That will never happen again.

The handful of “game 163” contests in recent years have been instant classics. Now there will be at least two of those games every season (though not many of them are likely to have the drama of the Rockies, White Sox and Twins wins this decade). And it won’t come at the cost of other potential game 163s because there will still be potential tie-breaker games.

I understand that there are plenty of people who don’t like this change. That’s fine. As always, I acknowledge that everyone is entitled to their opinion… even if it’s wrong. 🙂

– JC


7 Replies to “Expanded Playoffs Adopted… and I Like It!”

  1. I guess I’m on board for this. My only reluctance is if this opens the floodgates to having even more teams in the playoffs in the future. Now, I haven’t read anything to support the idea that MLB would ever further expand the number of teams, but of course anything is possible. One of the best things about baseball is that making the playoffs is more meaningful — and rarer — than making it in the NFL, NBA and NHL. I just don’t want that to change.

    As a fan, I do like the fact that there will now be 2 game 163s every year, and that there will now be a much greater emphasis on winning the division. What will the Yankees do if they have to pitch CC Sabathia in Game 163?

  2. I’m generally OK with this change. But I will point out that last year’s drama in the wild card races–which was the only stretch drive drama in either league–would have meant nothing at all if this system had been in place at the time. The September collapses of Boston and Atlanta would have been just a bad month of no real consequence for the teams. Whether they played better down the stretch or not, each team still would have had a chance to play into the postseason if they could defeat the late-charging Rays and Cardinals, respectively, in one final game.

    A lot of the time, there really isn’t more than 4 strong teams in a league. Going forward, now, I think baseball’s “pennant race” drama will often boil down to seeing which 87-win team will edge out some other mediocre club for the right to be a potential playoff spoiler, or else the whole playoff picture could be pretty well settled with weeks to play in the season.

    It would be more entertaining to me if the best team in each league earned a first-round playoff bye, while the other two division winners in each league played a “division series” for the right to move on to the LCS. But, we know why that won’t ever happen.

  3. While I agree that the new system would have meant the final day of the 2011 season wouldn’t have been as dramatic as it turned out to be, that day/night was a remarkable exception to the norm. We also don’t know that the resulting WC games wouldn’t have been just as dramatic.

    Like I wrote in the post, I also would prefer no Wild Card teams at all, but that simply won’t be happening. So if we have to have Wild Cards, I strongly prefer that there be a strong incentive to win the Division and that has not been the case.

  4. I was perfectly happy with the playoffs the way the were. I guess, I see the rationale for this change and I certainly prefer it to other possible changes. Such as teams switching divisions every year, or going to more teams. I think some of the teams in traditionally strong divisions were looking for a better chance to reach the postseason. Maybe this will get that for them.

  5. You’re right, Jim… I would imagine Baltimore and Toronto like the change. If one of those teams found themselves in a 1-game WC play-in game, I bet not a soul in either fanbase would complain about how unfair it is.

  6. The previous wild card system, for the AL, frequently provided a backdoor to the postseason for Boston or New York. If this new system had been in place, these AL teams would have qualified for the final play-in spot:

    1995: Angels, 78-67, facing New York, 79-65 (btw, the exciting AL West race wouldn’t have been do-or-die then)
    1996: Red Sox, White Sox, or Mariners (each 85 wins), facing Orioles, 88-74
    1997: Angels, 84-78, facing Yankees, 96-66
    1998: Blue Jays, 88-74, facing Red Sox, 92-70
    1999: Athletics, 87-75, facing Red Sox, 94-68
    2000: Indians, 90-72, facing Mariners or Athletics (tied with 91 wins atop West)
    2001: Twins, 85-71, facing Athletics, 102-60
    2002: Red Sox, 93-69, facing Angels, 99-63
    2003: Mariners, 93-69, facing Red Sox, 95-67
    2004: Athletics, 91-71, facing Red Sox, 98-64 (A’s lost West by 1 gm)
    2005: Indians, 93-69, facing Red Sox or Yankees (tied with 95 wins atop East)
    2006: Angels, 89-73, facing Tigers, 95-67
    2007: Mariners or Tigers, both 88-74, facing Yankees, 94-68
    2008: Yankees, 89-73, facing Red Sox, 95-67
    2009: Rangers, 87-75, facing Red Sox, 95-67
    2010: Red Sox, 89-73, facing Yankees, 95-67
    2011: Red Sox, 90-72, facing Rays, 91-71

    Notice that in 3 of the last 4 years, the play-in would have just given New York or Boston one last chance to leap-frog into the postseason, past the 2nd place team in the East. An all-East face-off could have happened two other times: if the Red Sox had emerged from a messy 3-way tie in ’96 (to play the Orioles), and when the Jays won 88 games in ’98 (and would’ve played the Red Sox). The ’02 Red Sox also would’ve been given the chance to take out the 99-win Angels club with one lucky punch, before the Halos could beat Barry Bonds’ Giants in a memorable World Series.

    The system could have benefited a Central team 3-5 times: in ’96 if the White Sox had emerged from the 3-team tangle; in 2000, when a good Indians team finished 5 games behind Chicago; in 2001, when the Twins would have been given the play-in reward despite their 2nd half collapse, facing a team that was 17 games better in the Wins column; in 2005, when another good Indians team finished 6 games behind Chicago, who won the World Series that year; and in 2007, if the Tigers could have won a tie-breaker game with the Mariners.

    There were a few years when the system could have made a division race more interesting, as in the 2000 West, the 2005 or 2010 East, or the 2006 Central. Some years, I think it would have diminished certain races, as in the 1995 or 2004 West. A lot of the time, I think it would have just given another also-ran team the chance to pull off some fluke upsets in the postseason. And, lately, it would have been a last-chance ticket for Boston or New York when they were 3rd in their division.

    Looking at this year, and following seasons in the near future, the safe bets for that last play-in spot in the AL would seem to be either Boston/New York or LAA/Texas.

    So, I don’t know…. Some years, this could be fun. But, the more I think about it, or read things like Joe Sheehan’s piece (http://www.joesheehan.com/?q=node/387), the less I like the new plan. It may be a “fix” that just requires more “fixing” down the road.