Some Thoughts on Expanded Playoffs

Last year as a student writer on a one of my school’s law journals I wrote an article on MLB’s proposed expanded playoff system and whether it would actually have a significant positive impact on competitive balance. (Note that every major change implemented by Bud Selig is done in the name of competitive balance. The fact that expanded playoffs provide an opportunity to sell more television ads and playoff apparel to additional fan bases is just a happy coincidence.) Since Selig announced today that MLB will indeed expand the Wild Card, possibly as early as next season, I figured it was a good time to address the issue.

For those who have managed to avoid the discussion on this proposed system, here’s how it would work: The proposed playoff system would expand the current playoffs by adding a second wild card team to each league, bringing the total number of playoff-eligible teams up to ten.  MLB’s expanded system would function much like the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend: the two wild card teams from each league would compete against each other to either win or go home. Instead of a 5-game or 7-game series, there will simply be a one-game playoff in which the two Wild Card teams from each league play to determine who will advance to the LDS.

Those in favor of the expanded playoff system believe that it will increase competition and excitement.  They argue that adding a wild card series will provide a greater incentive for teams to win their division and could create exciting races between division rivals in the final weeks of the season. Indeed, players like Justin Verlander have already weighed in that they believe this will be the case:

Sure increased excitement in the final weeks of the season would be great, but a look at league standings since the six-division format was adopted by MLB in 1996 show that the disparity in wins between the first and second wild card team would likely be significant.  The charts below (created by Yankee Universe) lay out the final records of the wild card teams and the would-be second wild card teams over the last 15 seasons:

“Second” American League Wild Card

Actual American League Wild Card

Year

 

Wins

Losses

 

Wins

Losses

2010 Red Sox

89

73

Yankees

95

67

2009 Rangers

87

75

Red Sox

95

67

2008 Yankees

89

73

Red Sox

95

67

2007 Tigers/Mariners

88

74

Yankees

94

68

2006 White Sox

90

72

Tigers

95

67

2005 Indians

93

69

Red Sox

95

67

2004 Athletics

91

71

Red Sox

98

64

2003 Mariners

93

69

Red Sox

95

67

2002 Red Sox/Mariners

93

69

Angels

99

63

2001 Twins

85

77

Athletics

102

60

2000 Indians

90

72

Mariners

91

71

1999 Athletics

87

75

Red Sox

94

68

1998 Blue Jays

88

74

Red Sox

92

70

1997 Angels

84

78

Yankees

96

66

1996 Mariners

85

76

Orioles

88

74

Average

88.8

73.1

 

94.9

67.1

 

“Second” National League Wild Card

Actual National League Wild Card

Year

 

Wins

Losses

 

Wins

Losses

2010 Padres

90

72

Braves

91

71

2009 Giants

88

74

Rockies

92

70

2008 Mets

89

73

Brewers

90

72

2007 Padres

89

74

Rockies

90

73

2006 Phillies

85

77

Dodgers

88

74

2005 Phillies

88

74

Astros

89

73

2004 Giants

91

71

Astros

92

70

2003 Astros

87

75

Marlins

91

71

2002 Dodgers

92

70

Giants

95

66

2001 Giants

90

72

Cardinals

93

69

2000 Dodgers

86

76

Mets

94

68

1999 Reds

96

67

Mets

97

66

1998 Giants

89

74

Cubs

90

73

1997 Mets/Dodgers

88

74

Marlins

92

70

1996 Expos

88

74

Dodgers

90

72

Average

89.1

73.1

 

91.6

70.5

As you can see from the above charts, the difference between wins in the National League (average 2.5) is not nearly as pronounced as the win differential in the American League (average 6.1).

Considering that MLB teams play 162 regular-season games, a six-win differential is significant.  In my opinion, a team that proves to be superior over the course of a (very long) season by winning 95 games is much more deserving of a playoff berth than a team that has only won 89 games.  But if the past 15 seasons are any indication, we could see a 95-win team in the American League forced to play an extra week in order to defend their season against a team with a weaker 89-win record.

Admittedly this would not be the case every year. As noted in the chart above, the win differential between the Indians and Mariners in 2000 was only one game. And in 2011 the win differential between the AL Wild Card (Rays) and the would-be 2nd Wild Card (Red Sox) was only one game. In the NL the win differential between the Cardinals and the Braves was also one game. In this scenario, the excitement and intrigue that the second Wild Card team is designed to create would actually have dampened the amazing final day of the 2011 regular season.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 2001 A’s team that won an impressive 102 games would have been forced to play a Twins team with a much less impressive 85 wins simply for a chance to compete in the ALDS.  Sure, this would be great for Twins fans whose season would otherwise end at the conclusion of the regular season, but would anyone else really be happy to see a team like the A’s, that had clearly proven itself more successful over the course of the season, denied a playoff berth by a team with 17 fewer wins?

If such an outcome were to happen, the regular season would lose its integrity.  Why should a team play hard day in and day out for six grueling months when a team that plays in a much weaker division can coast into the second wild card spot and secure a playoff berth simply by winning a one-game playoff?  And more importantly, how would the fans of a 102-win team feel if their playoff hopes suddenly rested on the unpredictable outcome of a single game?  I doubt they would shrug their shoulders and say “oh well, at least more teams have a chance at winning the World Series now, and this kind of league parity is much better than seeing our more deserving team win anyway.”

So what would I recommend in lieu of a second Wild Card team?  A friend of mine once said “anything that helps to INCREASE the importance of the larger sample size of the regular season (which I think this does – although only compared to the current model), is an improvement (if your Platonic ideal is “justice,” which I think it should be).”  This is also my view on how a playoff system should function.

While I understand the argument that forcing two wild card teams to play an extra playoff round could ultimately benefit the division winners, the proposed expanded system seems to be more in furtherance of Bud Selig’s goal of achieving parity for the sake of parity rather than justly determining the best team in any given year. And while parity is important, I think there comes a point when it must yield to preserve the integrity of the season and the sport by allowing the best, most deserving team to be the last one standing in October.  Essentially, parity should be established before the season begins so that all teams start on equal footing, or as close as possible. (This, of course, would require financial regulations that exceed what MLB currently has, including a salary cap and floor.) Having allowed the season to play out, the function of the playoffs should then be to preserve the integrity of that season and ensure that the most deserving team emerges as the champion.

Instead of throwing more teams into the playoff mix, the field should be narrowed to only the most deserving contenders. The six-division format already allows 90-win teams to advance over a 100-win team. The division format also necessarily means that every year deserving teams are excluded from the playoffs simply because they have the third best record in a strong division, despite the fact that they actually have more wins than a team that wins another weaker division. Ideally, a second wild card would remedy most of these situations.

But if MLB really wanted to create a system that recognizes the integrity of the regular season (short of eliminating the division structure), an argument could be made to get rid of the wild card altogether.  With a playoff field consisting of the three division winners from each league, the two division winners with the weaker records could play in the LDS and the winner would then face the team with the league’s best record in the LCS. Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan already utilizes a similar playoff system (although they go a step further by awarding the team with the best record a one-game advantage in the LCS). The Nippon system has been in effect for only a few years, but so far it appears to be successful in giving the league’s best team an advantage, while not creating an insurmountable challenge for the playoff teams with weaker records. This results in a system that awards a team for accumulating the league’s best record, but also leaves some degree of unpredictability to the playoffs should the stronger team falter. This (in my opinion) is a preferable way to incentivize teams to win a division while also respecting the success that the teams have achieved over the course of the season.

But of course, I’m not the Commissioner and once the additional Wild Card series is implemented it could play out in ways which none of us could predict. This is an issue that invites a lot of strong opinions, so please use the comments let us know what you think!

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