Sometime soon, possibly even before you read this, Major League Baseball will add another wild card playoff slot to each league starting in the upcoming 2012 season. According to Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, details were still being worked out on Wednesday, but this is something that is going to happen sooner or later. The change will bring the total number of playoff teams to 10, 5 in each league. The two wild cards in each league will play for the right to advance, and at this point it’s being reported that there will be a one game, winner take all, play-in. This obviously changes the competitive landscape of the league and adds a clear incentive to win the division instead of “settling” for a wild card slot. That’s being sold as a big positive by older types, many of whom were wary of the wildcard to begin with. The question is, what will it actually mean?
First off, adding more playoff slots does increase the number of teams that can potentially win a World Series in any given year. Baseball will still have the smallest playoff field in major American professional sports, with 10 of 30 teams qualifying. Compared to the NFL (12 of 32), NBA (16 of 30) and NHL (16 of 30), that is exclusive. Depending on one’s perspective, this can be viewed as either a good or a bad thing. Baseball plays 162 games in the regular season, and that does go a long way towards determining just who the best teams are. If one is interested in truly crowning the best team in baseball in a given season as champion, the more teams one adds to the playoffs, the lower and lower the chances are that the best team is standing at the end. It’s not unfair to say that the fewer teams you let into the playoffs, the more the long regular season matters.
On the other hand, baseball is an economically stratified system, where some teams are able to purchase more regular season wins with deep pockets and discerning management than others can, at least on a consistent basis. While the relationship between money spent on wins isn’t as strong as is sometimes portrayed, it is strong enough that you often see the big spenders at the top of the standings in their divisions. What money cannot buy, at least not consistently, is wins in the playoffs. They may be able to spend their way in, but once in, they’re on much more even footing with the other teams simply because it’s just not that hard for a good team to beat a great team in a best of 5 or 7 series. Thus, the more levels of playoffs one adds, theoretically the harder it is for the big spenders to simply “buy” a championship.
So, if from a “competitive balance” perspective, more playoff teams can be seen as a good thing, then this helps competitive balance? Ah, not so fast. Remember, this isn’t adding another round to the playoffs for everyone, like the 1969 and 1994 changes did. This is adding one team per league, not giving them the full rights and privileges of a playoff team, but rather the chance to become one. It’s also taking away the full “playoff team” status (and the accompanying boost in revenue) from a team and forcing them to earn it back by beating a team they were likely better than in the regular season anyway. This does give a team with a lower regular season win total a shot at the title, but if they get that shot it will be because they were able to win just 1 game. Functionally, MLB is creating a clear distinction between what it means to be a division winner and what it means to be a wildcard. The question that begs is, should all wildcards be treated as inferior beings?
Looking back just at the National League over the last 17 years of the “wildcard” era, it’s pretty hard to make the case that we should. In nine years, or over half the time, the wild card team had more wins than one of the division winners. Three times the wild card team had the second most wins in the league, better than both of the winners of the other divisions. It would seem that if you’re going to treat a team as inferior in whatever playoff format you adopt, they should actually be so and it’s pretty clear that this often isn’t the case. In fact, six times in that era both wild card teams would have had better records than one of the division winners. One could make the case that, for those six teams, at least the new system would allow them in, even if it was in an inferior status. Of course, this balancing act is still being done at the expense of a team that won more games than a team that got in by winning a division, so it’s hard to really call it justice.
If this still all seems too hypothetical, let’s go back and take a look at how it would have impacted a team near and dear to the hearts of Brewers’ fans, the 2008 squad. Remember in that year the Brewers beat the Mets out by one game for the National League wild card. Under the new system, the 90-win Brewers would have hosted the 89-win Mets within a day or two of the completion of the season. Meanwhile, the 84-win Dodgers would have avoided this mess, possibly even hosting the Brewers or Mets in the first round, depending on exactly how the system is set up. That gets even more ridiculous when you consider that the Dodgers’ 84 wins were racked up playing an unbalanced schedule, with lots of games played against the weak NL West.
How might that have effected history? On one hand, the Brewers and Mets wouldn’t have been fighting to the death down the stretch. Both teams would have been comfortably in the playoffs for several weeks, so that race would have lost it’s urgency. The Mets were closer to the Phillies than the Brewers were to the Cubs for their respective divisions, though, so it’s likely the Mets would have pushed more to the finish than the Brewers. Chances are that the Brewers would have backed off of CC Sabathia down the stretch and set him up to pitch the play-in game instead of the final game of the regular season. Just what all of this would have meant to the outcome of the season is impossible to say, but it hardly seems right that two teams with 90 and 89 wins should be forced to duel for a playoff spot while an 84-win team skates in comfortably. On the other hand, if you’re a Mets player or fan, at least getting the chance to play that play-in game is better than going home automatically, while a team with five fewer wins gets in by virtue of playing in a lousy division. Again, though, this doesn’t punish the Dodgers for winning 84, it would punish the 90-win Brewers which doesn’t seem to balance the scales much at all.
If baseball really wants to add a team to the playoffs and maintain some sense of competitive integrity in the postseason, the best solution is probably to do away with divisions altogether. Each league would go to one division, allowing the top overall teams in (either four or five, or even six), structuring the playoffs in such a way to properly reward the top teams and suitably punish the bottom ones. Each team would play the exact same schedule (or as near possible) to every other team in their league, still leaving room for inter-league play, but ensuring that strength of schedule played little role in determining the outcome. The problem with this, of course, is that baseball uses its division rivalries and the unbalanced schedule to drive interest and revenue, and owners won’t give that up for something as silly and petty as a truly sensible playoff system.
In the end, this system may help the Brewers make the playoffs a few more times than they otherwise would as a WC #2. It will also probably cost them some true playoff appearances they might have otherwise had when they lose a play-in game as a WC #1. It brings more teams into the playoff picture, but those teams are, by definition, not as good as the teams they’re now being given a chance to knock out in a one game play-in. It’s hard to say if this is good for the Brewers, or baseball as a whole, but it certainly doesn’t seem like a victory for common sense.