Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I Hate the Idea of Playoff Expansion

In 1993, the Giants had one of the best seasons in their franchise's history. It was the first year of new ownership after Peter Magowan saved the team from moving to Florida, the first year for Dusty Baker as manager, and the first for newly acquired hometown hero Barry Bonds. The Giants won 103 games that season, but finished 2nd in the Western division to the Atlanta Braves. At that time there were only 2 playoff teams for each league, so the Giants missed out. That team is considered by many to be the best modern team to miss the playoffs. Partly because such a dominant team as those Giants missed out on the playoffs, Major League Baseball changed the division and playoff format. Now there were 3 divisions, and the 2nd place team with the best record would also make the playoffs as a wild card team. This is the system we have today. There are a few problems with it; it's possible to have 3 teams in 1 division all with better records than one of the division leaders, and because of that the teams with the best records don't always make the playoffs. But for the most part that doesn't happen.

The current system has taken care of what it set out to do. In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, while the Athletics won 102. If not for the wild card, that impressive A's team would have missed the playoffs. In 1997, the Yankees had 96 wins, 2nd best in the American League, but they needed the wild card because Baltimore had 98 (the other division winners had 86 and 90 wins).

Let's look at that 1997 season in the context of the news we have heard of late, that Bud Selig is considering expanding the playoffs to 5 teams per league. The only ideas I've heard are these: 3 division winners, 2 wild cards (of the 2 best 2nd place teams), and a one game playoff between those 2 wild cards to determine the 4th spot, or: the same, except a 3 game playoff instead of just 1. Let's imagine this rule was in place in 1997. The 3 division winners in the AL would be Baltimore, Cleveland, and Seattle. The Yankees won 96 games, so they would be 1 wild card spot. The Anaheim Angels won 84 games, so they would be the 2nd wild card spot. Now the 96 win Yankees would have to face the 84 win Angels in a 1 game playoff to decide which gets to go on. Does that sound fair to you? We know that anything can happen in 1 game in baseball. That's why it's completely ridiculous to make a team with a 12 game advantage over another face elimination like that. I know one argument for this format is that it would make the division race meaningful. Baltimore and New York would be fighting to win the division so they wouldn't be that unfortunate wild card team. But no matter how hard each team fought to win the division, there's still a loser. One of those great teams is gonna have to face the barely above .500 Angels. The A's of 2001 would have had to face the 85 win Twins, a team 17 games back of them. In 2002, the eventual pennant winning wild card Giants would have had to face an Astros team that was 11 games back of them.

These are the extreme examples. Many years the theoretical 2nd wild card team was only 1 or 2 games behind the actual wild card winner. But the last 5 seasons in the AL, the wild card team has been 5, 6, 6, 8, and 6 games ahead of the theoretical 2nd. That's a pretty significant gap. The average gap for the AL during the wild card era is 6 games. For the NL it is 3.

The 1 game playoff is a nightmare. A 3 game series is not as bad, but I still hate it.

The reasons MLB would want to do this? Monetary, to be sure, although I question how much could really be gained from 1 more day of baseball. I understand the reality of baseball as a business (although I refuse to say that's all it is) but I'm confused by the people outside of MLB who argue for this expansion on the basis of "bringing in the casual fan" or "single game events like the NFL" as if that should be the concern of any lover of the game. I know it isn't for me. The single game event is nice when it occurs at the end of a season because 2 teams are tied. What makes Game 163 or Game 7 of a playoff series special is that they come after so much; it loses all of that when it is a planned event that both teams will see coming weeks away probably (it would be a blessing for one and a nuisance or worse for the other) . Manufactured drama is the last thing a sport as powerful as baseball needs.

I keep calling it playoff expansion. But this really isn't expanding the playoffs. A 1 game playoff is a little novelty game, a dumbshow before the real play, exactly what it's unfortunate and misguided proponents want from it (to attract the casual fan). Which makes the consequences (a great team is eliminated by a mediocre one) of such an ill advised, absurd game all the more unjust. Real expansion of the playoffs would be adding another round and giving the 2 best division winners a bye and having 6 teams from each league, which I don't like either because that's too many teams. Baseball used to be 2 leagues, 2 pennant winners, and a World Series between them. Sometimes the teams cared more about winning the pennant than winning the World Series. Then the 2 division system was introduced, with 2 playoff teams per league. Then the 3 divisions and the wild card. 8 total playoff teams doesn't feel like a lot, with the NBA allowing more than half the league into the postseason. I think baseball has reached that balance between knowing we are watching (most of the time) the best teams play for the trophy, while also enjoying the randomness and suspense that a playoff atmosphere brings.

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