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Where's His Head At? Examining Baseball's Proposed Postseason Expansion

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You can take it to your bail bondsman right now: The next "modernization" step will be two wild-card teams and another round of playoffs, then more wild cards until the Indians, Mariners, Marlins and Rockies will be the only teams sitting at home.

--Dave Van Dyck, Baseball Digest, June 1993

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has been threatening to expand the post-season for several years now. Apparently, it's long been on his to-do list. He oversaw the expansion in 1993 and the move to three regional divisions in 1994, a move which, as you can see above, was not popular to begin with. This past week, Selig said he expects the playoffs to expand from 8 to 10 teams beginning in 2012. The plan still has to be approved by the players' union collective bargaining agreement, which is up for renewal this winter.

I see some pros and some cons to this move, but I don't fully understand why baseball officials want to once again change the playoff structure of the sport. It's something we're used to - is familiarity such a bad thing? - and it's something that works well as it is - if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In this piece, I examine the history of baseball's post-season and the reasons for and against the proposed expansion.

Beginning in 1903, the champions of the American and National Leagues - one out of eight teams in each - played each other in the World Series. For over 60 years, it remained this way. When each league finally expanded to 12 teams in 1969, the leagues split in two, and the Western and Eastern division champions would then play each other in a best-of-five "divisional" playoff, also known as the League Championship Series. (This expanded to seven games in 1985.) 

In 1993, the 26 teams grew to 28 with the addition of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins, but even then still only the top two teams in each league went to the post-season. In 1994 the leagues reorganized themselves into three divisions - Western, Central, and Eastern. Since a 3-team playoff series would have been uneven, the Wild Card berth was added, and the team with the best record among non-division-leaders would get to play in the playoffs. While this is the system most of us are familiar with, it was not met with universal acclaim. In fact, the arguments against it nearly 20 years ago are many of the same arguments I use today - changing tradition, diminishing the importance of the regular season, and watering down the postseason.

"While many traditionalists have been disappointed by the way the expanded postseason gas reduced the importance of the regular season, MLB, the punditocracy, and most fans feel that the Wild Card has boosted interest in many cities late in the season. ... While there is little question that a Wild Card race fueled interest in [other] places... the long-term damage to the pennant races and to the postseason is substantial, even though less clear. Division Series attendance has been mediocre at best in many places as fans wait to see if their team will survive the lightning round and play for the pennant. Even worse, the magnitude of baseball's showcase event, the World Series, has dimmed dramatically since the 1980s.
- Peter Gammons, The 2006 ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia

 


Teams / Total
Post-season %
1903-1968:
2/16
12.5%
1969-1976:
4/24
16.7%
1977-1992:
4/26
15.4%
1993:
4/28
14.3%
1995-1997:
8/28
28.6%
1998-2011:
8/30
26.7%
2012? :
10/30
33.3%

NFL: 12/32 = 37.5%
NBA/NHL: 16/30 = 53.3%

While I cannot claim to know first hand how well the change took place in '95, I cannot imagine having 30 teams and only allow four to go to the playoffs. That would have been a mere 13%, and there seem to be a good reason for maintaining interest in more teams' markets throughout the dog days of summer. As you can see, the percentage of baseball teams that get to the playoffs has risen and fallen throughout the years, but it's at least still well below basketball and hockey where over 50% of teams earn "post-season" play. I do not understand the hockey playoff system - you play 82 games from October to April, and then over half of the teams get to play for up to two more months. Is it because the standings really are that close and the teams are that even? Is it because they think seven months of games isn't enough? I really think the need to get more markets excited about the postseason is outweighed by the watering down of the system and making the playoffs seem less important when four out of five teams in the Pacific division get to go. (But, I'm not really a hockey fan, so that's an outsider's perspective.)

So what would expanding the number of teams in baseball's post-season do to the game? Does expanding the fans' investment in a few more teams down the stretch really outweigh the drastic changes it would bring?

Bud Selig's proposal is to add one additional team in each league be a "wild card" team, and make the two wild card teams compete for the actual wild-card spot. (Interestingly, this is exactly the same as what Major League Soccer has implemented starting this season.) Overall, adding only one additional team to each league doesn't water it down too much; it only raises the percentage of teams in the post-season from 27% to 33%. But it does water down the wild card fight and diminish some of its luster, a sentiment echoed by many coaches and players. A team works all season for the other-best record and suddenly they have to play another team before they even get to be the wild card team. What about a case where a division goes down to the wire and the division title loser becomes the wild card team, and then they have to play another team to earn a spot in the post-season. That is going to be more frustrating than rewarding.

"Nobody wants to have to worry, 'Oh [expletive], now I've got another [expletive] team in the [expletive] mix. Now we have to worry about what that takes and what they're going to do.' What if the [second] wild-card team is not deserving of getting in?" -Tim Lincecum

"Baseball is unique because it's such a long season. The best teams are rewarded for all the effort that goes into that. You lose some of the mystique of the playoffs [with expansion]. Like the first round of the NBA playoffs -- who cares?" -Buster Posey

"We battle all year long in a very tough division; if you win the division and have to have five or six days off before the start of the playoffs, or you win the wild card and still have to play another one- or three-game series just to get into the playoffs, it doesn't make much sense." -Mark Texiera

And what if that second team is so far behind in the standings that they really don't deserve to be there? I took a look at the last nine years' worth of wild card standings (because that's all that was available on ESPN) to see if the battle for the wild card really was all that close.

Gap Between Wild Card Winners and Next Two Closest Teams

 
AL WC
Games Back
NL WC
Games Back
1st 2nd 1st 2nd
2010
6 7 1 5
2009
8 9.5 4 5
2008
6 7.5 1 3.5
2007
6 6.5 1 1.5
2006
5 6 3 6
2005
2 7 1 6
2004
7 8 1 3
2003
1.5 6 4 5
2002
6 6 3.5 11.5

 

The National League wild card teams are perennially closer together than the American League teams, which means the wild card race is already a good race! Look at how many years there's been only a one game difference, and how much can affect that one game difference between teams. Some of those one-game gaps are due to tied teams already playing a one-game play-in, particularly 2007 as we all remember. That's already exciting! It's exciting because it's rare, and that makes it special. When two or even three teams are tied and get to battle it out for a few extra days to see who gets in - that already has a certain aura to it. When you always allow that second team in, make it happen every year and in each league, and it's just not special any more.

Then the fight, rather than a battle for second place becomes a battle for second and third place. As seen in the table, that race tends to be a little closer; in the last nine years, it was anywhere from tied to an 8-game difference. Are those teams that are 8 or 10 games behind the top four teams in the league really worthy of playing in the post-season? Sometimes even the division leaders have a poorer record than the wild card teams, but that adds to the privilege of winning your division. What's the privilege then of winning the wild card?

Now you're adding an additional round to the playoffs. It sounds as though there is no consideration to make this a 5- or 7-game series but either a one-game play-off (or play-in) or a 3-game series. I doubt players are going to vote on the single game to decide a wild card spot, especially those players in San Diego who claim Troy Tulowitzki still hasn't touched home plate, but then again, maybe they'll only go for it if it's quick and painless. Now you have four teams, two series, battling it out while the other six teams get four or five days off - to rest and heal, or lose momentum of their own. Either way, it's now an uneven competition. I see where that may give more incentive to fight for your division title, but then it's not as fair to that wild card winner who has a 6-game lead over the team behind them in second place that they now have to play, and in a single game or 3-game series, it could come down to a lucky bounce, a gust of wind, a pitcher not getting that strike called.

Now that you have an additional set of games (for some teams), what do you do to the schedule? Here's just a few of the start and end dates of the major league baseball season.

Year
Start Date
End Date
World Series
1903
April 20 October 13 8 games
1914
April 14 October 13 4 games
1940
April 16 October 8 7 games
1969
April 8 October 16 5 games
1977
April 7 October 18 6 games
1993
April 6 October 23 6 games
1995
April 26 October 28 6 games
1998
April 1 October 21 4 games
2010
April 5 November 1 5 games

154-game season started in 1920
162-game season started in 1961

Since the addition of divisional play in 1995, the World Series has ended anywhere between October 21st (1998: 4-game series) and November 4th (2001: 7-game series; 2009: 6-game series). The average end date of the entire season is October 29th. In the last 10 years alone, the World Series has only averaged 5.3 games, so imagine how late the seasons would've ended if those series had gone the full seven games. Now you're talking about adding another series, with more travel and possible weather delays in cities with absolutely lovely fall weather (/sarcasm) such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Minnesota, and Colorado; only six teams have covered stadiums at the moment.

Year World Series End # Games Year World Series End # Games
1995 October 28
6
2003 October 25
6
1996 October 26
6
2004 October 27
4
1997 October 26
7
2005 October 26
4
1998 October 21
4
2006 October 27
5
1999 October 27
4
2007 October 28
4
2000 October 26
5
2008 October 27
5
2001 November 4
regular season had
a one-week delay
7
2009 November 4
6
2002 October 27
7
2010 November 1
5

 

Plus, what if there are additional playoff games needed to get into the wild card race? The schedulers about had a fit last fall when the Giants, Padres and Braves were on the verge of a three-way tie. Again, that was potentially very exciting, but you add two new teams to the race and two or three more teams jump into the fray as possibilities and then everybody has to prepare for travel to places unknown, sell tickets for games that may never be played, and potentially play that many more play-in games. As seen in the table above, those third place teams weren't far behind. Exciting it may be for some, it's also quite a headache for many other aspects of the logistics. And even for a big club such as the Boston Red Sox, going to the postseason isn't cheap.

The debate of baseball scheduling is nothing new. In October of 2009, the New York Times published a piece discussing a lot of the options and caveats of trying to adjust the schedule. As Peter Gammons opined in 2009:

[S]tart the season half a week earlier; someone much smarter than I points out that, as opposed to starting on Monday and getting no one at weekday games on Wednesday and Thursday, they should start on Thursday and play the first weekend.

They've done that starting this year, and as odd as it was for the first time, I would tend to bet that the opening series attendance numbers (or at least work productivity rates) were higher this year than in previous years. However, that ends the regular season on Wednesday, September 28th, and you have the reverse problem at the end of the season. Rather than get everybody excited for Opening Day it's and take off work to go to the ballpark, knowing your team has a chance because everybody's starting from 0-0, teams are going to have to find ways to get people to the ballparks for a weekday series against an opponent who likely is also already out of the picture.

I do see the appeal of wanting fans and players to feel invested in the games late in the season. Many of the Tampa Bay Rays are in favor of giving more teams a chance at the postseason - and the money it brings in - and they feel it's something the fans want. But it very much appears to be all about the money - more games, more interest, more revenue, and not all of that money goes to the players. I don't fully understand baseball's revenue rules; this article sheds some light, but I can imagine that with more players, more teams, and some teams earning a "bye" week, the money might overall be higher but possibly split between a larger group. And Johnny Damon points out that the season is already long, and injuries can pile up at the end of the year.

I personally strongly dislike the idea of adding two more teams and making it an uneven five team series, making it a less fair competition for some teams, making those tie play-in games less special, and lessening the prestige of the World Series. But let's say that Evan Longoria is right and the fans want this new round of the playoffs. Is it right to make two teams play a short series for the wild card spot, and what other options are there?

The NFL gives the two league leaders a bye week, and the other four teams play in the divisional round. This would work if MLB split into four divisions and brought in two teams as wild card teams, but allowing in 12 of 30 teams dilutes the playoffs way too far in a season where 162 games already gives you plenty of chances to get ahead as opposed to only a 16-game NFL season. Plus, in the American League, dividing 14 teams into four divisions would make them really thin.

Very few options work with five teams. You can't have only the top team earn a bye week because then after the first round, you're left with an uneven three teams. So with five, you have to make two teams play for one spot, and give the other three the series off. As mentioned above, this does give teams incentive to win the division, but you risk teams playing in the wild card who may not truly deserve to be there, and any lucky play can make a big difference in a short series. Do you really bring in that many new fans and, or do you just alienate them after a quick exit and injure players in a longer season? And how much luster does the postseason lose by expanding it for the sake of some extra money in the owners' pockets?

There truly is no easy answer. Fangraphs takes a look at the more logistical side of the new playoff scenarios, home field advantage and travel and the like. There's going to be plenty of debate on this issue in the next few months and the fall as Selig tries to get this plan into the players' new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The initial expansion into the Wild Card Era, as much as it was hated in the beginning, has proven to work: a wild card team has won the World Series four times and appeared in eight World Series. Who knows, maybe as much as I abhor the idea expansion now, it may grow on me down the road.

In 1995, when the wild card concept was introduced in the formula of determining major league championships, baseball purists were more than a little miffed. They didn't like the idea of wiping out a tradition that dated back to 1903 when the first World Series was held. Their argument against changing the way teams eventually earned the game's highest honor had some merit, but it didn't hold up for the simple reason the status quo would crush the hopes of too many fans who might lose interest in attending games if their favorite team was a lost cause in August and September. So, let it be said that there's nothing wrong with extending the hopes of fans rooting for teams that fail to finish on top of their division but are good enough to qualify for the playoffs via the wild card setup.
- John Kuenster, Baseball Digest, October 2006