It appears that a ten team playoff is all but set for the 2012 season. Most experts seem to be under the impression that the two wild card teams in each league will square off in a one-game playoff with the winner advancing into the ‘series’ rounds. As Chris noted on Sunday, this won’t add to playoff revenue, but it could (should) increase excitement (and attendance) in September.
This got me thinking (dangerous, I know). Why not expand this ‘playoff within a playoff’ idea a bit further? What if a .500 record guaranteed a team a spot in the playoffs?
Hear me out.
You keep the division winners as they are; they are automatically advanced into the ‘Division Series’ round. The ‘wild card’ teams in each league (every team that finished .500 or above but did not win their division) would then be seeded into a single-elimination tournament (distributing byes to top seeds when necessary) with the winners advancing into the ALDS and NLDS respectively. In some years this would be only a three team tournament (would have happened in the NL in 2006), but in other years it might include as many as seven teams (would have happened in the NL in 2003). Mostly though, it would be a 4, 5, or 6 team tournament.
But there are always several objections to an expanded playoff. Let’s see if we can deal with a couple of the more common ones here.
Cheapening the regular season
Baseball’s 162 games make for a long season. The best teams usually rise to the top after all of that, so the last thing you want to do is devalue all of those games by either letting lots of teams in or otherwise changing the format so that there’s more randomness than talent in the determination of a World Series Champion.
Perhaps this format would ‘cheapen’ the season a bit, but only from the perspective of the team that would have been the traditional wild card winner. Every team would have a huge incentive to win, and the division races would still be extremely important. Sure, you’d probably still “get in” even if you didn’t win the division, but being subjected to a single-elimination wild card tournament isn’t an enticing second prize. The division winners would be afforded the luxury of setting up their rotation, but the wild card teams would have to burn their top pitchers just getting into the series round. Division crowns would mean as much—or even more—than they do right now.
But even if you weren’t set up to win your division going into the final few weeks, most teams would still be playing hard because they’d be either fighting for a .500 record or for seeding in the tournament (and perhaps an off-day).
Extending the season “until Thanksgiving”
Many playoff expansion proposals involve adding additional series to the slate which could add a week or more to the season. I’ve met very few people that support November baseball, and even fewer that support mid-to-late November baseball. This “wild card tournament” could be completed (with up to eight teams per league) in three days (or four if you include an extra day for rain contingency).
You could even eliminate the need for excessive travel by playing each league’s tournament at the site of the top wild card seed. Take the 2010 American League for example. The day after the season ends, Detroit would face Toronto, and Chicago would face Oakland in the Bronx (perhaps a double header on one ticket for the fans). The next day, the Detroit/Toronto winner would play Boston, and the Chicago/Oakland winner would play New York (could be one ticket or separate sessions). The third day would be a single game which would determine who advances to the Division Series.
So it would add three or four days to the length of the season. I don’t think that would be too bad, especially if the MLB really does commit to reducing the number of off days inside of playoff series and starting the season by April 1.
So what would we gain from this? Hopefully we’d see fan interest improve late in the season. On average, half of the teams would “make the playoffs”, and several more would be “in the running” each year. That could mean more buts in the seats throughout September which would mean that the sport we love is even healthier in terms of finances.
It could also increase general interest in the sport. Part of the reason why the NCAA (Division I) basketball tournament is so wildly successful is that fans find the single-elimination anything-can-happen atmosphere enthralling. A wild card playoff could potentially capture a small portion of that magic. It would be a wild three or four days of baseball, I can promise you that.
So what do you think? Too crazy to happen?