This isn’t quite earth-shattering news, since we have been hearing about the idea for months if not years, but MLB will now officially be expanding to a 10-team playoff with two Wild Card teams from each league starting this coming season.
The point for all of this, like the point for the ALCS and the first wild card, is to prevent the “September Swoon” whereby teams see attendance drop off a cliff when kids go back to school. Tight pennant races are seen as the only available antidote and the more teams that both have a chance and can take nothing for granted the fewer teams will see those big drops in attendance. Supposedly, the wild card did help in that regard – more teams were still in the running for a playoff spot as of early September and more tickets were sold in the month of September. All well and good. Of course, owners would always like more of a good thing – like the wide open playoff fields in our other major sports – where as long as your team is decent you have some expectation of postseason play. That, like the wild card in baseball, has the unwanted side effect of trivializing regular season games for the teams at the top.
In theory, the new playoff system will give baseball the best of both worlds: more teams in the running and more teams actually playing postseason games BUT also avoiding the loss of relevance (particularly in September) for teams that are far above the low bar of the second wild card. The reason is that while we get an extra wild card team, both wild cards will have to play each other in a single-game elimination round for the right to play one of the division winners in the ALDS. Winning your division now means a lot more than it meant before and the ‘first’ wild card spot is now cheapened (though home field advantage in a play-in game shouldn’t be discounted). In the NFL the top teams get a first round bye and a higher seed and home field advantage. Now all those advantages accrue to the top baseball teams as well.
The increased benefits to winning your division is definitely something I approve of in the new deal. The rest, I’m a little ambivalent about. We’re not going to see big increases in revenues for the league as a whole, since we’re only adding one playoff game per league. MLB playoffs have always had trouble drawing a national audience anyways, relative to football. Fans of the team that lost the play-in game are no more likely to keep watching the playoffs than they were before. We may not see more games of relevance towards the end of September either – aside from games that help to determine who wins the division and who settles for the wild card. What wild card one did was often remove three divisional pennant races and replace them with one wild card race. That wild card race wasn’t necessarily closer than the divisional races, it just drew from a wider pool so more teams could potentially be within shouting distance. IF the second wild card winds up being, on average, a significantly worse team than wild card one (which has usually been the second or third best in the league) – almost always the fifth best team in the league – we might see teams that were out of the running for wild card one (or a weaker division crown) in the running for wild card two. Will that be the case? Consider me skeptical – I think that it’s at least as likely that we’ll see the same teams in the pool with one fewer actually losing out.
For a few recent examples: last year’s AL wild card came down to the last day of the season with the Rays beating out the Red Sox. With 2 wild cards, the Red Sox would have beaten out the Angels by 4 games with the next closest team 5 back of LA. In 2010 the Yankees won the wild card by 6 games, but with two wild cards the second would have gone to the Red Sox who finished only 1 game ahead of the White Sox and 4 ahead of Toronto. In 2009 the Red Sox won the wild card by 8 games over Texas – with two wild cards Texas would have won the second by only 1 game over Detroit, 2 over Seattle and 3 over Tampa Bay.
In the NL, we had wild card races come down to the final day in 2011 and 2010 – with St. Louis over Atlanta last year and Atlanta over San Diego the year before. In 2011 Atlanta would have finished 3 games ahead of San Francisco for the second wild card and in 2010 San Diego would have finished four up on St. Louis. In both cases tight wild card races would have become less so, without adding any more teams within shouting distance. The 2011 Dodgers finished 7 back of the Braves and the 2010 Rockies finished 7 back of San Diego. I don’t imagine 7 games is close enough to the playoffs to avoid September swoon. On the other hand: in 2009, the Rockies won the wild card by 4 games over the Giants, but the Giants were only a game ahead of the Marlins and two ahead of the Braves (and 5 ahead of the Cubs) so the changes might have had an impact on the intensity of the race.
It all seems like a wash: in three of the last 6 wild card races adding a new wild card would have gained little if anything: we would have lost a tight race and gained one with a single, fairly distant, follower. But in the other three, we would have gained a wild card race that both had more than one chaser but wound up knotted tighter than the one for the single wild card.
At present, the big winners in the AL from the playoff changes are teams that were unlikely to beat (assuming the Yankees win the East) both the Red Sox and the Rays to grab the wild card. Now those teams have to beat the Red Sox or the Rays – something which looks quite a bit easier as of March (though it may look a lot harder on September 15). Here I’m looking at the Angels, the Blue Jays, the White Sox and the Indians – all of which can imagine playoff odds in the neighborhood of 20% at the moment.
So: time for another MCB poll. Do you approve of the changes to the MLB playoff system, or wish they’d just kept it the way it was?