With the 2012 playoff format in place a year before, we likely would not have seen the excitement of the final day of the regular season that has been described as "baseball's greatest day." Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The State of the Game–Part I–Playoff Expansion

A few weeks back, I took a look at the State of Detroit Tiger fandom, and, after catching an interesting show on MLB Network over the weekend, I thought perhaps I would touch on the State of Baseball. The show featured Tony LaRussa, Bob Costas, Harold Reynolds and a couple baseball writers giving their opinions about items ranging from PEDs to the fact that it was “unfair” our Tigers had an “advantage” by securing a playoff spot via a division championship with the seventh best record in the American League in 2012, while the Texas Rangers (who won 93 games–five more than Detroit) were eliminated in a one-game Wildcard Playoff. Yep–they went there.

While not entirely popular with fans, MLB’s expanded playoffs in 2012 were a success for baseball’s television partners. Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

This week I will look at some of the issues covered in that program. Today, we’ll start by looking at something that was rather divisive a year ago–the expansion of the postseason.

Sadly this new format is now set in stone. I am not a fan of the one-game, win or you go home scenario in the Wildcard Playoff. It is not how baseball usually decides matters in the postseason. Certainly we have seen plenty of 163rd game scenarios (we Tigers’ fans excruciatingly remember 2009′s version of this game). Those games are no doubt exciting–but it is technically an extra regular season game to decide who gets into the postseason. To have two wildcard teams playing each other in a one-game playoff screams NFL playoffs or NCAA tournament, not baseball.

Furthermore, baseball is also the only sport that clusters its regular season games into a series. Those series offer a unique beauty to the sport. Whether it is the regular season or playoffs, a team can have a horrendous showing in one of the games, but can have redemption in the other games. The new first round robs teams of that.

So what’s the solution? A best-of-three scenario? This would push the playoffs even further into the cold abyss of late October/early November. By doing a possible three-game series, spread out over three to four days (if an off-day for travel is scheduled), it would mean the rest of the playoff teams are waiting around nearly a week to play a meaningful game. October is not a good time for multiple off days, as the Tigers found out in both 2006 and 2012.

With no good solution, leaving the format alone would have been preferable. Alas, that ship has sailed and the new format is here to stay–especially with the tremendous ratings the wildcard games garnered in 2012. Think high television ratings equate to a great idea? American Idol and Dancing With The Stars each score high ratings, but its rare when someone describes either as quality television.

The current playoff system was rammed through last season when the leagues were still not balanced and the 2012 playoff docket had already been set. This caused the Divisional Series to be moved to a 2-3 format, giving the higher seed the disadvantage of playing the first two games on the road (though that did benefit the Tigers), instead of the traditional 2-2-1 format. The familiar format will return this October, but what was the hurry for baseball to change the playoff format when the sport was not customized for it yet? One word: money.

The powers that be knew that the games would be ratings bonanzas. They also knew that often times, the darlings of baseball–the Yankees–were knocked off by wildcard teams–thus implying the wildcard team should not have the same advantages of a divisional champion (even though the higher seed always has more home games). From 1995 to 2011, under the old playoff format, 10 out of 34 wildcard teams reached the World Series. That’s hardly a tremendous success rate–but MLB apparently thought that wildcard teams were winning too much.

Had the 2012 postseason format been in effect for the 2011 season, perhaps the greatest day in regular season baseball history–the final game of the 2011 season–would never have happened because those teams battling would have known they could live to fight another day.

Is the expansion of the playoffs a good thing for the game or just another way to make some money and protect the marquee teams of the sport?

Please discuss, and come back on Wednesday for Part II when we”ll discuss daily interleague play and what to do with the Designated Hitter.

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  • chrisHannum

    Well, those two teams in 2011 would have lived to fight another day (though I think the last game would have determined home advantage for the wild card game) – and then fought each other in a one-and-done cage match. Not exactly draining ALL the drama out of it. The idea is to make winning the division vs. the wild card a reason for drama in the season’s final days, but I’m not sure that it has the same potency. If it did, Texas/Oakland 2012 would have been as memorable as 2011.

    • Matt Pelc

      That’s a fair point. If you want to “penalize” the wildcard (under the old system), I wouldn’t be opposed to doing a 2-1-2 format in the LDS. If a team makes the playoffs after 162 games, they deserve at least one home game–an argument I often hear is the wildcard should NOT get home games, which is a terrible idea.

      What’s done is done, maybe I will warm up to the idea of the wildcard play-in round, but to me its all about ratings, and to generate more drama. While that’s good for the networks and the advertisers, does it make baseball better? Probably not. But it makes it more like football and that appeals to the younger demo.

  • rings13

    The Rangers vs Tigers debate last season is amusing, but it will be even more “unfair” if Wild Card teams are separated by 8 or 10 games, yet the “better” team is eliminate in a one game playoff (ex: Angels win 99, Rangers win 98…A’s claim final Wild Card with 89 wins…and beat the Rangers in a 1 gamer to advance…fair?).
    Bottom line: win your division. Baseball has ALWAYS been about winning your division/league, which is what created the fantastic drama in 2011 (or the Tigers-Jays race in ’87 or Giants-Braves in ’93), because teams were eliminated.
    In the modern unbalanced schedule, teams also play their own division more, (which is why the Tigers record is not comparable to the Rangers last year, despite the fact the Rangers were “probably” playing a tougher schedule).
    Unfortunately, the emergence and expansion of Wild Card teams means that more and more crappy and forgettable teams (’06 Cards, ’87 Twins, ’03 Marlins, ’00 Yankees, etc.) will ultimately get hot and win the World Series, and to me, THAT is the true tragedy. I would much rather see the best play the best in the WS.

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