The Detroit Tigers and Playoff Expansion: Friends or Foes?


Expansion of MLB playoffs to ten teams or beyond has been bandied about for a while now, but Selig has as much as said it is ‘inevitable’, not this year but probably next.  The biggest reason seems to be loud and persistent grumbling from owners who feel locked out by the dominant teams in their division, much the same rationale as we heard for the wild card.  That and the inclusion of more teams and markets, etc… blah, blah, blah.  If we are, in fact, talking about making the two wild-card teams play a single-elimination game 163, we aren’t really going to be generating all that much postseason revenue – so we’re presumably hoping to boost September attendance by including more teams in a pennant race.

There are some things to like about a system like that, for one it makes winning your division much more meaningful.  There are also some things to dislike, such as the extreme luck/randomness in any one-and-done playoff.  Do we want a 99-win wild card to have to beat an 87-win wild card to prove they belong in the playoffs?  But I’m not here to discuss the actual merits of the plan, I just want to outline what the American League would have looked like over the past decade if the playoffs had always included two wild-card teams and ask one question – would the Tigers have benefited?

Follow me through the jump for the numbers:

2010: Division Champs – Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Texas

Wild Card – New York (95 wins)

Second Wild Card – Boston (89 wins)

2009: Division Champs – New York, Minnesota, Anaheim

Wild Card – Boston (95 wins)

Second Wild Card – Texas (87 wins)

2008: Division Champs – Tampa Bay, Chicago, Anaheim

Wild Card – Boston (95 wins)

Second Wild Card – New York (89 wins)

2007: Division Champs – Boston, Cleveland, Anaheim

Wild Card – New York (94 wins)

Second Wild Card – Detroit, Seattle (88 wins)

2006: Division Champs – New York, Minnesota, Oakland

Wild Card – Detroit (95 wins)

Second Wild Card – Chicago (90 wins)

2005: Division Champs – New York, Chicago, Anaheim

Wild Card – Boston (95 wins)

Second Wild Card – Cleveland (93 wins)

2004: Division Champs – New York, Minnesota, Anaheim

Wild Card – Boston (98 wins)

Second Wild Card – Oakland (91 wins)

2003: New York, Minnesota, Oakland

Wild Card – Boston (95 wins)

Second Wild Card – Seattle (93 wins)

2002: New York, Minnesota, Oakland

Wild Card – Anaheim (99 wins)

Second Wild Card – Boston, Seattle (93 wins)

2001: New York, Cleveland, Seattle

Wild Card – Oakland (102 wins)

Second Wild Card – Minnesota (85 wins)

So while the Tigers haven’t made the playoffs or contended for the playoffs very often over the past decade things would have looked profoundly different for them in those years when they did contend.  In 2006, losing the Central crown to the Twins in the last week would have been absolutely devastating – since it would have necessitated a one-and-done playoff game with the Chicago White Sox.  But then maybe that’s the way it should have been – losing five straight to end the season should not go unpunished.  But honestly, would a duel between Javier Vazquez and Nate Robertson on Monday October 2 (FOOTBALL SEASON) have attracted the sort of audience MLB is looking for?

So it would have hurt us in 2006, could possibly have derailed that World Series dream – since our odds in that final game wouldn’t have been much better than 50/50.  In 2007 we would have gotten some payback.  We would have had to play a game-163 against Seattle just to qualify as the second wild card, but then would’ve gotten a chance to take down the Yankees in game-164.  The Tigers have really only fielded contending teams in 3 of these 10 years, and in 2009 the Twins were bad enough that the division wound up being marginally easier to win than the second wild card spot would have been.  Still, in any year in which Detroit is fairly good this change to the system look pretty relevant.

It doesn’t look relevant to two of the owners probably doing the most grumbling: Peter Angelos in Baltimore and Ted Rogers in Toronto.  I do feel some compassion for fans of those two teams, since playing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox really does make it tough to get to the playoffs even in a good year.  The Rays have done it, but the Rays have been genuinely great.  You don’t want a franchise to need to catch lightning in a bottle just to make an occasional playoff appearance.  BUT… it doesn’t look like this change to the rules would do anything to change that, those two teams didn’t make the playoffs once last decade with an 8-team field, and they wouldn’t have made the playoffs once with a 10-team field.  It isn’t so much that they always wind up just a little bit short of the wild card, it’s that the brutal competition in the division and the unbalanced schedule grind their records down.

The other reason that has been discussed by MLB Kremlinologists is ‘more Red Sox, more Yankees’.  Ratings are better when the teams are in the playoffs than when they are not, and they are especially good when they play one another.  The only time last decade the Yankees failed to make the playoffs, the ten-team field would have kept them in.  Boston would have made it in 8 times out of ten instead of 6.  In two of those years, 2008 and 2010, it would have been an epic Red Sox vs. Yankees single elimination wild card game.  That’s presumably a ‘good thing’ for baseball, but it cuts both ways – in 7 of the 10 years the actual wild card was either Boston (5 times) or New York (twice).  That means that in exchange for adding one of the two titans 3 times, MLB would be exposing a titan to a single elimination game 7 times.  That results in a net expected loss of two ‘regular’ playoff series for the big name, big money franchises.  I don’t honestly care much to see those two teams in the playoffs, to be frank if Detroit isn’t in I’m probably not watching, but I don’t think it would necessarily have been in ‘baseball’s best interests’ if the 2004 Red Sox had lost a single elimination game to Oakland, who they beat by a full 7 games in the regular season.