Friday, April 22, 2011

10 Playoff Teams? No Thank You

Bud Selig has made it abundantly clear that, starting in 2012, Major League Baseball will expand its playoff structure to include ten teams.  At present, the MLB playoffs feature eight teams, four from each league.  Each division champion, along with a single wild card - the owner of the best non-division champion record in the league - advance to the playoffs.  In the first round, the best division champ plays the wild card while the other two division champs square off in best of five game series.  The second round features the winners of those series in a best of seven, and then the World Series, also best of seven, pits the champions of each league against each other.

I describe the system in detail because it's a good one.  It works.  The playoffs are compelling and entertaining, and, given how short they are relative to the season, completely non-indicative of who has the best team.  Adding another team to each league's playoff pool will do nothing to change that and, indeed, will only exacerbate the problem.

Of course, this move is all about money.  Bud is certain that more playoff games equals more cash for himself, his owners, and the league in general.  So the whole thing is a no-brainer, even though most baseball fans seem to despise the idea.  What few apologists there are, however, like to point out that deserving teams are often left out of the playoffs as they are currently constructed.  For example, in the National League in 2008, the Los Angeles Dodgers made the playoffs with a 84-78 record, while the Houston Astros (86-75), the St. Louis Cardinals (86-76), and the New York Mets (89-73) were all better.  Of course, Bud's solution to this problem isn't actually a solution, because Los Angeles won their division that season, and would have made the playoffs regardless.

Here's how the new system will work.  Before the best of five first round, the now two wild cards will play each other in a best of three (read, complete toss-up) series.  This punishes the wild card team for not winning its division, of course, but also rewards a team that previously wouldn't have made the playoffs with a non-trivial chance of winning the World Series.  In 2008, for example, the Dodgers still make the playoffs, but wild card Milwaukee would have to play New York in a first round three-gamer while all of the other teams sat and watched.

Rather than levying philosophical objections against this new system, I want to show what it would actually do.  So let's look at the MLB since the wild card first entered the league in 1995, and see how things would be different in this new system.  I'm not going to list division winners, just what that first round matchup would have been.  Listed first is the actual wild card from the season in question, with the new entry second.  I've also bolded the particularly egregious situations where the second wild card is more than five games behind the actual wild card, and thus, in my opinion, is a farce.

American League - New York Yankees (79-65) vs. California Angels (78-67) 
National LeagueColorado Rockies (77-67) vs. Houston Astros (76-68)

AL - Baltimore Orioles (88-74) vs. Seattle Marines (85-76)
NL - Los Angeles Dodgers (90-72) vs. Montreal Expos (88-74)

AL - New York Yankees (96-66) vs. Anaheim Angels (84-78)
NL - Florida Marlins (92-70) vs. New York Mets or Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74)

AL - Boston Red Sox (92-70) vs. Toronto Blue Jays (88-74)
NL - Chicago Cubs (89-73) vs. San Francisco Giants (89-73)

AL -  Boston Red Sox (94-68) vs. Oakland Athletics (87-75)
NL -  New York Mets (97-66) vs. Cincinnati Reds (96-67)

AL - Seattle Mariners (91-71) vs. Cleveland Indians (90-72)
NL - New York Mets (94-68) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76)

AL - Oakland Athletics (102-60) vs. Minnesota Twins (85-77) 
NL - St. Louis Cardinals (93-69) vs. San Francisco Giants (90-72)

AL - Anaheim Angels (99-63) vs. Seattle Mariners or Boston Red Sox (93-69)
NL - San Francisco Giants (95-66) vs. Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Seattle Mariners (93-69)
NL - Florida Marlins (91-71) vs. Houston Astros (87-75)

AL - Boston Red Sox (98-64) vs. Oakland Athletics (91-71)
NL - Houston Astros (92-70) vs. San Francisco Giants (91-71)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Cleveland Indians (93-69)
NL - Houston Astros (89-73) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (88-74)

AL - Detroit Tigers (95-67) vs. Chicago White Sox (90-72)
NL - Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)

AL - New York Yankees (94-68) vs. Detroit Tigers or Seattle Mariners (88-74)
NL - Colorado Rockies (89-73) vs. San Diego Padres (89-73)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. New York Yankees (89-73)
NL - Milwaukee Brewers (90-72) vs. New York Mets (89-73)

AL - Boston Red Sox (95-67) vs. Texas Rangers (87-75)
NL - Colorado Rockies (92-70) vs. San Francisco Giants (88-74)

AL - New York Yankees (95-67) vs. Boston Red Sox (89-73)
NL - Atlanta Braves (91-71) vs. San Diego Padres (90-72)

For those of you keeping score, that's ten times since 1995 that one of the wild cards would have a record over five games better than their first round opponent.  There are also a number of division-rival matchups here, which I'm sure MLB would love, but which complete defeats the point of finishing better than your division rivals during the season.  For example, just last year the Yankees finished 6 games better than the Red Sox, and yet Mr. Selig wants them to play each other in a three game playoff in the first round?

Crunching the numbers, here's what we're looking at (leaving out the strike-shortened 1995):

Average W-L of Wild Card: 93.2 - 68.8
Average W-L of Wilder Card:  88.9 - 71.1

So the second wild card would have been, on average, four games worse than the first wild card.  Whereas wild card have averaged 93 wins, the second wild card would have averaged under 90.

Two things to wrap this up, since I'm more interested in showing the data here than grinding my axe overmuch (too late!).  First, baseball isn't basketball or football.  The better team doesn't win every time.  Letting the 2001 Oakland A's (102 wins) play the Twins (85 wins) in a three game series would be a travesty, because there's every possibility that the Twins win that series.  Upsets may be fun and all, but we like to feel like they're at least somewhat deserved, right?

Second, why would baseball ruin all the goodwill it has accumulated in the last few years?  While the NFL just went and shot itself in the foot with a lockout, and the NBA is about to do the same, MLB has ironically become the most dependable American sports league (behind, maybe, the MLS; but despite its growth MLS remains a second-tier league).  Baseball is in a good place right now, why mess with it by adding an inferior (very inferior) second wild card to each league in the playoffs?

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