Is MLB’s Playoff System Broken?
Turn up the hearing aid Bud, not everyone in Major League Baseball is enamored with the new playoff format which debuted this year. Just ask the Atlanta Braves or Texas Rangers how they feel about “qualifying for the postseason” only to have their postseason destiny determined in a single-game playoff.
Bug Selig says the new Wildcard Playoff increases the reward for winning the division championship, but does it really? This year, two division winners in the A.L. and two in the N.L. received only one extra day of rest compared to the wildcard playoff winners and had only three days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the ALDS. Both wildcard playoff winners were given a day off before commencing their ALDS against division winning clubs, despite the logic that a wildcard team playing two games in a row would be at a far greater disadvantage than their division champion opponent.
Another strong criticism is that the new system allows even weaker teams to qualify for the playoffs, particularly when adjustments for schedule inequalities are considered. MLB has an unbalanced schedule, with division opponents playing each other 18 times, and non-division league opponents playing each other between five to ten times, plus interleague play. Despite the A’s and Rangers playing in the same division, Oakland played 3 more games against the Yankees and two more against the Orioles this year than the Rangers. The Rangers played six interleague games against the 107-loss Houston Astros, while the A’s got three each against the contending Giants and Dodgers.
Although purely hypothetical, when strength of schedule (number of games against stronger opponents, as defined by the opponents’ actual win-loss record and runs scored and allowed) is factored in, the results have suggested that the ninth, tenth and eleventh best teams in MLB, based on adjusted records, advanced directly to the ALDS because they won weak divisions, while Atlanta was forced to play the Wildcard Playoff despite having the 2nd best adjusted record in the National League. The adjusted standings also suggest that St. Louis qualified for the playoffs despite an adjusted win total of about 82, sixth-best in the N.L. But even without adjusting records, it is clear that the current playoff system prejudices clubs based purely on their division placement, as the seventh best team in the A.L. (Detroit) made the playoffs because they won the A.L. Central, while the fifth and sixth best teams (Tampa Bay and the Angels) didn’t make the playoffs.
A better setup from MLB would be to adopt a system of two, eight-team divisions in each league. This would allow interleague play to be limited to designated blocks during the schedule, as it was under the system used until the end of this year. This would also allow each team in a division to play precisely the same schedule of opponents, which would greatly reduce the level of imbalance seen in the current MLB schedule. There would be a mandatory four days between the end of the regular season and the start of the Division Series, during which time the second and third place teams from each division would playoff in a best of three series. The two winning teams of this best-of-three series would move on to play their respective division champions in a best of five ALDS. This system would not only guarantee each wildcard team a home game, it would allow the division winners to have their starting rotation fully rested for the ALDS, a far greater reward than that offered under the current system. Unfortunately, adding two more expansion franchises simply will not happen anytime in the near future. Miami and Tampa Bay are already in terrible baseball markets, and few cities in North America have the stadium or demographics required to host an MLB franchise.
But don’t expect MLB to abandon the idea of a Wildcard Playoff anytime soon. The value of the Wildcard Playoff is not simply a dramatic single game that draws decent TV ratings, it is the fact that it gives more teams the illusion of being close to qualifying for playoff ball. Take 2012 for example, when with one week left in the regular season, four teams were within three games of a playoff spot. The illusion of being able to make the playoffs has been successfully parlayed by other major sports leagues, notably the NHL, into increased media coverage, fan interest and attendance. Although different from the system employed by the NHL, MLB’s new playoff system undoubtedly was created to achieve these same goals.
MLB can also use the extra playoff spot to placate clubs with middle and lower-class payrolls, who no doubt want a salary cap system in place to create more parity between rich and poor clubs. Now, MLB can say to such clubs that there is more opportunity to make the playoffs and earn additional revenue. However, from 2007 to 2011, 12 of the 20 American League teams that made the playoffs had payrolls in excess of $110 million, and 14 of 20 teams had payrolls above $92 million. The reality is that, with a few rare exceptions, playoff baseball remains the domain of rich clubs and two measly, one-game playoff spots will do very little to change that or to bring more parity to Major League Baseball.
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