MLB playoff expansion courts disaster on all levels

Major League Baseball at last pushed through a playoff expansion: going from eight teams to 10. Sadly, the plan as implemented pushes all the wrong buttons. Photo: AP/Paul Sancya

WASHINGTON, March 2, 2012—After much discussion, and eventual action, the expansion of the MLB playoffs from eight to 10 teams was enacted today, a move that will send a third of the league’s teams to the postseason, effective for the upcoming 2012 season.

It should be reward enough that a plan like this one passed in time for the new season, but on the flip side, the haste has begotten serious issues.

First and foremost is the centerpiece of the plan—a one-game playoff “round” between the two wild-card teams, which can be from the same division—granting chance an even greater role in the proceedings than before. Already, the five-game Division Series has been greatly affected by luck. But a one-game affair in baseball is akin to flipping a coin.

Now, instead of, say, a 90-win wild card team heading to the Division Series round, they’ll have to beat, say, an 85-win wild card team first.

And even if that game follows the pattern of regular-season records, it will conveniently throw off the pitching rotation of the winning team—just in time to face the top-seeded team. The positive spin being placed on the adoption of the ten-team setting is that the regular season will matter more because a division title will be more important than ever. Maybe so, but drama can be kissed goodbye.

Case in point, this last season saw one of the greatest down-to-the-wire finishes, with the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox hurtling into momentous collapses that knocked them out of the playoffs on the final day of the season in favor of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays. Under the new system, all four teams would have made it in, and the Braves would have played the Cardinals in the new “first round”, while the Red Sox would have played the Rays under the same conditions, irrespective of whichever team finished first.

So now that the late-season wild-card and division races have been devalued in this manner, the winner of the wild-card game might as well be decided by the afore-mentioned coin flip—for the sole purpose of injecting some of the stolen drama back into the picture. And if one thought that the plan couldn’t possibly get any worse from that point, one would be sadly mistaken.

Business is rearing its ugly head all over the playoff expansion. In a statement, Commissioner Bud Selig focused on allowing, “two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year.” 

The Commissioner makes an important point. Over the past few seasons, something strange has happened to baseball. Small-market teams have built winning teams and taken them not just to the early rounds of the playoffs, but also all the way to the World Series, and the World Championship. This has resulted in catastrophes like World Series matchups between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals. These pairings simply don’t generate the buzz and TV rating of Philadelphia Phillies vs. New York Yankees, or Boston Red Sox vs. New York Mets.

Now, with the exception of the Mets, these jumbo-market teams are in the playoff hunt every year. Sometimes, as in 2011, they just miss the playoffs. The 10-team system opens the door for these perpetually lurking teams—almost all large-payroll, large-market squads—to make the playoffs every year by virtue of letting more runner-ups through to October. 

Does that sound like a conspiracy theory? Yes, it can come off that way. But losing the ratings battle to a regular Sunday Night Football game can put a scare into a major sport. The quickest way to generate national interest is to boost the fortunes of nationally-well-regarded teams. Without the conspiratorial tinge, the idea is this: high-payroll teams can keep in continuous contention over the years through free-agent spending, and will thus benefit the most from the two additional playoff spots. 

The 10-team playoff, as enacted today, is a hasty jumble of ideas that wasn’t ready to be implemented. It leaves too much to chance, sucks away the drama of the stretch, and disproportionately favors a small group of teams. Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association deserve an A for a effort, and an A for teamwork, but they jointly fail the most important tests: practicality, fairness, and what’s best for the sport.


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Arjuna Subramanian

Arjuna Subramanian is an aspiring baseball writer living in the Washington D.C. area.  He started his writing  with his blog Painting The Black on MLBlogs in May of 2009.  He fell in love with the sabermetric movement during the 2008-2009 offseason, and strives to provide balanced articles from both sides of the statistics/scouting divide.  

When not writing, watching/listening to baseball, over-analyzing his Chicago Cubs, staring in disbelief at the writing of Thomas Boswell, or keeping tabs on the latest Milton Bradley blowup, he can usually be found at the DC Fencers Club, where he is a competitive epee fencer.

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