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The Exclusive 33.3%

March 3, 2012

Hugh Atkins

Major League Baseball seems determined to make reaching its postseason as unimpressive as it is in the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and the National Football League.

Friday MLB approved adding another wildcard team from each league to the playoff picture. That brings the number of teams reaching the postseason to 10, which means a third of the major league teams will now participate in the playoffs.

In the NFL, 12 of the 32 teams, or 37.5% of the league, go to the postseason. The four division winners in each conference make it to the playoffs along with four wildcard representatives.

In both the NBA and the NHL 16 of 32 teams make the playoffs, with the top eight teams from each conference advancing to the postseason. That means half of the teams in each of these leagues go to the playoffs. Compared to the NBA and NHL, I suppose teams making it to the MLB postseason still can claim to be part of a fairly exclusive group.

Since 1995 when MLB last expanded the playoff system, the wildcard team was the second place team with the best regular season record. A wildcard team could, and often did, have a better record than a division winner. With three divisions, it is conceivable that both wildcard teams could have better records than a division champion. The most likely scenario, however, will be that the additional wildcard team will be the team with the league’s fifth best record.

Postseason participation is expanding, but it is hard to make the case that the playoffs are. By its definition, “postseason” means games played after the season. There will be more teams playing after the conclusion of the season, but in the new format the wildcard teams from each league will play one game, with the winner moving on to take on the team with the league’s best record. So in effect, the two teams in each league with the best records among those who did not win their division will hold a play-in game for the right to move on to an actual postseason series.

Last season is a good example of how the new playoff system weakens the postseason field. If the new format had been in effect, the Atlanta Braves would have been the second wildcard team in the National League and the Boston Red Sox would have been the second wildcard representative in the American League. While playing one game against the St. Louis Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Rays respectively may have taken some of the sting out of the late-season collapses by both the Braves and the Sox, it is hard to argue that either team deserved to participate in the postseason.

If the new format had been in effect last season, a third place team, the Red Sox, would have been in the postseason as they had the second best record among teams that did not win a division title.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not long for the good old days when there were only eight teams in each league and a playoff system with one team from each of those leagues meeting in the World Series. It makes no sense to have 30 teams with only two teams reaching the postseason. But now 10 teams will go to the postseason and that seems like too many.

© T.C.G.

Oh, but a return to 1969 when MLB first expanded the postseason would be grand. That year MLB expanded to 12 teams in each league, divided the leagues into two, six-team divisions, and added an extra round of playoffs. Teams played opponents from their own division 18 times and they played teams in the other division 12 times; that made the divisions significant. The 18 or 12 games against opponents also divided neatly into six and four three-game series respectively. Everything fit aesthetically; it was mathematically beautiful. It was the best scenario in the history of professional sports.

The American League got out of whack in 1977 when they added two more teams and expanded to two, seven-team divisions and the system completely imploded when the National League expanded in 1993. MLB created two, three-division leagues in 1994 but due to the strike did not expand the postseason to four teams from each league until 1995.

MLB could expand to 32 teams, divide each league into four, four-team divisions, and have only division champions in the playoffs. Plus they would not have to banish the Houston Astros to the American League. MLB likely would not consider this scenario since the postseason already has expanded to 10 teams.

If MLB wants to expand the actual playoffs, they should shorten the regular season back to 154 games, do away with interleague play, and have an extra best-of-five series. Playing 162 games and then having a one-game play-in system does not make sense.

But MLB is convinced that interleague play generates revenue. I am not so sure it does as they always schedule interleague games during the height of vacation season when attendance is likely to increase anyway. But now that it is here, interleague play is not likely to go away, especially since MLB plans to realign into two, 15-team leagues next year, meaning there will be interleague games virtually every night.

The sad reality is that by expanding the postseason MLB just inched closer to having a .500 (or sub-.500) team reach the postseason. But does anybody really care? In the NFL this past season, the Denver Broncos went to the AFC playoffs with an 8-8 record while the Tennessee Titans at 9-7 stayed home. The Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) in the first round and Tim Tebow was all the rage. When fans look back at last season, will anyone even remember that Denver did not finish above .500? Probably not.

Let’s all get ready to celebrate the mediocrity.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2013 4:24 am

    The division weninrs are seeded 1-2-3, per league, with the best W-L record getting the #1 seed. On-paper tiebreakers exist if necessary.The league wildcard team is seeded 4 regardless of its W-L record.The wildcard cannot play the champion of its own division in the Division Series. If the wildcard and the #1 seed are from the same division, the pairings are 1-3 and 2-4. If the wildcard is not from the same division, the pairings are standard 1-4 and 2-3. Higher seed has homefield for Game 1.


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