Good news, Red Sox fans: if Bud Selig has his way, we may be seeing the incremental expansion of baseball playoffs to include possible third place teams as soon as next season! Not good enough to win your division or finish in second place? No worries! As per Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune:
Commissioner Bud Selig has confirmed baseball is studying possibilities to expand the postseason field. Eight teams currently go, but there is strong consideration being given to increasing that number to 10, beginning as soon as 2011. The new games would provide programming for the MLB Network and allow fringe teams to remain competitive deeper into September.
No surprise there; more playoff teams mean more late season jockeying for position, higher attendance, and more ratings. The capitalist in me who wants my favorite sport to succeed financially agrees, but the cynic in me wonders if an extra playoff team will saturate the postseason and cheapen it for everyone involved.
The introduction of the wildcard made baseball purists bristle and made many accuse Selig and the owners of making a crass money grab. But in light of great teams that missed the playoffs like the 1993 San Francisco Giants and their 103-59 record, forward-thinking folks agreed that the expansion of the playoffs just made sense for fairness' sake.
In this case, it's not only the purists who will decry a change in format but also the sabermetrically-minded people who question whether that second wild card team per league deserves to compete as much as the first wild card team. The blog Walk Like a Sabermetrician ran the numbers to see how the extra team would fare:
In the 32-league seasons since the wildcard was implemented (1995-2010), the average W% for the best team in the league is .620. The second-best division winner averages .583, the third-best .556. The wildcard team is .573 on average, while the team that would be the second wildcard averages .548.
So on average, the first wild-card team's record is far better than the worst division winner while that potential second wild-card team's record is slightly worse. Imagine then the potential situation in Selig's new system: you'd have two Wild Card teams, one with a great record, one with an average record, play either a three-game series or a winner-takes-all elimination game. Meanwhile, the third division winner skates into the Division Series despite having a far worse record than the first Wild Card team. How is this even remotely fair?
Not to mention the "ick" factor associated with promoting a mere third place finisher into the postseason. Remember your schadenfreude-induced glee in 2008 when the Yankees missed the playoffs? Under this system, they would have been still playing in October. You really want that?
So what's a better solution for adding playoff teams? Simple: expand MLB to 32 teams, return to four divisions, and reward two Division winners and three Wild Card slots per league. That way, you'd guarantee that the fourth and fifth best records in the league would be fighting for that final spot. An even better idea would be to eliminate divisions entirely and just take the top four, five, or even six teams per league, but that's too radical. Instead, there should still be some sort of geographical separation between divisions.
But under the current three-division system, to punish a strong wild card team by making them play a weaker, potentially third-place team in a luck-filled three-game series is just ridiculous. If Bud wants better TV ratings and higher attendance, do the smart thing and move the Rays to Jersey.