Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The 5th Wheel

By The Common Man

On Saturday, Joel Sherman reported that Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association “have all but agreed [to add] two wild-card teams and hold one-game playoffs in each league to determine which of the wild cards advances.” In other words, each league would add a fifth Wild Card team. It’s a dramatic change to the league’s playoff structure that has been in place for the past seventeen seasons, and could lead to even more glaring shakeups in which the leagues eliminate divisions entirely. The Common Man was slightly horrified and incredibly skeptical of benefits of such a move.

Understandably, there is also a great deal of concern from baseball fans, bloggers, and pundits that adding two more Wild Card teams dilutes the pool of playoff participants, risks allowing an inferior team to win the World Series, and destroys the drama of the regular season. Indeed, as Moshe Mandel of the excellent The Yankee Analysts, pointed out last night, that’s especially true this year, “an extra playoff spot would kill these races. NOT NECESSARILY GONNA ADD DRAMA WITH THAT.” He’s right, with two games left, all five playoff spots would have already been locked up under the proposed new system. The riveting back and forth fight between the Rays and Red Sox and the Cardinals and Braves simply wouldn’t exist, and these teams would be playing out the string in preparation for the postseason.

That said, historically the theoretical 5th playoff spot has been hotly contested, even down to the wire. In fact, the race for 5th has been a nail-biter far more often than it’s been a laugher. Consider:

Click to embiggen
 As you can see, since the Wild Card was introduced in 1995, the 5th playoff spot has been clinched on the last two days of the season 19 times out of a possible 32, and there has been at least one close finish every year with the exception of 1999. Of those nineteen photo finishes, ten of them have come on the very last day of the season, while another four ended in an actual tie and would have necessitated a one-game playoff of their own. It’s also worth noting that, of the 15 new playoff spots awarded to American League teams, eleven would have gone to clubs outside of the AL East.

The most exciting finish probably would have been in 1996 in the American League, as the Mariners battled the White Sox and Red Sox down to the last day, and actually finished with 161 games played on the year. The M’s would have had to play their 162nd game first, then (if they had lost) a kind of single-elimination Battle of the Soxes, and then the winner of that melee would have to face the rested Orioles in a one-game playoff.

The 2000 National League race would have proven similarly confusing, as the Dodgers went down to the last day with a single game lead over both the Diamondbacks and the Reds and lost to the Padres. The Reds and Diamondbacks also both lost that day with the Reds in particular throwing out a rather silly lineup.

Adding the 5th team would also provide postseason opportunities for teams that have not seen the tournament in almost 20 years. The Blue Jays, for instance, would have made the playoffs in 1998, when they beat out the Angels for spot number five. And the Expos would have run away with the final spot in the 1996 playoffs. Indeed, it’s fair to wonder how that playoff appearance may have altered the destiny of the Expos franchise, and made baseball a more viable long-term endeavor in Montreal. Under the proposed playoff system, only the Royals and the Pirates would have failed to qualify for the postseason since 1995.

Legitimately, then, we can see how adding this 5th playoff team in each league will indeed make the final games of the regular season more relevant for teams, more compelling from a narrative angle, and more financially advantageous for teams whose attendance may be flagging. Yes, it may be overkill, and yes it may allow an inferior team to go on an incredible run and win the World Series like the Cardinals did in 2006, but it also increases participation and the potential for drama that baseball can leverage to make itself stronger over the long term. So despite The Common Man’s initial revulsion at the idea, maybe the playoff expansion isn’t such a bad idea after all.


Jason Wojciechowski said...

I am extremely against the one-game play-in. I really really do not like it.

The Common Man said...

The Common Man kind of is too, on principle. But it's highly unlikely that this is going to sink baseball, and there's a good chance that it will actually be exciting for fans.

Bill said...

No, there's zero chance of that. Because even assuming the race for fifth is just as close as the race for fourth (and we can't know that, of course, without comparing these numbers to the race for fourth...but there's no reason to suppose it wouldn't be), the whole terms of the race have changed.

Currently, if you get in the playoffs you're just IN, with something hovering fairly close to a one-in-eight chance of winning it all. Under this new system, you'll be racing toward the opportunity to play one more game, and no guarantees beyond that, with something a lot more like a one-in-sixteen chance of winning it all. That's necessarily going to be less exciting. A lot less, I think.

2 Tough Hubby said...
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Soren Johnson said...

Yes, but it will mean division races will suddenly become important again. Now, winning your division will be a lot better than sneaking in as a wild-card. It could create extra races each year, for each division.

thecouga said...

So hypothetically, a team that has 94 wins could play a team that has 86 wins for the wild card spot, and the team with 94 wins would have their entire 8-game regular season advantage nullified by a single baseball game. That sounds totally stupid to me.

Bill said...

Not just theoretically. It might be different if the fifth-place team is actually competing for something, but the average gap between the wildcard and the best non-playoff team in the AL from 2001-2010 was 6.5 games. In 2001, thanks to the amazing Mariners, the 102-win Athletics' whole season would've come down to a virtual coin flip against the 85-win Twins. That ain't right.

Soren does make a good point, but it's not nearly enough for me.

Bryan said...

In light of baseball's economic inequities, shouldn't we be moving *away* from emphasizing winning the division? Let's say Toronto gets Fielder and Wilson and the four best teams in baseball play in the AL East next year. Not only do all four have to play the other three 18 times, but now the team that finishes second has to play another game against a lesser team, while the inferior Central and West division winners coast into the playoffs. I don't like it.