By The Common Man
When Major League Baseball announced the new playoff format last Friday, and the addition of two clubs to the postseason, you probably already had your mind made up to love it or hate it. It was a polarizing decision, and was roundly mocked in some, less tolerant, circles.
That's fine. The Common Man gets that change is not always popular, and that this move does dumb down the postseason, making it far more likely that another mediocre team wins the World Series. Maybe that's a problem for you, but TCM doesn't really mind it. One of the many reasons The Common Man likes baseball because it's exciting and wonderful and full of surprise, and there's unexpected drama that can come out of any single pitch.
The Common Man doesn't begrudge you your opinion, so perhaps you would indulge him and approach the following point with an open mind: The new playoff system is going to make the end of the season more exciting. This is good for us as fans, and good for the game as a whole.
But TCM, you're saying, the end of last year would have sucked, given that all the Rays, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Braves wouldn't have had anything to play for. And you're right. Last year would have sucked. But last year was also just one season out of many. So The Common Man looked back at every season since 1995, when the first Wild Cards were awarded to the Rockies and Yankees, to see what the difference was between the Wild Card winner and the 5th place team in each league, and the 5th and 6th place team in each league.
In the chart above, we have 34 finishes in 17 seasons under the old system. As you can see, 18, or 52.9 percent, of the finishes were close (defined as 3 games or fewer). The American League, predictably, finished with real races in just 6 of their 17 seasons, thanks in large part to the competitive spending powerhouses in New York and Boston. Compare that to the races between the 5th and 6th place clubs below:
Under the old system, the 4th place club finished an average of 3.91 games behind the Wild Card winner, and the wild card was clinched an average of 3.38 days before the end of the season. Under the new system, the average distance between the 2nd Wild Card winners and 6th place clubs would have been 2.66 games, and they would have clinched an average of almost a full day later (2.41 days before the end of the season). Again, this tightening is especially significant in the American League, where the average 4th place club finishes 5.5 games behind the Wild Card winner, and the 4th and 5th place clubs are separated by just 2.35 games. Similarly, the AL Wild Card winner has clinched an average of 4.76 games before the end of the season since 1995, but the 5th spot was only locked up 2.47 days before the end. That said, the NL also sees a reduction in distance between the last playoff team and the first also-ran, dropping from 3.03 games back to 2.76.
Now, this isn't conclusive. Obviously, there aren't enough data points. But it certainly conforms to what we would expect, given the nature of the American League arms race, and the relative lack of great teams compared to good ones.
As MLB has pointed out, this new system incentivizes the divison championships to a significant degree, giving winners a signficant leg up in terms of an extra couple of rest days and not having to play a single elimination contest. It also will encourage the contenders for the second wild card to play their best lineups and starters down the stretch, reducing the chance that teams can set up their rotation or rest their starters before that elimination game.
So this will make the end of the season more competitive, which will generate more interest in the game on both local and national levels. As The Common Man wrote in September, one of the reasons he fell so hard for baseball was the Twins' success in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He suspects there are fans around the country with similar stories from their youth. This new system helps create more fans on the local level for teams who can now brag about making the postseason. Plus, last Fall, Americans were enthralled with the two Wild Card races, and this new system makes that end of season craziness more likely.
So, let's review. The new playoff system, and the extra wild card team will almost certainly create more tight races. More excitement. More interest. More fans. More money. How is this a bad thing again?