Monday, March 5, 2012

Fives Are Wild

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:

Here you can see that 20 of the 34 pairs, 58.8 percent, were separated by that same 3 game margin. The competitiveness in the American League is what is especially interesting here. The AL would have gone from 6 close races out of 17 to eleven, almost a 100 percent increase.

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?


Phil said...

Your argument is 153% correct*. Well done, TCM.

*The commenter's opinion is in no way influenced by his rooting interest in Washington Nationals.

Phil said...

Uh, *the Washington Nationals. Proofreading is hard.

Bill said...

I personally root for all Washington Nationals, individually, but not for the team.

The problem with this is that you might argue that it makes things more competitive for that last playoff spot (there's no reason to expect it would, though -- I suspect that given a big enough sample both "races" are equally competitive), but they're competing over a lot less -- one game rather than five.

And all the other concerns I bring up here. The team that's won the wildcard has tended to be one of the 3 best teams in the league by win-loss record; the team that would be the new second wildcard has tended to be fifth best. You're arbitrarily taking advantages away from a really good team and giving them to a demonstrably less-good one. That's just not right.

And if all that mattered was the competitiveness of that final spot, why not keep going? I bet the race to stay out of the cellar tends to be fairly tight, as well. Why not just let all but the very bottom team in each league into the playoffs?

Phil said...

I think that, short of realignment, this is probably the simplest way to cure one of the big gripes about the single wild card system - that it dis-incentivizes winning the division. I think I might prefer a 3 game wild card series, but I can see why they went with one. As you point out, there is a degree of arbitrariness to any playoff system, but I think this figures to be an improvement.

Bill said...

It doesn't disincentivize winning the division. There are still advantages to winning it, both in the playoff seeding and in the fact that you're only competing against 3-5 other teams for it, rather than 13-15. It addresses a problem that doesn't exist, IMO, which is what Bud has spent most of his tenure doing.

Steve said...

If more teams are "in it" for the second wild card, teams are going to be less likely to make trades before the non-waiver deadline. MLB needs to change the non-waiver deadline to Aug 31st otherwise no one will want to make any blockbuster trades. (Which is just boring.)

Jason Wojciechowski said...

I might bet that the play-in round will be three games before 2020.

The Baseball Idiot said...

"This new system helps create more fans on the local level for teams who can now brag about making the postseason."

Who will end up spending more money. As much as I hate the idea, I know no one is listening to me.

But the fact that people keep saying it's for the competitive balance when we all know it's for the money really irritates me.

MLB doesn't care about competitive balance. That already exists, whether two teams or 30 make the playoffs. A 162-game schedule ensures comeptitive balance throughout the season. Everyone has the chance. (see the 2010 Giants)

Its about the money, and nothing else, and any other line is a lie. I might be an idiot, but treating me like one is insulting.

But what more can we really expect from Bud.