Major League Baseball is closing in on an expansion to the playoff system that will add two extra teams to the post-season. The new teams will be added in the form of a play-in game: a one game, winner-takes-all contest between two wild card teams, with the winner advancing to the Divisional Series.
The idea of adding playoff teams is a good strategy for baseball, but it’s not enough.
This doesn’t really change the playoffs to a great degree. What it does is reduces the chances that the Wild Card teams have. Previously if you were the best team who didn’t win your division, you were awarded the Wild Card spot. Five teams in the history of the Wild Card have won the World Series, most recently with the 2011 Cardinals. From 2002-2007 the World Series featured at least one Wild Card team. But now that Wild Card team has to play a one game series to advance to the actual playoffs.
This is hardly an expansion to the playoffs. It’s just another hurdle for the Wild Card teams to jump. If MLB wanted to expand the post season, they should really expand the post season. Add a third wild card team. Have the three wild card teams and the worst division winner play in the Wild Card round: a best of three series all held at the higher ranked team’s park.
The winners of these games would advance to the Divisional Series, where they would play the number one and number two teams. The top teams would get an advantage from this bye, allowing their starters to rest for a few days, and allowing them to go with their best options. From here, the playoffs expand as expected.
What’s the harm in this approach? You add a few extra days to the season? Baseball is already adding days with this Wild Card expansion. Would a maximum of two more days for a best of three series be crucial?
There’s also the complaint that expanding the playoffs makes the regular season meaningless. Tell that to the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays. For the past five years the AL East and the AL Wild Card have been taken by some combination of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees, and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays got to this point because they’re arguably the smartest run organization in baseball. The Red Sox and Yankees got to this point because they can heavily out-spend other teams.
That’s the case around baseball. In the last five years, 55% of playoff teams have come from teams who finished the year with a top ten payroll. Only 20% of teams that made the playoffs during this stretch had a payroll in the bottom ten. Two of those eight teams were Wild Card teams.
Teams with a payroll in the top half of the league have taken up 67.5% of the playoff spots the last five years. The only time since 1994 that a team in the bottom half of the league in payroll has won the World Series was in 2003 with the Florida Marlins.
Baseball is a broken game. It heavily favors teams who can afford large payrolls. But it’s also a game where any team can win an individual series. Over a 162 game season the Yankees are pretty much guaranteed a winning record and a good shot at the playoffs. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the AL Play-In game this year includes two of the three contenders in the AL East. Once they make the playoffs, the Yankees can lose, just like any other team.
When you think about it, the best teams in the league lose 40% of the time during the regular season. But that doesn’t mean they can win four of seven on demand. If you put a team up against the Yankees or Red Sox during the playoffs, they might actually have a chance of winning that key series and advancing on to a serious playoff run. And the more teams that get a shot, the better chance you have of giving all teams a fair shot at the World Series.
There’s an obvious benefit to spending money in baseball. You can’t just spend up to a magic number and expect to see success. There are a few teams who heavily increase their payroll by adding the highest paid players in the league. But most of the teams, especially those in the middle of the pack, see their payroll rise in order to cover up mistakes.
Take the Atlanta Braves. They finished with the 17th biggest payroll in the league last year. A few years ago they signed Derek Lowe to a four year, $60 M deal. The deal helped push them to that large payroll figure, even though Lowe has been a major disappointment. This year they are paying Lowe $10 M to play for the Cleveland Indians. If a team like the Pirates paid a player $10 M, it would drastically limit their payroll space. Yet the Braves can spend that much for a player to play for another team.
That’s largely the difference between payrolls. When you allow a system to exist where only a third of the teams can sign the top free agents, all while one-third of the teams can’t afford to make a mistake, you create a situation that favors the teams that can spend.
If you add more playoff teams, you’re not really fixing this problem. If big market teams have better odds for the current playoff spots, then they’ll have better odds for the new playoff spots. But adding new spots also creates an opportunity for small market teams. It would allow for other American League teams — those not named the Yankees or Red Sox — to have a shot at the playoffs. The criticism for all of this is that it ruins the integrity of the regular season. That would be a valid argument if it weren’t for the fact that baseball lost that integrity when they allowed teams like the Yankees to drastically out-spend other teams.