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Do you want to see expanded playoffs in baseball?

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It is Always October.

2021 National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Photo by Matt Dirksen/Colorado Rockies/Getty Images

Baseball labor negotiations are currently at a standstill, but players and owners are not at odds on every issue. There are reports that both sides favor expanding the playoffs, although owners want it more than players, since they stand to make a lot of money off more playoff games. Players get some money too - they don’t get salaries during the post-season, but they do get playoff “shares” - so while they are for it, they don’t want it as badly as owners and will use it as a bargaining chip to get other concessions.

Owners have proposed a 14-team playoff:

  • Three division winners in each league
  • Four Wild Cards in each league
  • The best record in each league gets a first-round bye
  • The two remaining division winners can pick their Wild Card opponent
  • Best-of-three Wild Card round, followed by the regular Divisional round

Players have proposed a 12-team playoff:

  • Realignment to two divisions in each league
  • Two division winners in each league plus four Wild Cards
  • Not much else in specifics have been made public, but likely the division winners would get first-round byes, while the four Wild Card teams play each other in the opening round

Baseball has long been the most difficult major sport in North America for teams to reach the post-season. Until 1968, you had to finish with the top record in the league to make the World Series. The upside of having such a high threshold is it gave major stakes to pennant races. The “Shot Heard Round the World” when Bobby Thomson hit a walk-off home run to give the Giants the win and the pennant over the Dodgers in 1951 was only possible because it meant the winner went to the post-season and the loser stayed home despite a 97-win season.

The downside to making it so challenging to reach the playoffs is that two, maybe three teams will be involved in a pennant race, leaving everyone else to go through the motions the final month. Baseball added two divisions in 1968, then a third division in 1995 with the addition of a Wild Card. In 2012, they added a second Wild Card to create a thrilling “Wild Card game” that the Royals won in 2014.

In addition to creating more races to follow in the final month and keeping more fans interested, the added playoffs have brought in additional revenues, both in gate receipts, but more importantly, television revenue. In the middle of the pandemic, baseball signed a $3.75 billion deal with Turner Broadcasting for the right to air post-season baseball, and FOX has a $5.1 billion deal with MLB for the rights to post-season games including the World Series.

On the downside, it has watered down the regular season even further. Giving an incentive for winning the top seed by getting a first-round bye can create some excitement, but baseball will lose some of the excitement of divisional races if the loser simply gets knocked down to a Wild Card spot. Expanded playoffs also rewards mediocrity over sustained excellence over six months. Can a team truly call itself a champion if it wins 20 fewer games than its opponent, but gets hot in a short-series where pitching matchups play such a huge factor?

Here is what an expanded playoff would have looked like over the last two decades.

Potential expanded playoff teams, 2000-2021

Year Sixth AL Team Seventh AL Team Sixth NL Team Seventh NL Team
Year Sixth AL Team Seventh AL Team Sixth NL Team Seventh NL Team
2021 Toronto (91-71) Seattle (90-72) Cincinnati (83-79) Philadelphia (82-80)
2020 New York (33-27) Toronto (32-28) CIN/MIA (31-29) CIN/MIA (31-29)
2019 Cleveland (93-69) Boston (84-78) New York (86-76) Arizona (85-77)
2018 Tampa Bay (90-72) Seattle (89-73) St. Louis (88-74) Pittsburgh (82-79)
2017 Three teams (80-82) Three teams (80-82) Milwaukee (86-76) St. Louis (83-79)
2016 Detroit (86-75) Seattle (86-76) St. Louis (86-76) Miami (79-82)
2015 Los Angeles (85-77) Minnesota (83-79) San Francisco (84-78) Washington (83-79)
2014 Seattle (87-75) Cleveland (85-77) Milwaukee (82-80) ATL/NYM (79-83)
2013 Texas (91-71) Kansas City (86-76) Washington (86-76) Arizona (81-81)
2012 Tampa Bay (90-72) Los Angeles (89-73) Los Angeles (86-76) Milwaukee (83-79)
2011 Los Angeles (86-76) Toronto (81-81) San Francisco (86-76) Los Angeles (82-79)
2010 Chicago (88-74) Toronto (85-77) St. Louis (86-76) Colorado (83-79)
2009 Texas (87-75) Seattle (85-77) Florida (87-75) Atlanta (86-76)
2008 Minnesota (88-74) Toronto (86-76) Houston (86-75) St. Louis (86-76)
2007 DET/SEA (88-74) Toronto (83-79) New York (88-74) Atlanta (84-78)
2006 Los Angeles (89-73) Toronto (87-75) Houston (82-80) Cincinnati (80-82)
2005 Oakland (88-74) Minnesota (83-79) FLA/NYM (83-79) FLA/NYM (83-79)
2004 Texas (89-73) Chicago (83-79) Chicago (89-73) San Diego (87-75)
2003 CHW/TOR (86-76) CHW/TOR (86-76) Philadelphia (86-76) LAD/STL (85-77)
2002 BOS/SEA (93-69) Chicago (81-81) Houston (84-78) Montreal (83-79)
2001 Chicago (83-79) Boston (82-79) Chicago (88-74) LAD/PHI (86-76)
2000 Boston (85-77) Toronto (83-79) ARI/CIN (85-77) ARI/CIN (85-77)
Average .542 (87.8 wins) .523 (84.6 wins) .528 (85.5 wins) .514 (83.2 wins)

Honestly, though that isn’t as bad as I would have suspected. Only rarely does a .500 or losing team make the playoffs. Having mediocre teams in the playoffs isn’t exactly new either. In just the fourth season under the new divisional alignments in 1973, the Mets made the playoffs with an 82-79 record. The 1987 Twins won a championship with just 85 regular season wins, the 2006 Cardinals won a title with just 83 regular season wins, and the 2014 World Series matched up our 89-win Royals against the 88-win Giants.

And remember this is with teams operating with no expanded playoffs. If an expanded playoffs were actually implemented, you might see some of those more mediocre teams more actively trying to improve their teams, either before the season or at the trade deadline. Tanking has created an uneven distribution of wins with “superteams” winning 100 games at the top, tanking teams losing 100 games at the bottom, and fewer teams in-between. Reducing the incentive to tank could bolster the depth of “middle class” teams.

If it was up to this cranky old fart, I’d go back to pre-1969 rules, where only the top record in each league goes to the World Series, with maybe some sort of post-season tournament for other non-World Series teams to play in (hey, you could use this to determine draft order!) Since that will never happen, I think the current format with its thrilling one-game Wild Card matchup makes the most sense.

But look, expanded playoffs are coming. Maybe we need to re-think how we look at the playoffs. They’re not really the best way of determining who was the team in baseball. We should look at them for what they really are - a fun series of exhibitions that are designed to make the sport a lot of money. And if they can help reduce tanking, and keep fans interested, maybe that isn’t so bad. I didn’t like the Wild Card at first, but I came around. My guess is I’ll come around to expanded playoffs as well. Hey, it’s more baseball, right?

Poll

Do you want to see expanded playoffs in baseball?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    Yes, to 14 teams
    (54 votes)
  • 28%
    Yes, to 12 teams
    (67 votes)
  • 48%
    No, keep it as it is
    (113 votes)
234 votes total Vote Now