We’ve known it was coming for a while now, but yesterday it was made more or less official, with the approval of the sale of the Astros to Jim Crane: the Astros will be moving to the AL West, most likely in 2013, giving each division five teams. And it seems a foregone conclusion that another change is headed our way by the 2013 postseason, and perhaps as early as next season, with the addition of two more wild cards, with the two wild cards from each league meeting in a one-game playoff (or play-in, if you will) to determine who advances to the traditional five-game LDS.
In the interest of full disclosure and all that: on this one issue, I’m kind of a traditionalist. Yes, I’d like to see instant replay and/or robot umpires in every feasible instance, including, if possible, computerized ball/strike calls. But here, I’m a regular Bob Costas or Billy Crystal. We’ve been in the wild card era for eighteen years now, and I’d still really love to see them go back to the four-division, two-playoff-round format that subsisted from 1969 to 1993, and if I’d been alive for the old no-division, two-league, winner-goes-to-the-Series format that had been in place from the turn of the century through ’68, I’d probably be in favor of that instead.
It’s not entirely nostalgia, though. The thing is that while what happened this year — the Cardinals winning it all despite being, in terms of full-regular-season performance, probably the worst team in the postseason — can be fun in its own way, I’d really prefer to see the best team from each league in the Series, or at least to be given a really good chance of getting there. Every expansion to the playoffs cheapens the regular season a little bit. If American League Team X won 105 games in the regular season, and American League Team Y won 88, in almost every case, we already know beyond the shadow of a doubt that X is a better team than Y, so having the two face off in a short series, in which anything can happen, seems counterproductive.
But 18 years is a long time, and I’ve come to accept that that sort of thing is going to happen in the wild card era. Great teams face off against merely good ones, and the good ones have five games to outplay or out-luck the great ones. That’s not ideal, but it happens. And really, in a best-of-five series, the great team still likely (don’t quote me on this) has something like a 70-75% chance of winning.
A one-game play-in, though? That’s nuts. If you’ve got evenly matched teams, fine — it’s basically what happened in 2008 and 2009, when the Twins and first the White Sox, then the Tigers ended the season in a tie. But unfortunately, that’s not the kind of thing that would happen every year, or even be the norm. You’re regularly going to see one team that clearly outplayed the other nonetheless forced into a single do-or-die game against that other team.
From 2000 to 2010, the average gap between the wild card-winning team and the next in line was 6.5 games. What if this system had been in place in 2001? The Oakland A’s finished 102-60, with the second-best record in the league…but behind the 116-win Mariners, in their own division. The next-best non-division-winning team was the Twins, who finished at 85-77. So, if the proposed system had been put into place ten years ago, the second-best team in the AL would be forced to play one single game for their lives…against a team they outpaced by seventeen games during the regular season. So they’d have a very close to 50-50 shot at giving up their playoff spot to a team they were clearly, unquestionably much better than.
This is the kind of thing that will happen under this system. And even if it’s not a 17-game spread — even if it’s merely six or seven, as has happened repeatedly over the last decade — you’re still faced with the possibility of, in just one little game, losing your entire season to a team to which you’ve spent the whole regular season proving you’re superior. It makes the regular season, at least for that one team, feel like something of a farce.
Let’s take a look at a few elements of it you might say are advantages:
1. It makes the division race matter again. This is the big one championed by, among others, Jayson Stark over at the mothership. You don’t like having to play one game for your life at the end of the season? Simple solution: win your division! The change makes all three division races important again, which, during much of the wild card era, wasn’t the case. What otherwise might have been vital races were rendered essentially meaningless, because the loser was often set up to claim the wild card, the reward for which was little different from winning the division title.
As a traditionalist, you might think I could get behind this one…but not really. As it is, generally speaking, the wild card has a fairly minimal impact on the division races. There’s just one wild card vs. three divisions, so in any given year, two of a league’s three division races are likely to matter a ton, and often, the wild card winner isn’t really in the running for its own division anyway, so it’s not the wild card that ruined the race, it just wasn’t a race to begin with. So there will be a positive effect on the excitement level of the division races, I think…just a much, much smaller one than you might anticipate.
Moreover, the point, to me, isn’t to protect the sanctity of the division title, it’s to give ourselves the best shot we can of seeing the best teams in the biggest games…and this doesn’t help that, at all. The division winners are still subjected to a five-game series, one of them against a wild card winner who, because of the 50/50 nature of the play-in, might be even considerably worse than the typical wild card winner we’re used to, might even have finished in third place in its own division. You’ve succeeded in making the division races more important, but haven’t increased the reward for winning them any; you’ve merely decreased the reward for making the playoffs without winning the division. Not the same thing.
2. It’s more exciting! This one was big for Stark, too, and for Bud (to the extent you think Bud cares about anything but the bottom line). And I suppose it’s true; any time you’ve got one game to decide something, it’ll be pretty exciting. But is exciting always the end of everything? We could, as Brian Kenny suggested in the inaugural Clubhouse Confidential episode, make it a one-game World Series — or even, for that matter, make it all one-and-dones, with a one-game LDS and LCS, too — and that would be even more exciting. It would also, I hope you’ll agree, be kind of terrible. No, really terrible.
So, yes — that one game would be more exciting, but I find it hard to care about that. In addition, in most seasons, the winner of that one game would still almost certainly be a heavy underdog in the next, five-game series, so it’s not as though a win in that one game would be likely to energize a dying fan base or anything like that. You’re fighting for your life, but also, you’re fighting for the right to most likely lose in the next round. On TBS.
3. It keeps more fans interested in the season. This is what I think TCM was getting at, six weeks or so ago, in noting that as a historical matter, the race for the fifth spot in the league standings — that second wild card — has been a very tight one. Of course, that doesn’t mean a ton until you’ve also compared it to the race for the fourth spot, the wild card we already have. Will that race for fifth be more interesting than the race for the current, single wild card? I have no idea.
Also, though, those races will suddenly mean a lot less when the “winner” of them has to face off against another team in one single game that decides its fate. So you’ve given hope of a postseason berth to a few extra teams per league, but you’ve also cut the value of that new postseason berth, and that of the #1 wild card spot, almost exactly in half. Is that an improvement? I really don’t see how.
So that’s it, in a nutshell. Bud’s grand plan gives a few more teams a shot at the postseason, but seriously devalues that postseason shot. You might argue that it adds value back into the division races…but the reward for winning the division is still the possibility of losing to a vastly inferior, non-division-winning team. I don’t doubt that it marginally increases MLB revenues, though, for the handful of teams that stay in the race later in the season and the teams that get to play that one big play-in game, and since that’s essentially Bud’s only goal, it’s probably accomplishing exactly what he wants it to.
As fans, though, how is this anything but a watering-down of the whole process?