Guest Post: MLB Playoff Expansion

The guest posts continue, this time with an entry submitted by Ryan Sommers, author of the Phillies-themed blog Chasing Utley. He also happens to be one of my favorite tweeters — do yourself a favor and start following @Phylan.

Today, Ryan looks at the potential playoff expansion in Major League Baseball.

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After receiving a heavy dose of press during the November general manager meetings, the tabled proposal for expanding the playoffs to ten teams now seems like a certainty. Bud Selig has been typically coy when asked about it, but it’s sure to find favor with the curious jumble of personnel he has assembled into the Special Committee for On-Field Matters, set to convene at the winter meetings in Orlando next week. Among the managers, general managers, owners, and team presidents that constitute the Committee, it’s difficult to imagine any opposition to the additional opportunity for contention and obvious financial incentives assured by the proposal. The change will likely have to wait for the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement for the 2012 season, but that seems to be the only hurdle at this point.

The plan, as it’s been floated, involves adding one wild card slot to each league, and staging either a one or three game playoff between the two wildcards prior to the Division Series. Proponents point out that this adds additional incentive for winning one’s division, as the team that emerges from this wildcard round will start the Division Series with someone other than their number one starter on the mound. Selig, many of the general managers, and other proponents of the plan have hinted at “fairness” concerns, with some writers and fans going so far as to suggest that a ten team playoff will strengthen the contention of small market teams. Even if these notions had validity, they don’t override the problems that the proposal presents, but it’s also worth pointing out that fairness — be it an issue of stacked divisions or financial disadvantage — hardly enters the picture here.

The table below, spanning from 1995 (the first year with a wild card-era postseason) to 2010, shows the hypothetical 2nd wildcard winner in a 10 team playoff system, their record, and their payroll rank according to USA Today’s MLB payroll database.

Year NL Record Payroll AL Record Payroll
1995 Astros 76-68 14th Angels 78-67 18th
1996 Expos 88-74 28th Mariners 85-67 8th
1997 Mets/Dodgers 88-74 16th/11th Angels 84-78 22nd
1998 Giants 89-74 16th Blue Jays 88-74 11th
1999 Reds 96-67 20th Athletics 87-75 26th
2000 Dodgers 90-72 2nd Indians 86-76 8th
2001 Giants 90-72 16th Twins 85-77 30th
2002 Dodgers 92-70 5th Mariners/Red Sox 93-69 8th/2nd
2003 Astros 87-75 14th Mariners 93-68 7th
2004 Giants 91-71 10th Athletics 91-71 16th
2005 Phillies 88-74 5th Indians 93-69 26th
2006 Phillies 85-77 12th White Sox 90-72 4th
2007 Padres 89-74 24th Tigers 88-74 9th
2008 Mets 89-73 2nd Yankees 89-73 1st
2009 Giants 88-74 14th Rangers 87-75 22nd
2010 Padres 90-72 29th Red Sox 89-73 2nd

Your immediate reaction is probably “Hey! The Phillies would’ve made the playoffs for six straight years!” Hold that thought for the moment. The first thing to note is that these outcomes don’t support the notion that smaller market teams would benefit in some way from expanded playoffs. Only eight of these teams were ranked in the bottom third of league payroll, while twelve ranked in the middle third, and fourteen in the top third. Regardless of your position on the payroll advantage, it’s obvious that a ten team field does nothing to relieve it. In fact, it presents an additional significant obstacle for a small market team bidding for a World Series appearance from the wild card slot. The 1997 and 2003 World Champion Marlins would’ve had to jumble their pitching rotation in a must win series just to reach the Division Series — the former against either the Dodgers or Mets, both of whom finished four games behind them, and the latter against the Astros, also four games worse. Likewise for the 2002 Anaheim Angels and 2004 Boston Red Sox, who won their championships after reaching the postseason via the wildcard. Adding a second wildcard won’t increase the likelihood of bids like these for teams of any market size. It will dampen it, by handicapping both wild card teams at the outset of the playoffs.

Meanwhile, you’re letting worse teams reach the postseason. The overall winning percentages of the hypothetical second wildcard teams from 1995-2010 was .549 in the NL and .548 in the AL, compared to .563 and .582 for the actual wildcard teams in the respective leagues. On average, then, the second wildcard team is an 89-73 team, falling two games behind the average NL wildcard team and five behind the average AL wildcard team over that span. This may not sound too egregious, and if it was for another five or seven game series against the other wildcard contender, it might not be. But the logistical challenges of a playoff system that already reaches into early November constrains the discussion to either a one game playoff or a three game series. Hamstringing what are usually 90+ win teams with a dangerously short series against an inferior opponent doesn’t seem to serve the interest of “fairness” at all. As an alternative to adding a team, consider this suggestion: divisions are eliminated, and only the top four teams by record from each league advance to the postseason. This relieves one irksome feature of the current system: weak division winners that receive a higher seed than a superior wild card team, which can also result in another superior team being bounced from the playoffs altogether. Such was the case in nine of the sixteen seasons between 1995 and 2010. Seeding the playoffs by record and not divisional outcomes eliminates this effect, while avoiding the problems of a ten team system. This is not an option that Selig and others would ever consider pursuing, but it serves to illustrate that more “fairness” can be squeezed from sound alterations to the playoff structure than from the mere addition of competitors. Lengthening the Division Series from five to seven games is another such alteration, reducing the emphasis on strong front-end rotations in favor of a stronger overall roster, and softening the impact that randomness can have on the outcome of a short playoff series. Instead, Selig is considering the addition of an even shorter series.

As for the Phillies, it’s true that the second wild card would have meant trips to the playoffs in 2005 and 2006, but the 8 team record-seeded system would have also — in both years, inferior division winners advanced at their expense. How it impacts them going forward is contingent upon a lot of uncertain factors concerning their organizational philosophy. The Phillies won 97 games in 2010, and, with the exception of Jayson Werth, will look very much the same in 2011. But some key core talents are entering their decline phase, and at least two of their divisional opponents are taking serious steps toward greater competitiveness. Ruben Amaro hasn’t had to rebuild a team yet, but he will soon, and with his propensity for doling out large contracts to aging veterans, the process could create a team that is bi-polar in composition and tending towards mediocrity. Consequently, the Phillies may well find themselves in the 87-91 win range that would benefit from the second wild card. It’s unclear what the ten team playoff might do to the marginal economic value of each win, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that its peak — which Nate Silver calculated to be at about 91 wins — might be bumped down a bit by the increased ease of qualifying. If that were the case, given the booming attendance at Citizen’s Bank Park, ownership might be inclined to reel in the hefty payroll somewhat. This would make Ruben Amaro’s (questionable, in my opinion) asset allocation ability even more vital to a team re-engineering its personnel make-up. It’s speculative, yes, but the Phillies may be one of the teams most likely to feel the impact, positive or negative, of the added wildcard.

The potential financial gains from the expanded playoffs haven’t been quantified, but they’re sure to be substantial, and there is no question that they are what motivate Selig (Craig Calcaterra called it “nothing but a money grab”). This aspect probably deserves a bit more than bitter dismissal; we are all, after all, fans of baseball, and changes that swell the coffers and perhaps increase public interest ultimately have at least some value to us. Overriding that, though, is the undeniable damage dealt to the importance of regular season games, and the usefulness of the playoffs in rewarding the strongest teams. There is a healthy balance to be struck between baseball the business venture and baseball the competition, but a ten team playoff surely fails to achieve it. The MLB is far from the poorhouse, and, more importantly, is tangled in some issues that strike closer to the core of “fairness” than the exclusivity of the playoffs — the meagerness of instant replay, an insufficient Division Series, and the treatment of minor league players, to name a few. The expanded playoffs will probably be instituted without issue, and perhaps after a few years will be indifferently accepted by even the stodgiest of purists, but it will still represent a missed opportunity to alleviate some real problems that don’t turn Bud Selig’s profit-tuned nose.

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Check out Ryan’s newly-renamed blog Chasing Utley for his thoughts on the Phillies throughout the winter and into the 2011 season.

If you wish to submit a Phillies-related guest post, send it to CrashburnAlley [at] Gmail [dot] com along with any questions or comments.

Leave a Reply



  1. Murgatroid

    December 06, 2010 07:36 PM

    Can you put a post up about how terrifying the idea of a Jeff Francoeur signing is?

  2. JDM

    December 07, 2010 02:18 PM

    Great article.

    Baseball is the most traditional sport. And because it’s the most traditional sport, its fans are the most adverse to change. The addition of the wild cards in the 90s was a good change, even if not everyone thought it was going to be at the time. But the addition of two more playoff teams would be a bad change, and I have a hard time believing I will ever feel differently about that, even 15 years after it [inevitably] happens.

    The addition of two wild cards seems arbitrary. It’s sort of the same problem I have with ending a hockey game with a shootout. It may be fun, and it certainly is interesting, but a shootout is fundamentally different to the rest of the game you were just playing, and now you’re deciding the outcome of that game based on this fundamentally different competition.

    Adding two wild cards would be similar. There is no precedent in baseball for a one or three game series (play-in games notwithstanding, but I think those make sense). Such a series would be fundamentally different to what we know (and love) about postseason baseball. This would be the case for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons, which you mentioned, is that whoever wins that series will lose the ability to set their rotation for the next series. Maybe that’s the way it works in baseball — maybe sometimes Cliff Lee doesn’t get to pitch till Game 3 of an LCS — but it still doesn’t sit right.

    Baseball’s decision to add wild cards in the 90s made sense. It came at a time when the league was still growing, and they made this change to accommodate the size of the current league. By adding only one wild card per league, they effectively struck a balance between baseball tradition (i.e., how freaking hard it is to make the playoffs in baseball) and change. Adding two new wild cards doesn’t strike me as being sensible now. The more teams you add, and the more baseball’s playoffs start to resemble the NBA or NHL’s gargantuan, everyone-in playoff system, the less traditional — and, thus, less baseball-esque — baseball’s playoffs will be.

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