The word on the street is that baseball will change its playoffs so that 10 teams get in instead of 8. I hate this change. Here’s why.
First, a recap. Currently there are two leagues, each with three divisions. The winner of each division makes the playoffs, and of the teams that remain, the one with the best record is the wild card, so they get in, too. So that’s four per league for eight total. Then, there are four series in which the first team to win three games (i.e. best of five) advances to the next round, where it becomes a best of 7 until the end.
The new policy is that of the teams that didn’t win their division, the top two – instead of the top one – will make the playoffs. But the two wild card teams per league will play a one-game sudden death playoff to determine who goes on to the next round. The idea is to give a more significant disadvantage to teams that don’t win their division**.
I hate this for a few reasons. First, it feels like a change designed to make sure that both the Yankees and Red Sox – two of the biggest market teams – always make the playoffs. In the last decade, here’s how that would have played out. Listed first is what happened, and listed in parentheses is how it would have played out with this new rule.
2011 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would, too)
2010 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would, too)
2009 – both made it
2008 – Red Sox made it (Yankees would, too)
2007 – both made it
2006 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would *not*)
2005 – both made it
2004 – both made it
2003 – both made it
2002 – Yankees made it (Red Sox would have tied for a play-in)
These are two good teams, as evidenced by their both making the playoffs 5 out of 10 years. But of the 5 times one of them did not, this rule would have propelled the other team into the playoffs 4 times. I’m pretty sure this is not a coincidence, especially as it affects them in 3 of the past 4 years. In other words, I think talk of this rule became more serious as soon as Tampa Bay became a permanent legitimate threat in their division.
But my semi-irrational dislike of Boston (and to a lesser extent New York) aside, I still don’t like this rule. Baseball is rather special in that only 8 teams make the playoffs out of 30. The NFL has 12, and hockey and basketball each have 16. But the limit in baseball makes sense. Baseball is a long, hard slog: 162 games over the course of many months. And that’s enough time to have filtered out most of the noise and randomness and settle on which teams are the very best. Decades ago, only two teams made the playoffs. Then it jumped to 4, and then to 8. These changes have been popular, but it needs to stop. Why bother with such a long, hard season if so many teams make the playoffs? Most fans will acknowledge this truth of baseball: that even with best-of-7 game series, randomness and luck will frequently allow inferior teams to win. The more teams that get in, the more this happens. And the more it happens, the more I think it stops being exciting and becomes unfair, gimmicky, and motivated solely by profits.
**My answer to this point is simple: make all rounds best of 7. That will increase the odds that the truly better team will win and advance. So it ought to disfavor the wild card teams in most years.