Big­ger play­off pic­ture bet­ter?

Ex­panded base­ball post­sea­son presents more flaws to MLB


For gen­er­a­tions, only two teams made it to ma­jor­league base­ball’s post­sea­son. Only they didn’t call it the post­sea­son then, they called it the World Se­ries, just to keep things sim­ple.

In 1969, base­ball added the League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries and the play­offs ex­panded to four teams. In 1995, with re­align­ment to six di­vi­sions and the ad­di­tion of wild-card teams, it be­came eight.

Now, with Bud Selig’s plan to add two more wild-card teams as early as next year, it will be 10. At this ac­cel­er­ated rate of change, ac­cord­ing to the trend line on a fairly com­pli­cated and time-con­sum­ing line graph I cre­ated in Mi­crosoft Ex­cel exclusively for the pur­poses of this sen­tence, base­ball will have 24 teams mak­ing the play­offs by the year 2100.

Of course, that’s the slip­pery slope ar­gu­ment raised by base­ball purists, not that I know any of those. Soon, they reckon, base­ball will be worse than the NHL when it comes to send­ing both the best and most of the rest to the play­offs.

Yet, some­how Selig has man­aged to avoid the wrath of tra­di­tion­al­ists. That’s be­cause, even though he’s ex­pand­ing the post­sea­son, he has counter-in­tu­itively ap­pealed to them by mak­ing a first-place fin­ish more mean­ing­ful.

Well played, Bud. Well played.

With the one-game play­off be­tween the two wild-card teams in each league, Selig has added an ex­tra post­sea­son game (more rev­enue) and made sure more teams are in the run­ning for a post­sea­son berth (more rev­enue).

But he has also added a huge ad­van­tage to the team that wins its divi­sion. Un­like now, the wild-card teams won’t en­ter the play­offs on an even foot­ing with the divi­sion win­ners. Two of the four will be out af­ter just one game.

Selig points out the one-game knock­out will also cre­ate some drama, which is his way of ac­knowl­edg­ing that in the Twit­ter age, not ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion span can sur­vive through a seven-game se­ries.

Of course, if you want drama, a cynic might won­der why you wouldn’t take the one-game wild­card knock­out even fur­ther. You could play the 162-game reg­u­larsea­son sched­ule and then start the play­offs with a chal­lenge-for­mat, knock­out tour­na­ment start­ing with the last-place team in each league play­ing the 14th-place fin­isher. The win­ner of that game would play the 13th-best team and so on up the lad­der un­til there was one team left to play against the divi­sion win­ners.

That would set up 11 one-game play­offs in a row. How’s that for drama! Once a gen­er­a­tion, a last­place team might even run the ta­ble, start­ing from last place and climb­ing all the way to the World Se­ries, and a syrupy made-for-tv movie would be com­mis­sioned.

For now, though, be­cause it’s only an in­cre­men­tal change and will cre­ate some dra­matic mo­ments, the new play­off for­mat will likely be re­garded as a suc­cess. How­ever, be­fore we send Selig off to re­solve more dif­fi­cult quan­daries, like the cri­sis in Syria or Demi and Ash­ton’s crum­bling mar­riage, he still has a few prob­lems to fix in base­ball, some of which he just ex­ac­er­bated.

By mov­ing the Hous­ton Astros to the Amer­i­can League West in 2013, Selig has bal­anced the two leagues at 15 teams apiece. There’s some math­e­mat­i­cal sym­me­try to that, but it means that in­ter­league play — which once upon a time hap­pened only in the World Se­ries, I re­mind you kids out there — will now hap­pen al­most ev­ery day of the sea­son.

Selig is be­ing ap­plauded for evening the six di­vi­sions at five teams apiece, but there’s a bit of flawed logic to the idea that win­ning a six-team divi­sion is more dif­fi­cult than win­ning a four-team divi­sion. Would it have been any harder for Usain Bolt to win the gold medal in the 100 me­tres if two additional peo­ple were run­ning be­hind him?

What base­ball of­fi­cials are re­ally say­ing is that it’s harder to sell tick­ets if you’re in sixth place than if you’re in fourth.

Now in­ter­league play will hap­pen through­out the play­off races, right down to the last week­end. The­o­ret­i­cally, the Yan­kees and Red Sox could be bat­tling for first place on the last day of the reg­u­lar sea­son and New York could be play­ing an Amer­i­can League East Divi­sion ri­val such as the Tampa Bay Rays while Bos­ton has an in­ter­league game against the Colorado Rock­ies. That could di­min­ish the qual­ity of some races.

It also con­nects to an­other prob­lem Selig hasn’t solved. Thanks to the un­bal­anced des­ig­nated-hit­ter rule, de­pend­ing on whether the game is in Colorado or Bean­town, the Red Sox pitch­ers might have to bat.

How long can base­ball con­tinue to oper­ate with dif­fer­ent rules in dif­fer­ent cities? Imag­ine the NHL play­ing some games four-on-four and oth­ers five-on-five or the NBA hav­ing a three-point line in some cities and not in oth­ers.

Selig and the own­ers are ap­par­ently close to an­other labour deal with the play­ers. It’s a safe bet the DH rule won’t be ad­dressed in it, but, un­til it’s re­solved, no mat­ter what clever moves are made to ex­pand rev­enues, base­ball’s play­off races and post-sea­son matchups will con­tinue to be flawed.

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