New MLB Playoff Format Sets Higher Bar For Red Sox

2010 and 2011 could have been much different for the Red Sox under the new playoff format featuring two wild cards in each league. In each year, the Sox finished second in the wild card race, which would have earned them a spot in the postseason under the new format.

So at first glance, this change seems like something the Sox should be happy about. The AL East has become quite the race these days, and if the West or Central were to suddenly pick up a second strong team, they could pose a large threat in the wild card race given the lack of a Blue Jays or Rays to throw a wrench in the works. Instead, for the top, top teams, now only the greatest of disasters or a remarkable improvement in parity would result in a season ending in September.

So the Red Sox should be happy about this, right?

Right?

Wrong. In fact, things just got a lot scarier for Boston.

As I'm sure many of you have realized already, the problem lies in the one-game Wild Card round of the playoffs, which makes the division so much more important. Thinking back over the last nine years--the period we might consider the era of renewed Red Sox success--the Sox have made the playoffs six times: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009.

They have one division title between those six appearances: 2007.

The fact of the matter is that, as much as the Red Sox have been playing on the same level of postseason success as the Yankees since 2003, they haven't necessarily been keeping up in the regular season. And, quite frankly, it's not easy to see them doing so. Since 2003, the Yankees have averaged a remarkable 97 wins per season. The Red Sox have only reached that point once--in 2004, when the Yankees still had them beat.

95 wins seems like the lower floor for the A.L. East title. The good news is that they've reached that point every single time they've made the postseason--there's a peculiar sort of dichotomy to be found there--but the problem is even then less than half of those performances would be likely to beat the Yankees' total for the season (which is to ignore any other contenders in the ranks). 

So if the Sox are going to continue performing at the same level that they have during this prolonged run of...let's call it relevance...then they're going to be looking a lot of one-game playoffs. It's hard to imagine that this will become the new point with which the Sox can content themselves (the goal has always been to make it to the playoffs, understanding the eccentricities of series of five or seven games). A one-game playoff is open to too much random chance, and it's hard to imagine that playing 163 games will seem any different to the fans or organization than having missed the playoffs after a tie in the standings.

Just imagine if those five wild card berths came under this two wild card format. Even assuming a .600 win rate (which is more than the Sox have done against all teams combined, much less playoff contenders), that's two years snuffed out in just 24 hours. 

Ironically, by letting more teams into the playoffs, the MLB has made it harder for the Sox to have a meaningful playoff presence in any given year. If the team can't take the steps necessary to match New York in the regular season, thee next decade could be one of greater frustration even with--technically--more playoff appearances.

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