According to Nick Cafardo, the GM meetings have kicked off on an interesting topic: expanding the playoffs.
To be specific, this would entail adding a second wild card team to each league, and having the two wild cards play a best-of-three series for the playoff spot. The division winners would all get a short first round bye.
It's already a bit late to help the Red Sox' season--yes, they would have won the wild card spot in question had it existed this year--but it's not too late to change things for the future. With stacked divisions such as the AL East inspiring calls for reorganization not long ago, could this be the better, easier answer to solving the problem?
It's no secret that teams in strong divisions get the short end of the stick when it comes to the playoffs, and there's really no way to change that in some regards. They will always face a harder schedule, leading to fewer wins and more losses. Simple as that. But expanding the playoffs could help to solve the greatest complaint many of these disadvantaged (only, of course, in this regard. Payroll is, of course, another story) teams have: the unevenly high threshold for a playoff spot.
Consider last year, when the Red Sox could have won 94 games and still missed out on the playoffs. Consider the 2008 Mets, who won 89 games and missed the playoffs while the 84-win Dodgers waltzed in with a division title. Actually, let's look at all of the wild card races in the last eight years:
|Year||AL Actual||AL 2WC||AL 3WC||AL Div. Low||NL Actual||NL 2WC||NL 3WC||NL Div. Low|
These are the number of wins held by the first, second, and third place teams in the wild card race since 2003, as well as the lowest win total for a division winner in each league. As you can see, seven times in the last eight years, a team missed the playoffs despite having more or the same number of wins as a division winner. By adding a second wild card team, we drop that number down to just two. Seven times in sixteen instances makes it an almost common occurence, two times makes it a rarity.
What it does do is allow for significantly more teams to be in contention as the year goes on, increasing interest in lower-win teams by giving them hope that, even if they come into the All-Star break at or maybe even slightly below .500, they can still compete for a playoff spot. The average wild card winner comes in with nearly four more wins than the average second place wild card team. That makes a pretty big difference when determining the range of teams that can be considered to be in contention.
At the same time, the MLB isn't about to become the NBA. I don't know how many Celtics fans we have around here, but for the last few years, the regular season hasn't been about making the playoffs, but about gaining home court advantage. Think about that: 82 games being played for the sake of, at most, four games having a change in venue. While teams that manage to win 90+ games are going to be reasonably assured a playoff spot, anyone falling below that is putting themselves in serious danger. Look at all those third place teams with 87 or 88 wins. We're not going to be throwing open the doors to the Royals of the world as the NBA often does for its sub-.500 teams. The playoff race will still be a real competition between legitimately good teams.
The expansion would also serve to make late division races exciting regardless of whether or not the second place team is in position for a wild card spot. I expect the Yankees would have been more sore about losing to the Rays had they been forced to play another series as a result.
But what about the playoffs themselves? They're already quite long, and adding a bye? Hasn't that always been an issue for baseball teams looking to stay hot? It's actually not that much of a difference, though. Certainly there can be no 1-game playoffs for the second wild card spot--on the rare occasion that there is a tie (as you can see above, it would have happened once in the last eight years) for that spot, tiebreakers need to be used. There's simply not enough time to fit four games in without unduly effecting the other playoff teams. But otherwise, teams are taking two days off before the playoffs, so adding one more probably can't hurt too badly. If the MLB wanted to avoid that, they could even force a double-header.
The only real problem to be found comes in the actual fairness of that playoff series. Three games is just not enough to really determine the better team, and with on average a four win difference between the first and second place wild card teams, it seems somewhat unfair that a team with 95 wins could be sent to the golf courses so early thanks to just two games. But I think when compared with all the benefits, this negative isn't nearly enough to tip the balance.
While there's no telling for sure if and when this will get done, it seems like it's a no-brainer. More exciting races and more teams involved means more interest in the game means more money. It's really one of those rare times where the league seems to have a perfect option to improve the game for the owners, the fans, and the players.