- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

An Alternative to Baseball’s 10-Team Playoff Plan

The idea of expanding the baseball playoffs to 10 teams has made its rounds during the past year-plus. In late 2009, Commissioner Bud Selig formed a committee to discuss a number of issues, which included expanding the playoffs. Reports from those closed-door meetings made it sound as if expanded playoffs were a real possibility. Selig then made it seem like an inevitability in October, when he said that expanded playoffs could come in 2011. That won’t happen, of course, but yesterday Selig spoke again on the subject, and what he said has reignited the debate.

“The more we’ve talked about it, I think we’re moving inexorably to that,” Selig said of expanding the playoffs. There is certainly a case to be made for adding two teams to the playoff pool, but it creates more problems than it solves. There are alternatives that could provide similar effects while keeping the same number of teams in the playoffs every year.

Reasons for Playoff Expansion

It’s immediately clear why adding a playoff team would in many ways make baseball more interesting: One more spot means more teams in the hunt for October, which means greater interest during the stretch run in September. It could also create more interest during the rest of the season, since each team’s chances of making the playoffs becomes greater.

Adding a second wild card also increases the value of winning the division. The new playoff scheme will presumably pit the two wild-card teams against each other in the first round. This means that teams can’t simply play for the wild card, rather than the division, since there’s a penalty for winning the wild card. That, too, will generate more interest for the September races, since losing the division and still winning the wild card means something.

The greatest reason, of course, is money. The increased interest could raise ticket sales in late summer. An added round to the playoffs will almost certainly add revenue to one more team. It’s not difficult to see why ownership would favor it. Even if it’s just one more home game, that’s more money in their pockets. This doesn’t necessarily benefit fans, but it’s certainly high on the list of reasons why we’ll see expanded playoffs as early as 2012.

When the Solution Creates More Problems

While more playoff teams might create more interest, the addition of a playoff team to each league would also cause logistical problems. The first is pretty obvious: how would baseball go about the wild-card round? It’s not as easy as a one- or three-game series. It’s about who gets the advantage in a specific situation. Beyond that, it brings into question the idea of home-field advantage.

There seem to be two main ideas floating around. One is a one-game playoff, in the same style as Game 163. Winner take all. The other is a three-game series between the two wild-card teams. The logistical issues damn the former right from the start.

To insert a three-game series into the start of the playoffs, you’re laying off the other teams for at least three days. This is good, because they can set their rotations, thereby giving them a distinct advantage for winning their divisions. But it hurts, in that it breaks the rhythm for position players. Ask a player what he thinks about additional off days between the end of the season and the playoffs, and he’ll probably oppose it. But let’s set that aside, since that’s the least of the concerns.

How does MLB determine home-field advantage in that scenario? They can’t go 1-1-1, since that would be impossible in an East Coast-West Coast match-up. There’s just too much travel involved. Yet that’s the only way to do it fairly. You can’t have the disadvantaged team play the first game at home, or else you run into the same issues the LDS did at its inception. That is, the team with the advantage could head home facing elimination. That’s not too big an advantage. You also can’t really give the advantaged team the first two at home, because then the disadvantaged team gets the advantage in the decisive game. Even if MLB deemed this fair, there would have to be a travel day, meaning there would be at least a four-day layoff for the division winners. I suppose that’s the risk in every postseason series, but it seems odd coming right after finishing a 162-game marathon.

The best three-game series proposal I heard was a weekend set, with one game taking place on Saturday and a potential doubleheader on Sunday. That’s exciting, for sure. But it faces the same logistical issues as any other three-game series. In that scenario there’s no time for travel, so all games have to be played at one park. That’s a solution to the three-game scenarios posed above, but I think the disadvantaged team wouldn’t like that very much. There would probably be some kind of revenue split, but there’s also the chance that they make the playoffs and never play a home playoff game. That doesn’t sound like such an attractive proposition. (Though maybe the additional revenue via the gate split would help soothe the owners of the disadvantaged team.)

That leaves the one-game scenario as the easiest to execute. But how much do we really gain from what is essentially a Game 163 every year? A one-game series to determine anything doesn’t work well in baseball, a sport in which anything can happen on any given day. Game 163 is out of necessity. With the playoffs just two days away, there’s not much the league can do other than have a one-game playoff. But to schedule one? That seems like a bit much. It will surely create more excitement around the league, but there are downsides.

For instance, one of the stated reasons for implementing a second wild card is that it discourages a team from playing for the division if they have the wild card. But if they have the wild card at hand, then doesn’t that mean that the second wild-card team will, by definition, be considerably worse? Last year in the AL serves as an example. The Yankees didn’t have to fight for the division, since they had such a large wild-card lead. Essentially, New York could rest its players and take it easy in September, knowing the team would make the playoffs no matter what. I’m not sure if this is what happened, but it was the charge. In the 10-team system, the Red Sox would have won the second wild card. They finished six games worse than the Yankees in a 162-game season. They were clearly the worse team. Is a team resting its players in September because it can fall back on the wild card any worse than a team six games behind said wild card team making the LDS on one fluke game? I don’t think so. It just penalizes the Yankees for winning 95 games and rewards the Red Sox for finishing considerably worse.

(And I really wish that this didn’t involve the Yankees and the Red Sox, because of my own rooting interests. But I think the scenario is pretty clear. You could substitute any team names and make the above situation a hypothetical, and it would still be the same point. The narrative that teams can just fall back on the wild card and not try for the division is not a strong one, because it means, by definition, that the team is that much better than the rest of the league: i.e., that it doesn’t have to fight for the wild card itself. Or else it would be fighting for the division, too.)

The Alternative

It’s not fair to take down an idea without raising an alternative. Clearly, there are people who think that the current system is unfair. I don’t disagree with them. The unbalanced schedule and 3+1 division/wild-card format puts many teams at a disadvantage. This hits close to home, because of the AL East. With three powerhouses, the Blue Jays are often left behind. Last year Toronto might have been good enough to win one of the other divisions had it played, say, an AL-Central-heavy schedule. If part of the issue is raising excitement among more fan bases and keeping more teams in the race, there could be a better idea.

Logistically, eight playoff teams works the best. That makes for easy scheduling, since every team plays in every round. It means no team gets a bye, the value of which in baseball is questionable. It also rewards the teams that finished best over the 162-game season. During such a long stretch of games you can separate the deserving teams from the undeserving ones. That’s the beauty of baseball. Teams play every day, and they play enough games that the best teams emerge in the end. There shouldn’t be any issue taking only the four best and pitting them against one another.

The best way to do this is by eliminating divisions altogether. There is the NL and there is the AL. You can’t perfectly balance the schedule, because the numbers just don’t add up. In the AL you’d play every team 12.5 times, and in the NL you’d play them 10.8 times. But you can get a decent approximation of balance in one season, and have that fully balance over a few seasons. That eliminates the Blue Jays issue, where Toronto not only has to compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox for one or two playoff spots, but also has to play those teams 36 times. It also creates a situation, again, where you’re better defining the best teams, rather than the best divisions.

This scenario would create plenty of excitement down the stretch, since six, eight and even 10 teams would be battling for those four spots. One, maybe two, might be locked up by that point. But that still leaves plenty of room for the final few spots. I can’t be so sure about this, since it’s something of an untested idea. But I think there would be plenty of teams contending for those final playoff spots. More teams, I think, than currently contend for the one wild card spot.

Getting Realistic

Much as I enjoy my no-divisions scenario, it’s not likely. It’s an alternative that takes advantage of baseball’s 162-game schedule and also preserves the optimal playoff format. But baseball just won’t do this. It’s pretty clearly going to include 10 playoff teams, so the idea now is to get it as right as possible.

If I had my druthers, I’d go with the three-game, two-day series. That’s intense, exciting, and it gives an advantage to the division winners without making them wait too long after the season before the playoffs. It is, unfortunately, a logistical nightmare that probably can’t work in the real world. In fact, any three-game series probably wouldn’t work out. Unless the No. 5 team in each league is willing to sacrifice all its home games, it would just take too long to complete.

That’s why, ultimately, baseball will go with a one-game playoff. The advantages might not be that great, but it would add another team to the fray, and it would add one intense, meaningful game to the playoff schedule. The No. 5 team still wouldn’t get a home game, but there’s no room to complain if it’s just a single game. This also seems to be the solution that most baseball pundits agree works the best. Given all the factors involved, it appears the most likely.

As Selig said yesterday, “There’s a myriad of details to work out” with adding another playoff team. That’s always going to be the case when there are an uneven number of teams making the playoffs. While I think there are better solutions to create a fairer environment, baseball likely will not consider them. After all, they have us hooked. They want something that’s most compelling for the casual fans whose attention they don’t have 100% of the time. The one-game playoff makes the most sense in that way, in terms of engagement and logistics. They might surprise me and go with something a bit more creative, but chances are that in 2012 more fan bases will be excited at the prospect of making the playoffs.