MLB: If Done Right, Expanded Playoffs Could Be an Improvement
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A few weeks ago, Bud Selig expressed his desire to expand the Major League Baseball playoffs to 10 teams—five in each league—in time for the 2012 season. Most likely the expansion would be in the form of adding an additional wild card team and a one or three game playoff between the two wild cards in each league.
Sure, MLB expanding the playoffs to even four teams in each league, instituted in 1994, has watered down the regular season, making playoff races between great teams virtually impossible. But since the cat's out of the bag on more than a couple of teams from each league—wild cards and the like—adding an extra wild card could make things better.
But MLB should fix playoff seeding.
Under the current format, the wild card team plays the league's team with the best regular season record in the first round (provided the two teams aren't in the same division). The wild card also never has home-field advantage in any playoff series. The idea is to make it tougher for a team that fails to finish in first place.
Often the wild card has a better record and is clearly a better team than at least one of the division winners. In other words, if the wild card team happened to play in another division, often they would run away with a division title.
So why should one of the best two or three teams in a league be punished for playing in a wrong division?
It's not like any team has any control over the division in which it plays. Because one team plays in a weak division, it may be rewarded in the postseason while a better team is punished for playing in a strong division.
However, if seeding is done more by record and not by whether a team is a division winner versus a wild card, wouldn't this reward a second-place finish? I would rather reward a second-place finish by one of the top two or three teams in the league, if there is a chance that rather mediocre team is going to win a division, anyway.
If we more or less ignore whether a team is a division winner or a wild card when determining seeding, why bother having divisions?
Well, while it's true that in some seasons, under such a format, divisions wouldn't matter, in some they would. As long as there are divisions, winning a division would still guarantee a playoff spot that otherwise may not be there. Because, in some seasons, a division winner might have a worse record than a team that fails to make the playoffs.
So how would adding a second wild card improve things, if MLB is never going to go back to fewer teams making the playoffs? If done right, adding another team could make the regular season more meaningful by rewarding the best regular season teams more so than they are rewarded now in the postseason. Also, it would help teams that play in a division with teams that have a distinct financial advantage. Of course, here I'm referring to Tampa Bay, Toronto and Baltimore.
What would "done right" look like?
If MLB adds a playoff team, and seeds playoff teams by record instead of by division winners and wild cards, the worst playoff teams would meet in a one or three game playoff. These teams would jump into the playoffs with maybe one off day and would have to use their best pitcher(s) to stay alive. The winner of this round wouldn't get an off day before having to play the team with the best regular-season record in the next round. So the winner of the first round wouldn't have their best pitcher(s) at full rest for the round in which they face the best regular season team.
So, the worst two teams—regardless of whether they win a division or a wild card spot—would play each other in a short playoff, either one game or a three game series with no off days. In the next round, the league's best team would go against the winner of that series. The second- and third-best playoff teams would play each other in the other league semi-final series.
This would allow the team with the best record an easier path to the World Series. That team would play one of the worst playoff teams after one of the worst playoff teams have already used their best pitchers in order to get to the next round.
This would be the best-case scenario, short of reducing playoff teams, which isn't going to happen.
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