Expanding the Playoffs Solves the Wrong Problem

The efforts to expand the current baseball playoffs so that a total of ten, rather than eight teams, earn a post-season berth is a good effort to solve a relatively minor problem, that will do nothing to address the more serious issue facing competitiveness in baseball. The alleged problem is that too many teams are never in the running for a playoff spot thus causing fans to lose interest early in the season, while the same small handful of teams dominate the playoffs.

It is true that some teams are usually out of contention early in the season, but there are not a lot of these teams. Last year, six NL teams and four AL teams finished either in the playoffs or within five games of the playoffs. In 2009, a total of nine teams either appeared in the playoffs or finished within a five games of a playoff spot. The data from these two years suggests that the too many teams are eliminated from playoff contention too early. However, in 2008 13 teams either made the playoffs or came within five games of doing that; and in 2007, 11 teams did. In both those years, over a third of all teams contended for playoff spots.

Final standings can be a little misleading because they don’t capture the dynamics of a pennant race. The standings on September 15th, which is usually the height of the pennant races with only about twenty games remaining, provide a different way of seeing this data. In every year between 2007 and 2010, at least one third of all teams was within five games of a playoff spot, so could be described as contending, on September 15th. In 2007, fully 14 teams were still in contention with about 15-20 games left to play.

This data nonetheless indicates that every year, at least half of all teams are out of the pennant race after about 85% of the season has passed, but the extent to which this is a problem at all is not clear. It is not as if the same eight teams make the playoffs every year, although some teams, notably the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies have been there in most recent years. Nor is it the same 10-14 teams who are always in contention. A baseball structure where a handful of teams are always in contention, a handful are never in contention and the rest vary every few years is a reasonably sound structure and consistent with the game’s history.

The real problem in baseball is not that some years the Padres or A’s contend and some years they don’t, but that some teams like the Royals or Pirates are, more or less, never in contention. The proposed expansion of the playoffs does not address this problem at all.

Expanding the playoffs to include another wild card team, and another wild card series, not only does not address the real problems of inequality in baseball, but creates other potential problems as well. One inevitable result of allowing more teams to make the post-season is that it makes the regular season pennant races less interesting. With more playoff spots, more teams will have those spots locked up by mid-September pushing whatever races exist down to playoff ladder so that instead of seeing good teams compete for scarce playoff spots, pennant races will be even more about watching slightly above average teams compete for the last playoff spot.

Implicit in the argument for expanding the playoffs is the notion that another round of playoffs will be more exciting for fans as well. This seems to be a questionable claim. It is hard to imagine too many fans, other than those of the teams involved, avidly watching a wild card playoff series. Many fans do not begin paying much attention to the playoffs, unless their teams are involved, until the LCS anyway. Another playoff round will just make the playoffs feel even more ordinary and will likely not generate much excitement or viewership.

Allowing a few more slightly above .500 teams to compete for a playoff spot may revive late season interest in two or three additional cities, but it will also make the post-season even longer with more games that have a relatively limited national appeal to fans and make whatever pennant races exist now less important and compelling.