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*This article was originally published in September of 2015 on http://brucasarte.blogspot.com. ; Reposted here because the bulk of the article is still relevant today.
Ah... October... the air is cool, pumpkins are a-plenty and the Major League Baseball postseason is in full swing! Truly, nothing says October like playoff baseball! But in recent years, Major League Baseball has made a number of changes to alter the structure of the postseason and the impact of the regular season on the postseason. These changes include the restructuring of the divisions in response to the expansion of teams into cities such as Tampa Bay, Denver and Miami. They also include the addition of a wild card team in 1995 to balance the number of playoff teams, and then the addition of a second wild card team in 2012 to attempt to make winning the division more meaningful. And let's not forget the change made for the World Series home team. Previous to 2009 the World Series home field alternated between the American League team and the National League team, but the league changed the deciding factor to make it so the league that wins the All Star Game in July gains home field advantage. *(Since the original writing of this article, Commissioner Manfred has changed this rule).
In conjunction with other systemic changes, these changes have increased attendance overall, they have increased international exposure for the game and have created a playoff system that allows for more cities to be involved in the chase for the playoffs longer. The original justification for the wild card game, besides balancing the teams from 3 to 4, was that it would prevent a situation where there the two best teams in a league were in the same division and only one made the playoffs, and it would create more drama in September for teams that were out of reach within their division -- they could still battle with other competitive teams for a shot at a playoff spot. When this change occurred in 1995, it was heralded as a great move that would increase the competitiveness and parity in the sport. And at first, that certainly seemed the case. Between 1995 and 2000 the teams from the American League were the Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox and Mariners. They were four teams who had seen very little postseason exposure in the previous decade. And in those six years, they were 3-3 in the Division Series and none won the ALCS. It was playing out very fair and balanced. The National League results were very different. In those six years, the Rockies and Marlins made their first appearances in the postseason, plus the Mets and Cubs put in some time. Unlike the American League, though, the Marlins won the World Series in 1997 from the Wild Card spot and the Mets appeared in the World Series in 2000, losing to the Yankees (who won the American League East). If we jump ahead to include up to 2005 and we see a surge of Wild Card activity ending up in the World Series. Between 2001-2005 the National League sent the Marlins, Astros and Giants to the World Series, while the American League sent the Angels once and the Red Sox twice in that span. This 5 year span resulted in 3 teams, the Angels, Red Sox and Marlins winning the World Series, while the 2002 World Series between the Angels and Giants showcased two Wild Card teams. All in all, between 1995 and 2011, 11 teams have gone from the Wild Card spot to the World Series and 6 have won. So, in 16 seasons, almost 33% of the teams that make the World Series do so from the Wild Card and 38% of the World Champions from from that slot. These are impressive numbers indeed given that only 25% of the teams making the playoffs are from the Wild Card position.
So - why win the division? The #1 seed in the playoffs during this period would play the Wild Card team. So, in theory, it slots as #1 vs #4 and #2 vs #3 -- which is consistent with the way most playoff brackets would work. And the #1 seed would have the home field advantage. But as time went on, it was very clear that these advantages did not show a real advantage statistically. While the addition of two teams to the playoffs (previous to 1995 there was only the Championship Series with the winners of the East and West) did increase the exposure and excitement in September, the playoffs began to function more like a tournament which impacted the way teams had to build their rosters going in to the playoffs. Teams that were built to win over a short period, with say one or two great pitchers, were winning -- while teams with good pitching staffs across the board seemed to suffer the fate of the dinosaurs. As fans and teams became increasingly agitated at the losses piling up with teams that played solid all season long, Major League Baseball knew they had to respond. In 2011, Major League Baseball announced the addition of a second Wild Card spot. This increased the number of postseason spots from 4 to 5. This created a one-game play-in game, and the winner would then play the #1 seed divisional winner. The rationale behind this, besides increasing the race for the postseason even more, was that it would force the wild card teams to play a game before they ever played a division winner. The theory is that it would create just a little extra strain on the Wild Card team. There have been three playoff series that have been played since the rule change, of the six teams that have played the Wild Card play-in game, two have reached the World Series (Royals and Giants) with one (Giants) winning the World Series. That represents 33% of the teams still making it to the World Series, but only 16% of the World Series winners. While it is clear that the sample size is small, one would say that it is trending in the right direction. Except that the 2014 World Series had two Wild Card teams in it. Ugh. For now -- we can call it an anomaly.
But even with the change, people are upset about the composition of the playoffs. Baseball purists (such as myself) have railed against the idea of a wild card since 1995. We claim that the addition of the Wild Card breeds the ability for a team to play for the Wild Card and not the division and then create a roster of players that is not the best team in baseball from April to October, but instead is made to be "just good enough" over 162 games but incredible in a short series.
We can see based on the end results of each season since 1995 that getting in to the postseason via the wild card is not a deterrent to reaching (and winning) the World Series. Winning the division seems to have no impact on a team's ability to make it to and win the World Series. In my opinion, this alone is a reason to throw out the Wild Card and re-architect the postseason. But what about allowing mediocrity over the 162 game season to make the postseason? Since the inception of the Wild Card, the average number of wins to make it to the Wild Card game (or the playoffs from 1995-2011) across both leagues is 91.82 (including 2015 and the Pirates and Cubs high win total). By comparison, the divisional winners across both leagues averaged 94.12 wins per season. A differential of 2.3 wins on average was the difference between winning the division and making the postseason. In my opinion, this is not a significant enough number to refer to the wild card team as mediocre in comparison to the divisional winners. This small differential can easily explain why so many (33%) Wild Card teams win the World Series, and it fleshes out Major League Baseball's insistence that the Wild Card allows good teams who do not win their division to make the postseason.
But that still leaves the problem of how to give divisional winners an advantage. Our statistics above show that there is no advantage to winning the division, and Joe Girardi's throwing the American League East in 2007 in order to set up his pitching was the right move (even though they lost to Cleveland anyway). Baseball should never be a game in which a team is not trying to win the division.
Some folks are proposing that the National League Central this season shows that there should be no advantage to winning the division. That the seeding system should be based on how many wins you have, and the schedule should be balanced throughout the league and not the division. That the only reason the Mets are advancing as far as they are is because they beat up on the weak National League East (which they did). In this structure the Mets would still make the playoffs as the #5 seed and would have played the Dodgers in a one game playoff, and the Pirates and Cubs would have been guaranteed at least a 5 game series.
I am of the opinion that the one game playoff is terrible and the baseball has always been a game in which being the best in your division or league has been important. I think it should remain that way. And that the In order to create a league in which winning your division matters, I have a proposal.
Instead of three divisions (East, Central and West) we move to a four division league (North, South, East and West) that is similar to the way the NFL lays it out -- and reduce the playoffs back to four teams, all division winners. Each division would have four teams in it and allow MLB to expand to two more cities. There are plenty of good candidates for expansion that would be at least as good as Miami and Tampa Bay have been (which is to say not great in attendance -- but they've both made the World Series and Miami has 2 World Series wins). This would make it imperative to win the division again, but still allow more cities to be involved in the postseason chase in September. My divisions would look something like this:
American League East:
American League North
American League South
American League West
New Team (Las Vegas would be great)
National League East
New Team or Pittsburgh (Bring back Montreal!)
National League North
Pittsburgh or New Team (Could still be Montreal)
National League South
National League West
I think this resolves the major issues with the playoffs, divisional winners being at a disadvantage in the playoffs, increases the need to play out the season for everyone in the league -- not just the wild card teams, plus preserves the increased excitement of more cities being in the hunt for October. Plus, this has the added benefit of expanding to two new cities, which baseball has been looking at for a while. And honestly, we are in a place where baseball either needs to expand or contract - but I think most people agree that the number of teams we have now is not working with regards to the post-season.