Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Expanded MLB Playoffs - Not a Bad Thing After All

In 2010, I ranted against MLB's proposal for an additional wild card team. My concerns were the further devaluation of the season as well as having another playoff series push back the divisional round. Naturally, Bud and his boys ignored my post and went forward with their plan to have a 5th playoff team in each league, starting this season.

Surprisingly though, I actually like what they've done. In fact, I'll go as far to say that they haven't really expanded the playoffs at all, instead, they've reduced the benefit of grabbing the wild card spot. The one-game playoff is really more of a "play-in" game rather than a true playoff series, kind of like that additional game in the NCAA tournament.

The winner of the wild card play-in game will then advance to the playoffs with the three division winners, with the notable disadvantage of already having used one of their best pitchers. As well, the wild card will face the best team in the league regardless of which division they are in. Until now, the wild card played the best squad not in their division as MLB vainly tried to have as many Yankees-Red Sox ALCS's as possible.

Several media outlets have been comparing the percentage of teams making the playoffs in MLB to that in the other big 4 leagues, saying that they still only admit 33% of their teams to the playoffs, while the other leagues are between 37.5% and 53.3%. The implication is that it is more difficult to qualify for the postseason in baseball so this "expansion" is perfectly acceptable. Of course, this misses the point that the other leagues admit too many teams, particularly the NHL and NBA, where 16 of 30 enjoy a chance at the championship.

What MLB has done here is make their system more like the NFL's, where the top teams are given an advantage, namely less games required to win it all. Assuming each team has a 50% chance of winning a series, the change to the MLB playoff system has simply reduced the chance of the 4th-place finisher winning the pennant from 1/4 to 1/8 and increased the chance of the 5th-place finisher from 0 to 1/8. The three division winners maintain their 25% chance of taking the league title. (In the NFL, the top two seeds have a 25% chance to win their conference championship while the other four teams have a 1/8 chance.)

Despite my initial opposition to the idea, I am satisfied with the solution developed by the braintrust at MLB. It will increase excitement for fans of teams like the Blue Jays, who are suddenly a playoff contender, and at the same time, it rewards the division winners more appropriately. I'll be following this season with more interest as a result.



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