Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Expanded Baseball Playoffs

There are serious plans afoot to expand the baseball playoffs from 8 teams to 10.
First, a quick look at how the baseball playoffs currently work (Those familiar with baseball in North America can skip this paragraph.) There are two leagues, American and National, and each has three divisions. The winners of each division, plus the best second-place team in each league, "the wild card," make the eight-team playoffs.

There is no definite plan yet, but early word is that there will be two wild card teams in each league and that they will meet in a preliminary round, either best-of-3, or a single game. The two winners will join the division winners in the next round.

This is a terrible idea, and FRB will tell you why.

From 1903 to 1968, the playoffs had just two teams, and they met in the World Series. In 1969 the playoffs were expanded to four teams, and in 1994 they grew to eight. What do these numbers have in common? They are all powers of two. No team has ever had a bye in the baseball playoffs, and that makes sense. Baseball teams play constantly; six or seven games a week, with rarely more than day off here or there. This ensures that  the entire pitching staff is tested, rather than just a few top starters. It's contrary to the way baseball has always worked to have a team, or in this case six teams, sitting around for five or more days while the first round is completed

This idea also penalizes wild card teams excessively. By having to play an extra round, their chances of winning the championship are effectively halved. That's an unfair penalty for a team that is usually pretty good. In 16 years of the current system, there have been 32 wild cards, and 21 of them, or 66%, had a better record than at least one division winner in their league (and a few more were tied). Fully 25% had the second best record in their league. Yet these teams would be forced to play an extra round while often weaker teams got a bye, merely due to an accident of geography.

Deciding the first round based on a best-of-3 series, or even worse in a single game, is a bad idea too. Baseball is the one sport where you absolutely have to play several games to separate two teams. In basketball or ice hockey, a five or seven-game series can feel redundant, since the same players are fielded every game. But because starting pitchers change, each baseball matchup is different. A Red Sox -Yankees game with both No. 1 pitchers throwing is fundamentally different from a game with the No. 2's or No 4's facing off. (And No. 1 vs. No. 4, or No. 3 vs. No. 5 are different too.) In order to determine which team is better, you must test them in several permutations, not just in a game with their best starters

If baseball is desperate for more revenue, why not expand the opening round of the playoffs to best-of-7, from best-of  5? That would add four games or so each year, and would provide fairer first-round results, a worthy goal.


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