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MLB Expanded Playoffs: A “Historical” Perspective

I don’t consider myself a purist, I can handle change in this timeless game of baseball. At least they still wood bats (*cough* DH *cough*). I am a proponent of the current wild card system, even if it did come a year too late for the Giants.

For those of you that may have missed the news, MLB is on the precipice of approving the expansion of the playoffs this year. Each league would add one wild card team, meaning 10 out of the 30 teams would make the playoffs. Okay, that’s still the smallest percentage making the playoffs of any of the 4 major sports, doesn’t sound ground breaking yet. Here’s the catch: each pair of wild card teams in each league would have a one game playoff. One game? Seriously? After 162? If they are tied, fine, go at it. We’ve seen one game playoffs to determine division champs and wildcards before.

To look at the potential variability and inequity of a one game playoff, I looked at the past 17 seasons in which we have had the wild card playoff system (implemented in 1994, but that season was canceled). I added the hypothetical team that would have qualified for the second wild card in each league. I then determined the number of games back the second wild card team would have been that year:

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How the Playoffs Might Have Been – Hypothetical Wild Card Matchup History

2011 Rays v Red Sox(1 GB), Cards* v Braves (1GB)
2010 Yankees v Boston (6 GB), Braves v Padres (1GB)
2009 Red Sox v Rangers (8 GB), Rockies v Giants (4 GB)
2008 Red Sox v Yankees (6 GB), Brewers v Mets (1 GB)
2007 Yankees v Tigers/Mariners (6 GB), Rockies v Padres (tied)
2006 Tigers v Angels (6 GB), Dodgers v Phillies (3 GB)
2005 Red Sox v Indians (2 GB), Astros v Phillies (1 GB)
2004 Red Sox* v A’s (7 GB), Astros v Giants (1 GB)
2003 Red Sox v Mariners (2 GB), Marlins* v Astros (4 GB)
2002 Angels* v Red Sox/Mariners (6 GB), Giants v Dodgers (3 GB)
2001 A’s v Twins (17 GB!!), Cards v Giants (3 GB)
2000 Mariners v Indians (1 GB), Mets v Dodgers (8 GB)
1999 Red Sox v A’s (7 GB), Mets v Reds (1 GB)
1998 Red Sox v Angels (7 GB), Cubs v Giants (tied – actual one game playoff)
1997 Yankees v Angels (12 GB), Marlins* v Mets/Dodgers (2 GB)
1996 Orioles v Red Sox/White Sox/Mariners (3 GB), Dodgers v Expos (2 GB)
1995 Yankees v Angels (1 GB), Rockies v Astros (1 GB) shortened season!

“higher” wild card seed listed first

* denotes WS Champ

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Some very interesting things come out in the wash, but frankly, that’s some dirty water coming out, tinged with the joyous tears of Bud Selig at the thought of raking in a few extra bucks for additional playoff stretch drives and the 2 additional do-or-die games. Although the majority of the additional wild card teams were within 3 games of the “first” wild card team (3.9 games back average over both leagues), there are extreme examples of a vast chasm between the two. Let’s start with 2001. The Seattle Mariners tore up the league that year with an MLB -best 116 wins, the most since the 162 game schedule expansion and the best winning percentage by any team since 1954. The A’s fell 14 games short of that mark with a still impressive 102 wins and filled in as the wild card. If this new system was in place then, the A’s would have hosted the Twins in a one game playoff. The Twins had 85 wins…17 GAMES behind the A’s! Do you think the average baseball fan would have bought a Twins victory in that hypothetical situation as dogma that the Twins deserved to go over the A’s after 162? Of course not. This system enables this possibility, and it will happen at some point. This example is the fodder against those who claim they like this system, and if you want to avoid a one game playoff, just “win your division” and stop whining. Clearly division series can match up teams with large gaps in their regular season records, but at least they have 5 games to settle it, not one.

There are more examples of historically large record differences since 1995. The Yanks would have played the Angels in 1997 (12 game difference), 8 games would have separated the Mets and Dodgers in 2000 and the Red Sox and Rangers in 2009. A 7 game differential would have occurred 3 times, 6 games 5 times.

The funny thing is, as a Giants fan, the team would have historically benefited from this new system. Yes, their 2002 NL Championship may have never have happened after facing the Dodgers in a one game playoff, but the Giants would have gained a one game playoff 3 additional times since 2001 (‘01 v Cards, ‘04 v Astros, ‘09 v Rockies; They did play an actual one game playoff for the wildcard vs the Cubs in 1998 after finishing in a tie…I needed quite a few beers after Gaetti’s HR). On paper I would have taken that deal.

Five World Champs have been wild cards, including the 2004 Red Sox. Could you imagine if the Curse was never nixed if they had lost to the A’s in a one game playoff that year (even though they were 7 games better)? The Cardinals may have never won last year, perhaps the Angels in 2002 (actually, that’s fine by me), the Marlins in ‘03 (thanks Pudge) and ‘97.

I’m also not sure why Selig and Co. are pushing to get this in this year, when the end of the regular season and playoff schedules are set, and the leagues are still unbalanced. Why not just wait until 2013 when the Astros move to the AL West and the schedule can accommodate the extra playoff game? I am unequivocally against this new system. Rather, I’m for the extension of the division series to 7 games instead, much like the NBA converted to a while back.

Then again, maybe the Giants will be that lucky second wild card this year?

- Chad

 

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