Musings on the Expanded Postseason

MLB recently announced an expanded playoff format for the 2012 season (and, one assumes, beyond). There will be two wild card teams in each league who will play a one-game "play-in" game, and for 2012 only, the LDS home-away format will be 2-3, as opposed to the more familiar 2-2-1.

It used to be that winning the pennant meant being the best team in your league at season's end, with no postseason save the World Series. The regular season was a marathon, but there was a tangible reward to coming out on top—a berth in the World Series. For some teams, sure, there was no glory in anything other than a World Series crown, but in the days prior to interleague play being American League or National League champions meant something*, or else, why would we care so much about Bobby Thompson's home run?

*A first-division finish meant a share of world series money.

On some level, there is a relationship between baseball's expansion and the added rounds in the postseason. It is, after all, much harder to win a 14-team league than it is an eight-team one, so merely finishing as a first-division team becomes that much more important. In 1969, the LCS was introduced; the LDS came after the strike of 1994, and the additional playoff rounds have largely been successful—from a financial standpoint, they certainly are, and sometimes we even get some really exciting baseball out of it too: with no LDS, there is no Jeter flip play; with no LCS there is no Chris Chambliss or Aaron Boone.

At the Baseball Prospectus event in New York City on Monday evening, one of the panelists (my apologies to Jay Jaffe and Cliff Corcoran, I can't remember which of the two it was...) remarked that people tend to be fans of the playoff structure they grew up with—thus, our parents might prefer only one pre-World Series round of postseason play, while those closer in age to myself prefer the post-strike format, and our grandparents may prefer there be no playoffs at all, save for the world series. There is a lot of logic to this argument: most people tend to be resistant to change.

One can find fault with the idea that an extra one-game round will add integrity to winning a division or excessively penalize the winner of the wild card, and there is something to be said for the idea that the reason the last night of the 2011 regular season was so dramatic and so memorable was because it was entirely organic, the result of the ups and downs of a long season, and not a forced artifice. Games with immediate, tangible consequences will attract an audience, but one does wonder—if the playoffs kept expanding, how late into the year will the season go? Not that baseball fans don't love the game, but even October can be cold and unfriendly in places like New York, Boston and Detroit—all postseason-caliber teams. If you think weather's not important, ask yourself how the 2009 ALCS would have played out had Los Angeles had the home-field advantage.

On the other hand, one can indeed argue that the system in place prior to 2012 did not appropriately penalize the wild-card team; home-field advantage in baseball is already problematic when one considers that the home team in the world series is determined by the results of an exhibition game. If a team is to be motivated enough to win the division as opposed to "settling" for the wild card (the Yankees are not entirely innocent here), which a team might do if it meant being able to rest stars down the stretch, then there has to be a significant enough difference between being the first seed and the fourth seed. No, a one game playoff doesn't really tell you much about which team is better, but what it can do is mess with a team's rotation and bullpen, forcing less-ideal matchups and forcing the use of relief arms that a manager may have preferred to rest. The best teams in baseball should be able to overcome such a scenario, but by definition the wild-card teams are not the league's best.

That said, if baseball really wanted to make the postseason a better mirror of the regular one, there are two solutions (one easier to implement than the other) that could go a long way: make it a seven games in the first round instead of five, and give the home-field advantage in the world series to the team with the better record. A longer series means that a team can't get by on a 1-2 starting punch alone, and the latter suggestion would mean that the All-Star game could go back to being an exhibition game, which, so long as a representative from every team is required (sometimes over more deserving candidates), is what it should be.

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