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April 22, 2011
Eight, Ten, Here We Go Again
Bud Selig has started up the expanded-playoff mill once again. On Thursday, the Commissioner told the AP that he believes the playoffs will expand from eight teams to 10 beginning in the 2012 season, reigniting what was already a very controversial issue even among the most devoted of baseball fans. At BP, reactions have ranged from pure criticism to mild tolerance. I propose we put to one side, at least for the moment, what the right answer is. Let’s see if we can first agree on a set of common principles on which to evaluate a proposal like this one.
The way Selig’s proposed plan would work, sketchy though the early details are, is pretty straightforward. Each league would get one more wild card team—the non-division-winning team with the second-best overall record. The two wild card teams would then play a series of undetermined length for the right to play in the second round, which for the division winners would be their first playoff series. In other words, the division winners get a bye. (If you’re curious how much the length of the play-in series matters, I recommend this article.)
Let me begin by saying that I’m going to try to take the point of view of a baseball fan. It is certainly true that teams and the league may simply act in such a way as to maximize their revenues, and it’s easy to see why they would. However, unless you think MLB is close to failing as a collective enterprise—and I don’t think there are many folks who believe that—the motivations that teams have to maximize their profits just don’t apply to fans. Fans may be incidentally better off when teams make more money, but that’s a complicated question of price equilibrium best left for the Matt Swartzes of the world.
Start by eliminating all those reasons that don’t apply to baseball fans purely in their capacity as fans of the game. Throw away your team allegiances, where you live, how much money you have, whether you have season tickets, and whether you have the sort of job that affords you the opportunity to watch several ballgames a day. What I’m most interested in isn’t what is best for the game in some abstract sense, but what is best for fans of the game, both present and future. Again, the people willing to pay a cool billion to buy a team may disagree, as is their right.
What’s left? Ah yes, the right answer. I will group my arguments into three broad categories: randomness, scheduling, and prestige.
The most common argument against expanding the playoffs is that doing so would make it more likely that a marginal team would win the World Series. This is, statistically and at the margins, pretty uncontroversial, but it has also been true of every expansion of the playoffs in every sport ever. So the question isn’t whether it will raise the possibility that a fringy team—the canonical example being the 2006 Cardinals, who went 83-78 in the regular season, outscoring their opponents by just 19 runs—will win the World Series, it’s whether it does so in such a way that the downside is bigger than the benefit.
But let’s step back a minute. What do we mean when we talk about the best team? The team that had the best regular season record, most likely. But it turns out that performance over 162 games isn’t even enough to say for sure which team is the best. If an entire league with a “true talent” level of .500—that is, one in which God told you all the teams were .500 ballclubs—played a million 162-game seasons, two or three teams would end up with more than 90 wins each time. You’d probably look at those teams and assume they were the best, but we’ve specified that all of the teams were of exactly the same quality. So there’s a real way in which regular season record does a pretty lousy job of telling us which team is the best. Even if we used more advanced techniques like Pythagorean records, there’s still a substantial amount of luck involved in regular season outcomes. That’s an argument to say that the costs of letting in a team like the 2006 Cardinals isn’t so bad. We aren’t sure the Cardinals were lousy or that the Mets—who won 97 games that year—were great. And besides, the Cardinals made the playoffs in 2006 by (how else?) winning their division.
On the other hand, superior regular season performance does give some indication that one team is better than another. We just can’t be sure.
Another argument frequently advanced against expanding the playoffs is that doing so would make the season too long. Already World Series games have been played in November; adding another series would likely add up to a week of additional games. Given that owners are unlikely to surrender any portion of their lucrative 162-game season, the schedule has to expand into either March or November.
This is another argument that at the margins is correct, at least as far as it goes: more ballgames would get played in cold weather one way or the other. But it’s not at all clear how much colder, other than a couple degrees on average. And even so, what’s the big harm? It’s not like October is an especially warm month in most major-league cities, and that never seemed to ruin the World Series (except for that one time).
Besides, the longer season argument appears to overlook one glaring benefit: a longer season. From a baseball fan’s perspective, it’s a strange argument to make that more baseball is worse.
At their roots, I suspect that many of the objections to adding more teams to the playoffs boil down to the fear that it would cheapen the entire process. Fair enough. But from the perspective of the fans, the playoffs are ours to cheapen. If adding more teams makes it more enjoyable for fans as a whole, then who cares if the playoffs are “cheaper”?
Besides, adding another wild card team probably doesn’t do much to decrease the likelihood that a division winner will win the World Series. In fact, it almost certainly makes it less likely that each wild card team will win the World Series. That means two things. One, all adding another wild card team would do is cheapen the wild card. And two, it would increase the prestige of winning the division compared with securing the wild card. As Neil deMause points out, this has at least the marginal effect of making pennant races somewhat more meaningful—and in the big game of one-upmanship that is baseball traditionalism, that could be the trump card.