Playoff Expansion Lowers The Bar For Some And Raises It For Others

For only the third time in the history of MLB, a change has been made in the number of teams that qualify for the postseason. An extra wild card has been added in both the AL and NL, bringing the number of teams who now qualify for the postseason to ten. Exactly one-third of the teams who compete in MLB will play at least one playoff game in October this year. Bud Selig’s dream has become a reality.

Opinions on this expansion range from apocalyptic to fantastic.  Those in the fantastic camp feel that you can never have too much of a good thing. Those in the apocalyptic camp feel that the more teams you add to the postseason the less emphasis there is on a regular season that has always meant more than any regular season in all of professional sports, a regular season that was always a key element in baseball’s charm and appeal. You can count me firmly as a member of the apocalyptic camp.

The one game playoff in the first round presents a plethora of troubling possibilities. Lets suppose the Red Sox trail the Yankees by two games for the division lead heading into the three game series between the two teams that ends the regular season in 2012.  Lets also suppose that the Rays are four games behind both the Yankees and Red Sox yet have the fifth and last playoff spot locked up. What does Bobby Valentine do in such a situation? Does he pitch the first three pitchers in his rotation attempting to sweep the Yankees and win the division? Or does he rest his ace, figuring that he has to save his best pitcher for a possible one game playoff with the Rays? Joe Maddon could set up his rotation over the last three games of the season knowing he had nothing to gain and have his best starter on regular rest for the one game playoff.  That would actually be a reward for the team with the lesser record in a scenario such as this. This is just one of the many troubling possibilities that a one game playoff represents.

MLB’s season is 162 games. That’s almost twice as many games as the NBA and NHL teams play, and more than ten times the number of games that NFL teams plays. 162 games played over six months are more than enough games to establish who the best teams are.  The notion that a one game playoff is in any way a fair way to decide who should be eliminated after a 162 game season borders on insanity. Many of us have never accepted the best of five format in the opening round from 1994-2011 as a valid way to decide who should advance after such a long season.  It’s astonishing that MLB would lengthen the postseason yet choose to add a one game playoff rather than lengthen the Divisional Series to a best of seven format.

One of the results of the expanded playoff format will almost certainly be to lessen the intensity of the regular season for teams and fans alike.  Losing streaks used to create panic for the teams who suffered them. Will that still be the case in this new playoff era? Consider the case of the 2011 Boston Red Sox.  Heavily favored in the preseason to win the 2011 World Series, the Red Sox lost their first six games of the season and ten of their first twelve games.  Headlines of horror screamed throughout the nation and it was only the middle of April.  The Red Sox righted the ship and looked to be a cinch to make the postseason, before losing twenty-one of their last twenty-nine games. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion as the headlines roared and the pressure on the Red Sox built to the same fevered pitch it had in April during their horrendous start. When the Red Sox lost their final game of the season to the Orioles just minutes before the Rays had come from behind to defeat the Yankees in their final regular season game, it completed one of the most dramatic up and down seasons in the history of baseball.  You know what it would have meant under the new playoff system? Nothing, absolutely nothing at all.  The Red Sox finished with the fifth best record in the American League in 2011, four games clear of the Angels. The drama surrounding the Red Sox in April and September of last year would have been relegated to a very minor story.

The upside of the addition of two more playoff teams is possibility that smaller market teams that have been left out of the postseason for quite some time will have a greater chance of making the postseason. For the big market teams with more money to spend, making the postseason may become more of an expectation than a goal.

So what impact will this additional wild card slot have on a team like Yankees?  At first glance the answer to that question would seem to be not much.  After all, the Yankees have made the postseason every year from 1995-2011 with the exception  of 2008.  Had the new system been in place in 2008 the Yankees would have made the playoffs. Even with the never-ending string of injuries that impacted the 2008 Yankee team, they still had the fourth best record in the AL and would have qualified for the last playoff spot under the new system. In 1993 under the two divisions in each league format, the Yankees finished with the third best record in the AL and under the new format would also have been playoff bound.

The last season that the Yankees wouldn’t have qualified for the playoffs under the new format would have been 1992.  That’s a pretty staggering thing to think about it. How’s this for perspective on the matter? The last time the Yankees would have walked off the field on the last day of the season without knowing they were headed to the postseason, William Jefferson Clinton was campaigning vigorously in an attempt to unseat the first President Bush.

While Yankee fans often bristle when it’s mentioned that the Yankees’ payroll and resources are responsible for their consistent success of the last two decades, they shouldn’t be.  It’s the consistent attendance at games by the Yankees’ fans and the success of the YES network whose demand by so many Yankee fans made a staple of cable television in the New York area. The Yankees’ hard core fans are as much responsible for that revenue as anyone.  That revenue coupled with ownership’s willingness to spend what it takes to put a winner on the field has resulted in two decades of consistent playoff appearances and five World Series titles within that time.

The question now is whether the bar will be raised on what a successful season is classified as for a team like the Yankees. With even the fifth best record in the AL qualifying a team for the postseason, will it be enough for fans and management to simply make the playoffs? Until this point, simply making the postseason generally created a consensus that a season was a successful one. I’m not so sure that’s going to be the case going forward.  The bar has to be raised for any team with a big payroll, even more so for the Yankees. Sneaking into the playoffs with the fifth best record in the AL and losing a one game playoff will hardly be considered a successful season.

Will fans and the Steinbrenners be satisfied with simply being one of five teams in the AL who make the playoffs? Will they be willing to give pats on the back and votes of confidence to Brian Cashman, Joe Girardi, and the players for simply being one of five teams who advance to the postseason?  It’s very unlikely, to say the least.

There’s been a feeling of disappointment surrounding the Yankees over the past decade. The further the Yankees get away from the dynasty years, the less good will those years carry with fans and ownership.  While no team’s fans should feel its a birthright to win a World Series every year or every other year, the fact remains that in the last decade the Yankee have only won two pennants and one World Series.  The Phillies have achieved just as much as the Yankees over the same time span and the Cardinals and archrival Red Sox have achieved more.  With the payroll and resources that the Yankees have possessed, that just not good enough, especially for fans and ownership who are among the most zealous in all of professional sports.

As we go forward into the new era of baseball under expanded playoffs, big market teams with free spending ways will be under pressure to do more than just make the postseason.  The bar must be raised for these teams and for no team should it be raised more than the New York Yankees.

About Michael P.

I am a Saratoga Springs, Ny resident whose been sports obsessed since I was 5 years old.

Posted on March 6, 2012, in Personal Opinion and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.

  1. I normally don’t like change but If this is going to happen I think it should be at least a 3 game playoff and maybe shorten the regular season.

    • I agree. I think a 1 game play in is ridiculous. It’s more then possible a 95 plus team winner could be sent packing because of a 1 game. That seems stupid in my opinion.

      • UYF1950,I would like to apologize for some of my remarks towards you.Some of which were being fueled by a 2 year argument that was spilling over from another site.You had nothing to do with it and I am sorry for my attitude that you took away from some of my remarks.I have always tried to carry myself as a gentleman of the game.It was out of character and I do feel bad about it.
        You are doing a very good job helping this new site get off the ground,Keep up the fine posts and Lets Go Yanks.
        Ballpark

    • Matt I agree, but the owners will never do it. The 3 of 5 is bad enough, this is even worse. 162 games is a very long season and the larger the sample size……….
      I think we know what teams belong in the playoffs after 162 games. Adding another one will really hurt the regular season interest in a very short time period. Why would anyone but a hardcore baseball fan care about any single regular season game played early in the season?
      The NBA and NHL have NO regular season ratings to speak of because everyone whose decent at all makes the playoffs, there’s no sense of drama.
      People who point to the interest in NFL regular season games when 12 teams make the playoffs fail to point out that they only play 16 games and the desperation involved in every game is obvious. In addition to that the NFL plays a completely unbalanced schedule and because of it you truly don’t know whose better than who until they meet in the playoffs.
      Will the Yankees probably make the playoffs every year forever under this system? I wouldn’t bet against it. Thats going to take the thrill out of the regular season games eartly in the year. It also makes the regular season seem so unimportant when you can finish 20 games better than the fifth team in and be playing them in a 3 of 5 where one bad night of umping(see Gerry Davis, game 3 of the ALDS, he should be in prison for what he did that night) can send you out or put you up against the wall.
      I just looked up the 1998 season, when we had the best baseball team of any team I’ve seen in my lifetime. The Yankees finished 26 games ahead of the Blue Jays that year but Toronto would have gotten the fifth playoff slot and had a one game playoff with the Red Sox. It is very possible that the 1998 Yankees would have been playing a team in their own division that they finished 26 games ahead of in the ALDS. How legitimate would a Blue Jay win have been viewed?
      Baseball is the anti NFL, which is why the NFL currently blows baseball so far away with its regular season and post season ratings that its comical. Every decision under Selig’s tenure has been an outright disaster. We still can’t get instant replay for bag calls and tags while the NFL is freeze framing every vital play in high def. Heck, even tennis is using instant replay very successfully.
      Don’t even get me started on the tragedy that is interleague play.
      Bud Selig has done more damage to MLB in his tenure than every other commissioner before him combined.

  2. Very solid post Michael. I feel the exact same way. You play 162 games for a reason. If you’re in third place or have the fifth best record in baseball, you don’t deserve to get in the playoffs. The Red Sox should have had a solid September if they really were a true postseason team. But they weren’t, and the record shows.

    This format is screwed up entirely. If I was going to make any changes, A) Make the ALDS a 7-game series and B) make the new “Wild Card” round a three game series. No one wants their whole season coming down to one game, where anything can happen. This isn’t the NFL and the “Playoffs”. It’s the Postseason. Filled with series, and not tiebreakers.

    • Brian I agree totally and completely. I feel sorry that someone your age doesn’t even know how thrilling the regular season was when there were two divisions and every single damn game seemed as important as the NFL games do now. We’d agonize over a blown save for a week!!
      It made every game so important from opening day on!! Now? You can blow 6 of 7 games and the feeling is that’s ok, we’ll rip some wins off later on.
      Its also important to point out how much more home field advantage means in the NFL as compared to baseball. Last season in the NFL playoffs the home teams were 8-2 with one team, the Giants, accounting for the only two road wins. The NFl also rewards the teams with the two highest seeds with a week off. Of all 4 major sports baseball has the least home field advantage. Have you ever seen the incredible stats that the home teams have in the history of the NHL and NBA in game 7’s in the playoffs? Absolutely startling.
      The reward for having the best record in baseball is almost nothing. A very minor advantage of having the last game of the series at home, but you have to make it to that game to even reap that reward.
      There’s a reason that so many upsets have occurred in the 3 of 5 round. The lower the sample size the less reliable it is. It also turns a game thats played with a 5 man rotation for 162 games, and a 4 man rotation in the ALCS, NLCS, and World Series into a 3 man rotation for just one small series, with 4 teams being sent home under these circumstances.
      No other sport does that in the playoffs, by “that” I mean changes the basic way the game is played in the playoffs. Basketball, Football, and Hockey don’t change a single thing in a single way for the postseason. Not baseball, nope, they turn a game being played all year with a 5 man rotation and make it a 3 man rotation. Its a HUGE fundamental change in the game and strategy and it doesn’t at all resemble regular season baseball. It’s just no way to decide a series.
      One game playoff? You’ve got to be kidding me. Its likely that the fifth team in will finish anywhere from 4-10 games behind the 4th team in. So in one game a team who was outplayed that badly(possibly from the same division!) can knock out the other team?

  3. The worst aspect of the post-season is all of the days off. They have toned it down some but imo, there should be MAX, one day off per series. When the Yanks won in 2009, there were so many days off they never needed more than 3 starting pitchers.

    I liked the Wild Card because it let in a team that could have been screwed by playing in a tough division. But I believe adding another WC isn’t good for the game. It waters down the regular season and forces a 1-game playoff. If they add the WC, they should have minimum a 3 or 5-game series and eliminate most of the days off between games. Otherwise the WS will go even further into November which is ridiculous when its 30 degrees out in Game 7.

  4. Again, 1992 was the last year in which the Yankees would have missed the playoffs under this format of two wildcard teams.
    The first George Bush was still in office when that season ended.
    If you all want to celebrate making the playoffs and using it as a gauge of what kind of job a GM/manager are doing than go ahead and be my guest.
    The postseason is the ONLY thing that matters with this team and how you judge a manager.
    If that Lowe decision costs the Yankees this series, Girardi should be fired.

    • “If that Lowe decision costs the Yankees this series, Girardi should be fired.”

      But if the Yankees hitters didn’t fall asleep the second they got the bases loaded THREE times, we wouldn’t even be talking about this Lowe problem. That’s why I haven’t put nearly as much weight on Girardi for the loss as you and others are.

      • Mike there comes a time to just see things for what they are. He did the SAME thing last year against the Tigers in the ALDS!!
        Mike I don’t understand how you can defend this. The stranded runners have NOTHING to do with putting Lowe in. These are isolated and independent events that have no relationship to each other whatsoever.
        Girardi couldn’t contriol that the bases were left stranded. What he could control was what would happen GOING FORWARD!!
        You are saying a manager is excused from an insane move because of something that happened earlier in the game?
        Well hell then, why not just hit and run on every play after the bases are left loaded twice? Why not have Swisher come in and pitch and put someone else in right to have an extra bat? I mean, if leaving the bases loaded a few times justifies any and all future decisions and renders them void in examining the outcome of a game, then screw it, steal with every baserunner, try the suicide squeeze, etc.
        You can’t go back in time in a game and change what happened!! You can only MANAGE a game going FORWARD and if anyone can explain to me why Lowe was sent back out there with a totally rested bullpen in a two run game I’d love to hear it.

        • No no no, you completely misunderstood what I said. I’m not defending what Girardi did and saying it was a good move. It wasn’t!! However, I just don’t see how you can put the loss completely on his shoulders, when you have key hitters not doing their job WHATSOEVER! Cano, Rodriguez and Granderson combined for 0 for 13 with 16 LOB! And you’re saying that you can boil down the whole loss to Girardi’s mismanagement. His management was obviously a problem, and if he put someone good in (not Lowe), they probably would have won. But guess what, if the Yankees hitters actually did what they are paid for, which is to bring in runners who are in scoring position, they would unequivocally have won.

          • You always talk about holding people accountable. Well you’re doing a fantastic job at holding Girardi accountable — but you’re doing a terrible job keeping the people who are actually playing the game accountable!! I mean, you’re neglecting 1/2 (or more) of the reason why they lost!

      • I guess if the Giants fail to score in the Red Zone three times today and are trailing by a touchdown, that Coughlin should just send David Carr in to the game in the 4th quarter so that Eli doesn’t get hurt right?
        Because the earlier failures would justify any and all decisions Coughlin made in the 4th quarter?
        I mean, isn’t that what Girardi did by sending in Lowe in a two run game with the others available?

  5. For all the crazy stuff that happened Girardi showed his true impotence when after pinch running for Granderson with Gardner he didn’t allow Gardner to try to steal third after he stole second. If you’re going to be aggressive then go all out.

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