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.