Expand the Playoffs ASAP

Major League Baseball should add more playoff teams. Now. And they shouldn’t stop at just one more wild card team. They might as well add two and force one of the division winners to prove themselves with an extra postseason round. 

Bud Selig reiterated this week his belief that the playoff field would expand to ten teams as early as 2012. The wild cards have proved they belong in the postseason. Since the wild card was introduced in 1995 (technically 1994, the year MLB proved that having zero teams in the playoffs was a bad idea), wild card teams have a 139-133 postseason record (.511). That’s a pretty decent sample size. The wild card concept (and playoff expansion in general) was originally greeted with much skepticism, but thus far the teams first place forgot have fared better in October than their divisional-champion opposition.

Their success shouldn’t surprise us. A wild card team can easily have the second best record in the league, and that was the one of the initial justifications for adding them: ensure that the team with the second-highest win total reach the postseason. Adding another wild card will make it impossible for the team with the third-highest win total to miss the playoffs. That’s good, I guess, but it’s not enough.

Adding one wild card per league and one extra postseason series is a way of making the lesser teams in the league earn their place in the later rounds. It rewards, in theory, teams that have proved their worth by winning their divisions. The problem is, history has shown us that division winners as a group are slightly inferior to wild card teams. Isn’t that what the 139-133 record tells us? So shouldn’t at least one divisional winner have to play its way into the divisional round of the playoffs? I believe so.

This weird mini-round pitting wild card against wild card threatens only the other wild card teams. The same wild card teams that have, as a group, shown they belong in the postseason just as much as the division winners do. They shouldn’t be penalized for the fact that MLB’s divisional alignment is stupid. But they will.

I know a lot of people bemoan playoff expansion because it waters down the field. Well, in the past that hasn’t been the case. It also makes the playoffs more exciting for more fans. Cal Ripken and the homerun boom have been credited for saving baseball after the 1994 debacle, but playoff expansion gets too easily dismissed as a savior. Expanding the postseason makes October more interesting. It makes the pennant chases of September fun to watch. It even makes August, July, and June more bearable knowing that the definition of contention is broad enough to include almost anyone.

Especially as Cubs fans, that should come as a welcome innovation.


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