Since the final details of Major League Baseball's playoff expansion came out on Friday, the plan has been met with mixed opinion. Both sides seem to have fair arguments, but the only thing that stands out as truly egregious is the odd timing of the decision. While playoff expansion may have been inevitable, MLB did itself a disservice by announcing it in March and rushing it into the 2012 season.
The decision not only creates scheduling nightmares that could have been avoided if baseball had waited to implement the new format in 2013, but it's unfair to teams that spent their offseason preparing for the old format. Not only that, the additional postseason slot somehow manages to make life more unfair for the teams in the overcrowded National League, which continue to have a harder time reaching the playoffs than their AL counterparts.
This year's postseason game and travel schedules have the potential to be ridiculous. Jayson Stark did a great job at ESPN.com outlining the many nightmare situations that could come about. These range from teams playing four days in a row in four different cities, to teams sitting around at home unsure what city they'll play in the following day.
Then there's the preposterous notion that the teams with the top record in each league will have to start the playoffs with two road games to kick off the Divisional Series. That's not a nightmare situation -- that is going to happen this year.
Even if the schedule wasn't an issue, there's that small fact that organizations spent the whole offseason building their rosters expecting to need a top-four finish.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that an added Wild Card could have altered some teams' offseason strategies. Obviously, decisions on players like Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder wouldn't have been affected by one season's playoff format. But what about decisions on players like Michael Cuddyer, Ty Wigginton and Cody Ross, versus their respective alternatives? The Red Sox, Rays and Yankees very well might have acted differently, had they known they could all fit around the postseason table.
Finally, one overlooked aspect of the expansion is that it further widens the unfairness generated by having an unequal number of teams in each league.
Under the current layout, there are 16 teams in the National League and 14 in the American League. This is, of course, completely unfair to National League teams, which have a smaller chance of reaching the playoffs.
As it stood from 1998-2011, 25 percent of NL teams reached the postseason compared to 28.6 percent from the AL. With five from each league, those numbers jump to 31.3 and 35.7, respectively. The difference grows, which means the inequity is even greater for the 2012 season. This gulf would never widen if baseball had waited until 2013, when the Astros move to the AL.
As more of baseball's fans and front offices grow increasingly familiar with sabermetrics, they begin to subscribe to an interesting notion. The sample size of the baseball playoffs is so small that an incredible amount of it boils down to luck. Consider this: even a seven game series after a 162 game baseball season represents a smaller proportion of the regular season than a one game playoff in the NFL.
Theo Epstein once gave an interesting interview, in which he said that his goal wasn't to beat the Yankees each year. His goal was simply to win 95 games and get into the playoffs. His best bet, he'd begun to realize, wasn't to build a 110-win juggernaut, but to remain around the 95-win plateau and reach the playoff crapshoot enough years for the odds to eventually go his way. A playoff berth is a lottery ticket, and may he with the most tickets win the most times.
Playoff expansion is supposed to help curb this practice. It adds incentive for division winners and makes it tougher on the teams that sneak in. But if even general managers recognize that success in baseball often comes down to playing the odds, then even that small percentage change proves that rushing to add the extra spots now creates an unfair advantage for those trying to buy American League lottery tickets in 2012. I'd rather be a fan of the Royals or Blue Jays this year than the Rockies or Brewers.
While there are compelling arguments that playoff expansion will benefit the sport for years to come, a rushed decision to make last minute changes has hurt the product for 2012. There are many problems with how the plan is being rolled out, none of which would exist had they simply announced that the expansion begins in 2013.
For a sport that has a long history of progressing slowly, it was both surprising and unfortunate to see this issue pushed one year too soon.
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