On any given day, any one baseball team can beat any other. Over the course of the season we often see a basement dwelling team beat a first place powerhouse. Just this season the Washington Nationals took two of three from the Yankees. This is why the season is 162 games long. It helps weed out those anomalies. After such a large sample, double that of the next-closest major American sport, it’s fairly clear which team is the best.
In the past, this large sample was enough. The team with the best record in the AL would play the team with the best record in the NL. That was it — 154 or 162 games was deemed enough to determine the best of the leagues, and then the leagues, which didn’t face each other during the regular season, would face off in the World Series. It made perfect sense. Why throw out the results of so many games with a drawn-out playoff system?
Every September, as season’s end approaches, we hear baseball writers bemoan the current playoff structure. Baseball needs more playoff teams, they write. Recently, both Peter Gammons and Joel Sherman shared this opinion. One more Wild Card team, they argue, would really spice things up. That would not only add another team to the October mix, but would penalize teams for winning the Wild Card and not the division, since the WC teams would face off before the other teams start postseason play. While this would certainly create an incentive to win the division, it is far from the optimal solution.
Adding more playoff teams brings two consequences. First is that it makes the season longer. Even with Gammons’s suggestion, that they start the season early and then play the best of three series through what would have been the season’s final weekend, it would be a scheduling problem. It would also put the WC at such a disadvantage — having to play straight through a playoff round and then straight to the LDS — that even having a Wild Card would become questionable. I don’t like it, but it’s manageable, and is certainly the lesser of the consequences.
Teams get hot, teams get cold. Over the course of a162-game season, luck tends to even out. Adding another non-division-winning team would just add to the crapshoot nature of the playoffs. If the season ended today, Boston and Texas would be the AL Wild Cards. If Texas gets hot at the right time, they can upset Boston and then possibly their first round opponent (the Yankees in this scenario). Then they either continue their hot streak, or fall back to earth and become easy prey for the other LDS winner in the LCS.
This scheme works for fans who like the unpredictable nature of the playoffs. But it doesn’t work at all for those of us who like to see the best teams square off in the World Series. The only way to accomplish that is to abolish divisions and interleague play. It’s the AL vs. the NL, winner take all in each league in anticipation of a final showdown in the World Series. The teams that proved themselves best able to handle the baseball season would be rewarded for their hard work.
No one is going to adopt this, and I can imagine most people reading this would be opposed to such a scheme. For starters, it would probably mean mass contraction. Having fifteen teams in a league with no divisions would mete out the poor teams a bit quicker, and fans of those teams would probably lose interest early in the season. To this end, even going back to the two-division scheme would be an improvement. Then you have a manageable seven teams per division, maybe eight, and can still keep the playoffs short.
As currently constructed, the playoffs favor luck. More teams means a bigger chance of a lesser team getting hot and beating a better team. While I understand the thrill in that for some, it certainly doesn’t lend itself to a World Series pitting the best in the AL against the best in the NL. It’s the luckiest in the AL vs. the luckiest in the NL. Or, rather, the team best built for the playoffs, rather than the team best built for the regular season. If baseball isn’t going to reward the team that played the best over 162 games, then why even play that many?
Doubtless many of you will disagree, and I’d like to hear arguments other than the one I laid out — i.e., that the playoffs as currently constructed are unpredictable. I just think that if you’re playing 162 games, you should reward the teams that played the best in that span, not the teams that played third and fourth best in that span.