Musings on an expanded playoff formatBy
The business of baseball is alive and well right now. The sport is drawing in well over $6 billion in revenues; attendance is at an all-time high; and the players and owners are enjoying unprecedented riches. In fact, considering the game’s prosperity, a casual fan would be hard-pressed to know that the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners expires this year.
In essence, it’s a good time for the CBA to come due. While players might agitate for a higher minimum salary and bigger cut of those billion-dollar revenue totals, the biggest complaints concerning the game’s economic structure right now involve draft pick compensation for free agents and, of course, knocking down the Yankees. The Bombers have not been deterred by revenue sharing or luxury tax payments, and in fact, they’ve kept on spending at higher and higher levels.
But the Yankees are a minor issue in the grand scheme of the game. As David Pinto noted earlier this week, baseball’s big issues “seem to be settled.” Pinto instead wonders if the CBA negotiations might be more macro in scope. How would a group of owners and players redesign the game if they were starting from scratch today? Can, he asks, baseball restructure itself to “give teams more of a chance of making the playoffs?”
It seems as though one of the ways baseball will try to reinvent itself is with another playoff seed. Toward the end of 2010, we heard that a fifth team from each league would qualify for a playoff game or series against the traditional Wild Card team. This would allow more teams to reach October and would sustain interest in the game throughout the fall. Would it help?
Out of idle curiosity tonight, I took a look back at the recent AL playoff picture. While baseball on the whole doesn’t really have a major competitive balance problem, the AL does, and right now, the American League East is ascendant. A team from the East has reached the ALCS in each of the last four seasons. In three of those four years, the AL East team has reached the World Series, and in two of those four years, the AL East has won the World Series.
The Wild Card lately too has been dominated by the American League East. Since 2003, an AL East team — the Yankees, the Red Sox or Rays — has won the Wild Card every year except 2006. Three times since 2003, the two AL East teams have faced each other in the American League Championship Series. In other words, nine of the last 16 ALCS teams have come from one division, and based on the distribution of talen within the American League, it’s tough to see this outcome changing over the next few seasons. The Yankees and Red Sox have the clear financial edge, and the Rays have put together a front office capable of building perennial contenders on a budget. Only the fact that these two teams play each other so often will give anyone else a slight opening.
The extra Wild Card would solve this problem to a certain extent. Only in 2010 and 2008 would three AL East teams have reached the playoffs with a second Wild Card. The AL West would have captured the crown four times and the Central once with a split in 2007. The second Wild Card then would generally ensure that some team that isn’t the Yankees, Red Sox or Rays reaches the playoffs.
So is that a solution to improving baseball? I’m not in love with the wild card nature of a Wild Card playoff, and it would open up the field to a bad team having a hot month. But absent a tricky realignment based perhaps on economic clout or a steeper penalty against the rich teams, it might be the best baseball can do right now. Either way, hearing about creative ways to improve the game will be far better than rumors of a strike. I can easily live with labor peace.