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New baseball playoff format fails to create more exciting pennant races

Updated on October 2, 2012

Last season the American League had one of the most exciting finishes in history, with the Orioles defeating the Red Sox on the final day and about two minutes later Tampa Bay beating the Yankees to push the Rays into the playoffs as the wild card team ahead of Boston.

In an effort to make things that exciting every single year, Commissioner Bud Selig proposed and everyone agreed to add a second wild card team. The way it works, the two wild card teams will meet in a one-game playoff, and the winner will then move into the regular best-of-five first round playoffs and it will be exciting because Bud said so.

This new format has several points – it creates extra excitement by putting more teams in the playoff hunt; it creates more incentive to win the division so that you’re automatically in; and it gives the division winner an added advantage since the wild card teams will undoubtedly use their best pitcher in the first playoff game.

AL just as exciting, NL less so

So once again the American League race is coming to the wire, while the National League, ah, not so much. Even without the new format, the AL would be interesting. The Yankees and Orioles would still be fighting for the division title, but with the added fight with Oakland for the wild card. Oakland would still be battling Texas for first and Detroit and Chicago would be doing whatever macabre dance they’re doing in the Central. The new format may be making the East Division battle a little more intense, but it’d be pretty good under the old format.

In the National League, nothing changed much from how it would have been last season except one more team gets in. In fact, last year was more exciting in the National League with St. Louis and Atlanta battling for the wild card spot.

Old league alignments created more tension

Baseball always seems to be looking for ways to make the playoffs more exciting by adding more teams which usually turns out to make it less intense.

Nothing was more intense than the no-division, winner-take-all format that baseball used from 1901-68. You either won the league and went to the World Series or you packed your gear and prepared for an off-season hunting trip.

The two-division format also had its share of tenseness. If you won your division, you got to play the best team in the other division for the chance to play in the World Series. Now you had to face another team but still, almost winner-take-all.

But under the new format, a team could win two series and still not make it to the World Series. There’s less of the winner-take-all tenseness.

How 2012 would look with no divisions

Just for kicks, I wondered how the races would look if we still had the old no-division, winner-take-all format.

American League
Record
 
National League
Record
 
New York
93-67
 
Washington
96-64
 
Texas
93-67
 
Cincinnati
96-64
 
Baltimore
92-68
 
San Francisco
93-67
 
Oakland
92-68
 
Atlanta
93-67
 
Los Angeles
89-71
 
St. Louis
87-73
 
Tampa Bay
89-71
 
Los Angeles
85-75
 
Detroit
87-73
 
Milwaukee
82-78
 
Chicago
84-76
 
Philadelphia
81-79
 
Seattle
73-87
 
Arizona
80-80
 
Kansas City
71-89
 
Pittsburgh
78-82
 
Toronto
71-89
 
San Diego
75-85
 
Boston
69-91
 
New York
73-87
 
Cleveland
67-93
 
Miami
68-92
 
Minnesota
66-94
 
Colorado
63-97
 
 
 
 
Chicago
60-100
 
 
 
 
Houston
54-106
 

Wow. That would be exciting, huh? The American League would have Texas and New York tied for first and Baltimore and Oakland just a game back with two games to go. Imagine the tension with four teams fighting for the all-or-nothing chance to go to the World Series.

And the National League would be almost as exciting, Washington and Cincinnati tied for first with two games remaining. And the last week would have been pretty tense, too, with San Francisco and Atlanta still very much in the hunt. That would have been a nice change from the ho-hum feel the NL had the past two weeks.

How 2012 would look with two divisions

So how would things look if we kept the leagues in two divisions, the way they were pre-1994? I had to fudge a little since a couple of teams were added and Milwaukee switched leagues but I kept them as close as possible (yes, I know Atlanta and Cincinnati are east of some of the teams in the East Division, but apparently baseball didn’t know that since they had been in the West ever since baseball went to two divisions).

American League
Record
 
National League
Record
East
 
 
East
 
New York
93-67
 
Washington
96-64
Baltimore
92-68
 
St. Louis
87-73
Tampa Bay
89-71
 
Milwaukee
82-78
Detroit
87-73
 
Philadelphia
81-79
Toronto
71-89
 
Pittsburgh
78-82
Boston
69-91
 
New York
73-87
Cleveland
67-93
 
Miami
68-92
 
 
 
Chicago
60-100
West
 
 
West
 
Texas
93-67
 
Cincinnati
96-64
Oakland
92-68
 
San Francisco
93-67
Los Angeles
89-71
 
Atlanta
93-67
Chicago
84-76
 
Los Angeles
85-75
Seattle
73-87
 
Arizona
80-80
Kansas City
71-89
 
San Diego
75-85
Minnesota
66-94
 
Colorado
63-97
 
 
 
Houston
54-106

OK, the AL is still pretty exciting, with New York and Baltimore battling for East title and Texas and Oakland vying for the West. While this is pretty much how it is in 2012, the difference here would be that it’s game over for whoever finishes second in the divisions. Only the two division winners would advance to the post-season. That would make these final two games pretty tense.

In the NL, things would pretty much be over – Washington and Cincinnati would be playing for a chance to head to the World Series. The East wouldn’t have been much of a contest, but the West would have provided some interesting scenarios heading toward the end of the season, with the Giants and Braves still having a chance with less than a week to go.

New format fails

Even under the format from last year, with just one wild card, the AL race would be pretty intense. Only Detroit, with the worst record among the contenders, would be assured a spot. New York and Baltimore would still be fighting for the East title and the Rangers and A’s for the West. The difference is that now all four of them are assured of a shot at the World Series, where last year only one of the teams finishing second would go on.

So if the goal is to make the races more intense, the new format seems to fail. Yes, it sucks to have to play in a one-game playoff but at least you still have a chance to go on. The Cardinals, who are nine games worse than Washington and Cincinnati, still have a shot (and should some twist of fate put the Dodgers into the final wild card spot, the odds are that the final wild card team would be 10 or more games worse). While that makes things more exciting for St. Louis fans, I’m not sure it ups the excitement level throughout the rest of baseball. If anything, it waters down the excitement level of fans in Washington who realize their great season may mean nothing in another week.

To add excitement change the fans

If Bud Selig wants to add excitement to the post-season then he should change how Fox broadcasts the games (starting with replacing Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, but I’ll be writing plenty about that over the next few weeks). Let’s have fewer tidbits about what Josh Hamilton likes on his pizza and explain more about why his swing works or doesn’t work. Let’s have fewer extreme pore-popping close-ups of players in the dugout during tense situations and more explanation about why it’s a tense situation. Let’s have fewer shots of Fox celebrities in the stands between pitches and more shots of defensive positioning and explanations of the strategies the teams are employing.

In other words, let’s build excitement for the game and create more true fans of the game instead of just adding more teams so a few more casual fans will pay slightly more attention for a little bit longer. True fans won’t quit paying attention to the post-season just because their team is no longer in the hunt.

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    • petertebin profile image

      petertebin 4 years ago from Maryland

      Love the hub! I totally believe they should do away with the divisions. Now with full length interleague schedule from the start of the season starting next season with the Astros moving to the American League. I also believe in the balanced schedule across the league as for a team that has to say the Yankees more then the Royals each season. Now I thought the excitement was great and if they didn't add that extra wild card spot we wouldn't have the Dodgers and Cardinals fighting for that last spot tonight!