We’re a week into September, and there really isn’t a competitive playoff race left in baseball. The Angels are three games back of Texas in the AL West, but it doesn’t seem like many people (or computers) are giving the Halos much of a chance — Baseball Prospectus, for example, has Texas’ odds of winning the division at 93.7%.
The lack of excitement down the stretch has a lot of people talking about the possibility of expanding the playoffs to include another wildcard team under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. There seems to be a lot of support for the idea lately, which as Jeff Passan points out, makes sense because playoff appearances lead to job security.
It stands to reason that fans of small-market teams or teams in tough divisions would like the idea as well. With another wildcard spot to chase, perhaps Tampa Bay would have something to play for in September. Maybe Toronto could make the postseason someday without having to hope one of Boston or New York has a down season. Maybe Washington can get into an October or two if Bryce Harper pans out and Stephen Strasburg makes a full recovery. Maybe the Brewers’ life without Prince Fielder doesn’t have to mean a life without a postseason appearance.
Fans who are only fans of their teams have every reason to support this new plan, just like General Managers and players have every reason to support it. At the risk of sounding like an old-fashioned traditionalist, though, if you’re a fan of good baseball, why would you support it?
Baseball has always prided itself on its high standards. For most of the game’s history, you had to win your division to get into the postseason. For the past 16 years, it’s been the division winners plus one. For the most part, every fall we get awesome, crisp, exciting playoff games. You know that these are baseball’s best teams, even if it took less than 162 games for that to be clear.
Would adding another playoff team automatically mean the standard of play is lowered? Not necessarily. Tampa Bay is a very good team this year — probably the third- or fourth-best team in the AL this year — and could give anyone a run for their money in the postseason. On the NL side this year, though, that “5th spot” would be a fight between San Francisco and St. Louis — two good, yet flawed, clubs that likely won’t even reach 90 wins.
Last year, an expanded playoff system would have meant golden tickets for Boston (89-73 record, 88-74 Pythagorean record) and San Diego (90-72, team batting line of .246/.317/.371). In 2009, the extra teams would have been Texas (whose Game 1 starter would have been Kevin Millwood or Scott Feldman) and San Francisco (who had a Pythag of 86-76). In 2008, the Mets would have still made the playoffs, even after choking away the “real” wildcard lead in the season’s final weeks.
Those final weeks, by the way, were the most fun those of us who weren’t alive in 1982 ever had following the Brewers. If there was a second wildcard that year, what are the chances we still remember Ryan Braun‘s walkoff grand slam against Pittsburgh during the final week of the season? Or Braun’s go-ahead blast off Bobby Howry and CC Sabathia‘s complete game in the season finale? Hell, I still remember Wes Helms homering to put the Marlins up in the Florida-New York game that the Mets needed to lose for the Brewers to clinch a playoff spot.
The idea behind adding another wildcard spot is to add more excitement to September. Ironically, it would have had the opposite effect in 2008. None of those incredible memories from that year would have been a big deal if that security blanket existed — both the Mets and the Brewers would have made the playoffs rather comfortably (Houston was the next-best team at 86-75). Braun’s home runs would have just been two of his 37 that year. Sabathia might not have been pushed to finish as many games as he did. I sure as hell wouldn’t remember that Wes Helms played for the Marlins in 2008.
It would have been nice to cruise to a playoff spot that season, and who knows, maybe Ben Sheets wouldn’t have felt the need to effectively wreck his career by pitching through injury in September. But personally, I wouldn’t give those memories up for a better chance of getting in. Maybe I’m just being irrational.