Passan seems most upset that the Commissioner, owners, and players are united in support of the expansion due to their financial interests. More playoffs mean more dollars, which will be spread amongst them. I have trouble finding fault with this motivation. After all, I’m an economist, I’ve been repeating Adam Smith’s famous words to students for years.
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.
Of course, Selig and friends want more money. The way they get it is by making fans happy by giving fans the baseball they want. If more playoffs result in more happiness, then revenue will go up. I think this is a good thing. Now, some fans may be made less happy, but overall we’re happier with more baseball. It’s not baseball versus the dollar.
Passan is also concerned that expanding the playoffs will dilute the sanctity of the regular season. (I’ve also heard this argument used to support the BCS format in college football, and I can’t help but point out that Passan co-wrote the book Death to the BCS.) For example, it could affect the playoff races in new ways.
Imagine the following: The Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees enter the season’s last week with 95 wins apiece. The Boston Red Sox, with 90 wins, hold a comfortable lead for the second wild-card spot, and Minnesota and Texas, each with 90 wins, have wrapped up their divisions. Suddenly, the only teams playing for something in that last week are the two best in the league. They will do everything they can to avoid a wild-card spot despite having clinched playoff spots already. Empty their rotations. Play full bore. A five-game series in the first round is already a crapshoot. A three-game series would be a complete toss-up.
Let’s say the Yankees win the AL East. The Rays exhausted their pitching staff while a team they were five games better than during the regular season – the six-month-long, 162-game regular season – was able to set up its rotation and rest its players.
And that’s fair how, exactly?
But, the situation is not just one-sided. What if all the division titles have been decided? Then potential Wild Card teams have little to play for. I know that the last two weeks of Braves baseball this year would have been quite dull after falling out of contention for the NL East. Picking my daughter up from school to drive her straight to Turner Field to watch a de facto exhibition game wouldn’t have been as exciting joining the cheers of a playoff race that we got to see. I’m actually more intrigued by the fact that already clinching teams will be playing real baseball down the stretch, as they should.
I also like having more playoffs. It’s more baseball for me to watch, and it provides additional opportunities for more teams to get a taste of the playoffs. For all the concern over the financial determinism of the big-market teams holding an unfair advantage, lowering the bar for entrance into the playoffs allows small-market teams an opportunity to feel the excitement of playoff baseball, and compete on a level where they can rise up over high-payroll Goliaths. The regular season tells us whom the best teams are, the playoffs are about something else, something else that is good. Here is an excerpt on the playoffs from my new book.
While it is common to judge teams by their post-season success, the performance over five-game and two seven-game series tells us less about the quality of a team than a 162-game season. The laws of probability allow plenty of room for the best not to rise to the top in the current playoff format. For example, assume there is a series between two unevenly-talented teams, and the superior team has a 55-percent probability of winning any game against the inferior opponent. In a best-of-seven contest the inferior team would still be expected to emerge as the champion 40 percent of the time. It would take 23 games for the inferior team to have less than a 5-percent chance of winning more games than the superior team.1 Statisticians Jim Albert and Jay Bennett estimate that the best team in the league has a 75-percent chance of making the playoffs, but only a 21-percent chance of wining the World Series.
The short-series playoff format is an institution that fuels the uncertainty of competition, which breeds interest and excitement in the sport. High-payroll clubs like the Yankees do have an advantage over those with low budgets, but the disparity is one that is frequently overcome with the help good management and chance. You have to be good enough to get to the playoffs, but once you get there, the playoff format gives every team a decent chance of winning. Even though the Yankees can build the best team in baseball, it does not guarantee a World Series victory. Despite wining an average of 96.5 games per season from 2000 to 2010, the team captured only two World Series.
As a side note, the post-season performance column of Table 6.1 reveals another fact about the recent competitiveness in the league. 23 different teams made the playoffs during these seasons—that’s three-fourths of the league! That so many teams have played beyond the regular season over such a short period of time indicates that the league is meeting the competitive balance standard laid out by Commissioner Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon Panel: “every well-run club has a regularly recurring reasonable hope of reaching postseason play.” (p. 125, Hot Stove Economics)
And though I favor expanding the playoffs, I don’t think we should expand them forever. There are diminishing returns to adding teams. If we let everyone in, the regular season will lose it’s luster. Going from eight to ten teams doesn’t bother me. Some playoff races may disappear, but others will rise up. Only good teams will make the playoffs, but teams at a financial disadvantage have more opportunities to experience playoff baseball. In the end, it’s a subjective argument. If you want to go back to NL and AL champions determined solely by records, I have no problem with that. But, I disagree with you, and I think there is a good argument to be made for expanding the playoffs.