Just last week at the Winter Meetings, baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced that baseball will likely move forward with playoff expansion for 2010. [mlb.com ]. This is not a particularly good decision, and it seems to be motivated almost exclusively by a desire to make more money for people who are already absurdly rich at the cost of deflating a great product.
This is hardly new in sports (I wrote about some NCAA football rule changes back in 2008), but it's reprehensible every time it comes up. This proposal would generate some more gate and television revenue while watering down the playoffs and awarding a fairly outrageous advantage to a division winner.
Bud, ever the master strategist, had this to offer: "Eight is a very fair number, but so is 10."
Wham! The logic train has come through on the track, steaming over all the opposition. If eight teams is fair, so is ten! QED!
Jayson Stark came out with a column back in mid-September that supports it on the grounds that it incentivizes a team playing for first place, because it gives division winners a bigger advantage. In general, Jayson Stark knows what he's talking about and the man obviously has a depth of baseball knowledge. But I don't think he's accurate here: while it could increase September excitement, do we really need to invite a worse team to the playoffs just to get the Wild-Card team to try harder?
And Jayson's article (which came out on September 10), was ostensibly written with the obvious example of the Yankees and Rays, who were both assured of a playoff spot, but were fighting for a division crown. Sure, the new system would've made their run for the division title a little more exciting ... by giving the distant-third-place Red Sox a chance to knock one of them them out?
Not to mention that this proposed system would have completely eliminated the drama in the National League this year, when the Braves, Padres and Giants all entered the last weekend knowing that only two would make the playoffs. That was an exciting last day of the season, one that would've been meaningless under the new system.
Had the system been in place this year, the Red Sox and Padres would have made the playoffs. While these teams are decent teams (unlike, say, the under .500 record which gets you into the NBA playoffs), I don't see a strong argument for these teams on the basis of fairness. In fact, not a single article I've read justifies this move on account of giving a good team the chance to win the World Series.
In fact, there are really no justifications offered for this other than it would "increase playoff drama" and "make division winners count for more", both of which, IMO, are bullshit.
If this is adopted, the division winner who would play the winner of the Wild-Card round would have a rested staff ready to face an opponent who just spent their top two or three pitchers. Although that would incentivize a team's desire to win home-field advantage, that seems wildly unfair to the division winner with the second-best record, who wouldn't get to face the WC team.
The other three major sports all have a playoff system which rewards nearly half the league with a playoff spot. This results in bloated playoffs (which nobody likes) that drag on for months at a time. The other sports have no sense of end-of-season drama, since all the good teams are assured of a playoff spot, and the only teams battling for entry are teams that don't really deserve to be there.
Baseball should be proud of its differences from the other major sports. Adding playoff teams is never going to increase the playoff drama. It's only going to increase the revenues going into the hands of owners.