Why we cannot allow expanded MLB playoffs

Not all champions deserve our respect.  In the four major American sports, we have two world series winners that are especially egregious—and both were only possible because division winners earn an automatic berth. I am talking, of course, about the 1987 Minnesota Twins and the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, who won 85 and 83 games respectively with a -20 and and +21 run differential. Yet we call them champion because they won 8 or 11 games at the right time.

It seems self-evident that the point of sports is to crown the best and most deserving team as champion. Sometimes, especially if you can’t/don’t have balanced schedules, a playoff system is appropriate. But the playoffs, in baseball especially, are a crapshoot. Mediocre baseball teams win short series all of the time—and a 7 game series is short. So, if you want to people to actually care about the winner, you have to invite only those teams with a credible claim of being the best.

In my dreams, the number of playoff teams is actually variable each year: some years, we wouldn’t need a playoff at all. It doesn’t even have to be subjective: if a team has a 4-game lead and a winning record vs. each of the remaining playoff teams, give them the trophy.

But if you’re going to have a playoff, you better do it right. If the playoffs are too small, like college football during the BCS era and even now in the 4 team playoff era, teams that have a legitimate claim are not included.1

On the other hand, if the playoffs are too large, or you give every division winner an automatic berth, you will occasionally have an undeserving champion, like the 2007/2011 New York Giants, 2012 LA Kings, or 1973 Mets who won the NL pennant. And before anyone yells at me about the New York Giants, the 2007 team went 0-4 vs. Cowboys/Packers/Patriots in the regular season while the 2011 team went 1/3 vs the Patriots/Packers/49’ers/Saints in the regular season. They lost head-to-head vs. the best teams and didn’t perform any better vs. everyone else.

Unique among the big 4 sports leagues, since the NBA and ABA merger, the NBA doesn’t have a single undeserving champion. The reason the NBA can get away with having a 16 team playoffs is because the first round is chalk —and if there’s a fluke, that random team has no chance at actually winning the title. Partly it’s because the NBA doesn’t have parity, but it’s partly because the best teams win 7-game basketball series way, way more often than the best baseball teams do.2

But allowing expanded playoffs would have much, much worse consequences to baseball long-term than just an occasional undeserving World Series winner.

Baseball organizations are run by smart people who respond to incentives.  There are some organizations and owners who are irredeemable and only care about their own profit maximization. If you’re rich enough to buy a successful basketball team and accept $250,000,000 in taxpayer money, you should be willing to pay the luxury tax. The larger problem is that EVEN THOSE TEAMS WHICH WANT TO MAXIMIZE THEIR PROBABILITY OF WINNING A CHAMPIONSHIP WON’T CARE ABOUT TEAM QUALITY.

By further removing the link between team quality and championship probability, teams are going to respond by not caring about regular season wins, and, ultimately, not caring about having quality players. And when even the smart teams stop caring about wins and losses, it won’t be long before I stop caring too.

Manfred once called the Commissioner’s Trophy “a piece of metal.”3 If we let MLB expand its playoffs, so will everyone else.

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