Watching college football the last two weekends, I couldn’t help but keep asking myself: Why does that sport still only allow four teams into its top-level playoff? How much better would it be if every major conference winner automatically qualified, plus two at-large teams and the highest-ranked team from one of the other conferences, making up an eight-team bracket?
Which also got me thinking how baseball really does have its postseason system right at the moment. Ten of the sport’s 30 clubs qualify, with all division winners automatically in and each league’s two wild cards facing each other for the right to advance.
(I’d throw in one gripe here and say I wish the wild card was a best-of-three series, with the higher seed hosting all three games, instead of the do-or-die single game. But I get that it’s way more dramatic and draws better television ratings this way, so I understand why that hasn’t changed to date.)
So consider me among those who would be awfully discouraged if at some point Major League Baseball chooses to expand the field as it apparently has proposed in the last year, either to 12 or even 14 teams. Sorry, but there’s just no need for that, from a competitive standpoint.
Teams should have to earn their way into the postseason, not back their way in with mediocre records. In the NBA and NHL, 16 teams (half the league) qualify, some of those teams often owning losing records. The NFL expanded from 12 to 14 teams last year, which means 44 percent of the league makes it to the postseason, including an 8-8 club and a 7-9 club (albeit the NFC East champion Washington Football Team).
You don’t find that kind of development in baseball. Sure, every once in a while you get a division champ or a second wild card with 85 to 87 wins, but that remains the exception to the rule. And it’s also rare for a legitimately good team to miss the postseason.
The 91-win Blue Jays and 90-win Mariners did come up just short this year, as did 93-win Cleveland in 2019. But for the most part, we’re talking about teams with win totals in the 80s. The average win total of the American League team that came closest to reaching the postseason without qualifying since 2012 (when the field expanded to 12) is 88.1
The average win total for the National League’s closest qualifier? A pedestrian 85.2 wins. Only one NL club with more than 86 wins has failed to make the playoffs since 2012: the 88-win Cardinals in 2018.
It shouldn’t be easy to make the postseason. That’s what makes the 162-game regular season so great. You get six months to prove your worth, and if you haven’t proven it by then, you don’t deserve to advance.
Do you think the 2013 Nationals were shortchanged by missing the playoffs? That underachieving club finished 86-76, spoiling manager Davey Johnson’s goal of “World Series or bust.” Except it still would’ve been enough to take the final wild card berth in a 12-team field.
The situation would’ve been even worse in the AL in 2017, when there would’ve been a three-way tie for the third wild card berth between the Rays, Royals and Angels, who all finished 80-82. Yep, they would’ve needed to hold a three-way tiebreaker to determine which of these losing teams advanced to the postseason.
Maybe it’s inevitable that baseball will expand the playoff field one of these years. Maybe there’s just too much revenue to be made from it.
But if it does come to pass, that’ll be the only reason behind it. Because you can’t make a compelling argument it would be done to ensure more quality ballclubs get to play in October.