A potential problem that baseball has during its long season is that there are a great many games that mean next to nothing for the majority of fan bases. About twelve of thirty teams had some hope to make the playoffs on September 1st. By now the group has narrow down to five interesting teams: Red Sox, Rays, Angels, Braves, and Cardinals. Everyone else is too far from each other or has basically sealed up their divisions. Maybe it is a unique season in that there is so little intrigue and maybe a Baltimore-centric bias exists here, but this seems like a fairly common occurrence. Fans of the game may be thrilled, but fans of a team (and I think there are more of them) are not and tune out.
Football, basketball, and hockey recognized similar issues in their respective histories and tried to make the games more broadly interesting by adding the number of playoff teams. It works in football. A single game is actually a good indication of who the better team might be and home field advantage significantly impacts those games. In basketball, I don't think it works as the post-season drags on forever. Basketball seems to require more games to show who is a better team, but it may also simply be a TV money grab. Hockey? I guess it is similar. I do not follow pro basketball or hockey much.
Baseball, on the other hand, cannot do this. Anything can happen in a seven game series as Billy Beane can attest...the Cardinals, too. The best team does not always win in a sport that needs about all 162 games to figure out which teams are the best. Baseball needs a lot of events to say much of anything. Think of it like this...if a running back pulls in 1500 yards in sixteen games, it means a lot. You expect him to be a pretty good running back. If a baseball player hits .350 with power over sixteen games, you are not going to put much stock in it. Even if you look at it as 300 carries, a batter with 300 at bats will fool you. In 2010, Wilson Betemit had 315 plate appearances and a 989 OPS (.385 wOBA). Baseball simply requires a greater sample size, so increasing the number of teams in traditional playoff series will likely not result in satisfying the need to crown a team at the end of the year.
So how do you:
1) Keep the interest of as many teams as possible,
2) Keep the regular season in length,
3) Keep the post-season in length,
4) Give significant advantages to teams that did well during the season, and
5) Respect divisions with greater levels of competition?
Here is my response: Use a weighted system to have the playoffs expanded to twenty teams. This seems absurd and it probably is, but let us use the current September 24, 2011 standings for the AL.
The way this system will work is in this way:
Seed 1: Divisional winner with best outside the division record
Seed 2: Divisional winner with second best outside the division record
Seed 3: Divisional winner with the third best outside the division record
Seed 4-10: Remaining teams in order of best outside the division record.
Two doubleheaders with seeds 5-10. The doubleheaders will take place in the home stadium of the 5th and 6th seeds. The afternoon game will be played between 7th and 10th or 8th and 9th seeds. The evening game will take place against the home teams (5th or 6th seeds).
This would provide for a pretty exciting day of baseball with the lowest ranking teams having to compete in a difficult situation to advance onward. The afternoon game should be fairly even with the teams both as road teams, but the evening game will be grueling. The afternoon winners will have to deal with fatigue, spent arms in the bullpen, a team with a better record on a balanced schedule, and the disadvantage of being on the road (between an equally matched pair of teams, the home team wins about 53% of the time in baseball).
In the current framework, really only the 5th and 6th place teams here would likely be in a hunt for a wildcard or a weak division championship. This is likely to keep competition fierce as a few more wins could lead to a 4th place rank and outside of this crazy one day setup and a few more losses puts you on the road and in need of sweeping a difficult doubleheader. Likewise, teams at the lower stretch of the bracket are fighting for home field advantage or just the simple chance of getting into the playoffs. I think it would be a great win for baseball to have such a wild and inclusive day of meaningful games as well as the intrigue that would manifest in the weeks before.
September 30 - October 5
The winners of the play in round must then fly off to begin playing the next round as a road team. The play in winners, of course, as allowed to change their rosters as needed. I imagine the play in game would include a great number of relievers. The second round will be a best of five series at the home of the 3rd and 4th seeds. The entire series will be played at these locations. This gives a great advantage for the 3rd and 4th seeds with an extra day off to get their pitchers on the right rest and to give them home field for the entire time. It also gives the 3rd and 4th seeds home dates because in the next round, they will have them.
October 6 - October 11
The winners of the second round will fly off to the home stadiums of the 1st and 2nd seeded teams. This too will be a five game series with the top seeds having the luxury of the entire series at home. This gives advantages to being the 1st or 2nd seeded team as they get an entire week off to get their pitchers in order and heal minor injuries. They also retain home field advantage throughout this series and maintain the gate they would have seen in the current format.
October 12 - October 20
The League Champion Series would work the same way as it does now.
October 22 - October 31
The World Series would work the same way as it does now.
The current standings using this format:
1: New York Yankees (.625 outside of division; 45-27 outside of division)
2: Texas Rangers (.540; 47-40)
3: Detroit Tigers (.522; 36-33)
4: Boston Red Sox (.583; 42-30)
5: Toronto Blue Jays (.565; 39-30)
6: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (.529; 46-41)
7: Tampa Bay Rays (.514; 37-35)
8: Chicago White Sox (.493; 34-35)
9: Baltimore Orioles (.478; 33-36)
10: Kansas City Royals (.472; 34-38)
There only a couple out of division games left as the current schedule is designed to make the most of largely non-existent divisional races. For instance, there are no bubble teams at the edge of the playoffs, but this certainly was not the case a week ago. Now, the Orioles are in the playoffs in this scenario because the next two teams outside of the top ten are the Oakland Athletics (.460; 40-47) and the Cleveland Indians (.458; 33-39) who no longer have any outside of the division games remaining. The worst the Orioles can do is .465 if their next two games with Detroit go poorly. The Royals also no longer have outside the division games left. The the Orioles won their next two, they would tie White Sox for the 8th seed.
AL East Division Winner Race
This is actually an interesting race. At the moment, the Yankees and Rays are tied with divisional records of 37-29 with Boston at 36-30. This would be an amazing end of the season. You can see above what it means if the Yankees win. Boston gets a bye and home field advantage in the second round with the Rays being on the road in the difficult first round. If Boston wins the division, then the Yankees get only the first round bye and home field in the second round with the Rays in the same predicament. However, if the Rays win they leap frog several seeds to the third seed with Texas and Detroit moving to the first two seeds. Yankees get the fourth seed and Boston is left with a home field advantage only in the first round. To say this would be exciting would be an understatement.
The first problem here is that I have absolutely no control over this process and I figure none of my readers do as well. That might be the only problem. I do think though that this set up would make baseball far more interesting to most fan bases and provide a fair structure that rewards teams for good play within their divisions and abroad. This may make it easier for free agents who worry about the playoffs to take more of a chance with teams in difficult divisions.
Although when I began this endeavor I never expected the Orioles to be in a position to actually be included in this setup. However, they did surprisingly well (from my perspective) outside of the AL East. I think that I have been relatively without bias here.