Baseball is a sport that compulsively records and venerates its history, so the long memory of baseball fans is no surprise. Despite being the rule in half of baseball for more than 40 years, the existence of the DH is still a very live topic. I'm honestly surprised there isn't a diehard faction that views the use of gloves as an aberration and a disgrace, and advocates a return to the halcyon days of barehanded feeling. [Editor's note: We would like to apologize to the Right and Proper Bare-Handed American Baseball Society for ignoring their existence, and regret the error.]
Given the outsized role of history in baseball, a change made five years ago feels brand new, and in many ways, it is. That's why, despite being introduced for the 2012 postseason, the current playoff structure, featuring two wild cards in each league and a sudden-death elimination game between them, still feels fresh. Not only are there still fans who actively advocate for the old structure, such a return actually feels possible, since this playoff structure has been in existence for such a short period of time. But this season shows that we should be thanking the dearly departed Bud Selig for this change, as it's the only thing keeping the months of August and September fresh.
Here is a quick summary of the teams that remain in contention for the playoffs. In the AL, the Indians and Rangers appear to have relatively stable holds on the Central and West respectively, and the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and possibly Orioles are fighting for the AL East crown. The two of those three that don't take the division are the favorites for both Wild Card spots, though five teams – the Yankees, Tigers, Royals, Astros, and Mariners – are all well within striking distance (more on this subject tomorrow when Steven Martano will handicap the wild card races).
In the NL, the Cubs ran away with the Central back in June, basically, and the Nationals have a similarly secure lead in the East. The Dodgers have pulled past the Giants to take the lead in the West, leaving San Francisco to fight with the Cardinals, Pirates, Marlins, and Mets for the two Wild Card spots. By my count, that's eighteen teams with a legitimate shot at the playoffs as we begin September, and nearly none of them – only the Cubs and the Nationals, and possibly the Rangers – can take their feet off the gas, as the difference between winning the division and claiming a wild card is so stark.
Now, imagine instead that the old playoff structure was in place, with the same standings as today. In the AL, the Indians and Rangers are still comfortable, and Toronto can possibly begin to relax, as their lead is essentially four games instead of two (since there's no difference between making the playoffs via the Wild Card and making them by winning a division). The Red Sox are more nervous, since they can't slip at all, and the Orioles are on the outside trying to break in. On the other hand, the Yankees would have a 5.5 game deficit; the Mariners, 5 games; the Astros and Royals, 4. All those teams are probably still Wild Card contenders under a loose definition of the word, but the playoff picture looks a lot more settled pending a winning streak by some of all of those teams.
Things would be arguably worse in the NL. Again, the division winners all remain comfortable, with the Giants unable to slip up and the Cardinals facing an uphill battle, but the Pirates, Marlins, and Mets all see their chances of making the postseason nearly vanish. Under the current system, 18 teams are within 3.5 games of a playoff spot; under the old system, that falls to 11, with only 5 of those 11 on any kind of bubble. In other words, 2016 is making the expanded playoff system look great. Even setting aside the excitement of the single-game playoff, the narratives its creating and sustaining in the waning months of the season are a great gift to the sport of baseball, to the franchises in question, and to baseball fans.
But! you are shouting at your computer. But! There are downsides! Your computer nods, because you're right, but it's a nod of sympathy instead of agreement, because you're still mostly wrong. For example, one downside of adding teams to the postseason is that it makes it less likely that the best, most talented team will be the one to win the World Series. The thing is, that's not the point of the playoffs, nor has it ever been. If it was, we'd have series that lasted fifteen games instead of five. Or we'd have no series at all, and award the title based only on which team performed the best during the regular season. We don't do that, because it would be boring, and the point of the playoffs is to reduce boredom (and increase late-night October excitement!) as much as possible. Adding a team to the postseason does increase variance, but that's an acceptable price to pay in order to nearly double the number of relevant Septembers for teams across the league.
The other main complaint deployed against the new playoff structure is that it doesn't reward skill. Luis Torres, a fellow writer here at BtBS, described it as "devaluing the regular season", and although this is true in a way, it is not a convincing argument. Last year, the Astros made the playoffs via the second Wild Card with an 86–76 record, and took the Royals to a game 5 in a very exciting divisional series. The Yankees, who occupied the first Wild Card slot with an 87–75 record, lost the one-game playoff and went home only 48 hours after the regular season ended. Did the Yankees' more successful regular season (as compared to the Astros) get devalued? Undoubtedly. But imagine if the old system had remained in place. Those 87-win Yankees would have entered the postseason on an equal footing with the 93-win Blue Jays, or the 95-win Royals. And the 86-win Astros would have stayed home, along with the 68-win Athletics. The 63-win Phillies would have finished the season in precisely the same way the 96-win Cubs would have!
There are, of course, ways to fix those issues other than adding a second Wild Card; getting rid of divisions, for example, would eliminate a lot of the most egregious quirks, but no matter what, a system that transitions from a long regular season to a short playoff is going to have to draw the line somewhere. Anytime there's a line, there are going to be close cases on either side of the line that get screwed. The addition of the second Wild Card, and of the single-game playoff, is a move from a line to a gradient, a system where not only does it matter whether you clear the line or not, it matters how much you clear it by. If you're a fan of fairness, that should make you thrilled!
Ultimately, however, if you're a fan of fairness, I suspect the playoffs just might not be right for you. The playoffs aren't about fairness. They shouldn't be unfair, but only because that wouldn't be exciting, and excitement and entertainment is the only thing that matters after game 162. The playoffs are about punches in the gut, shocking reversals that are brutally, crushingly unfair. Or, from the other perspective, that are transcendently, sublimely unfair.
It's September. That means it's almost October, which means it's almost the playoffs. They aren't going to be fair – they never are – but goodness will they be exciting.
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Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.