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Major League Baseball and the pursuit of mediocrity

By diluting the playoff field, Major League Baseball has offered us something more

MLB: Texas Rangers at Los Angeles Angels
When it comes to the playoffs, opening the door to mediocrity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

When I write articles for Beyond the Box Score, I try not to argue against a straw man. We’re obviously a saber-friendly website, and our writers rely on data rather than conjecture to make their points. It does our audience no good to write about how RBI and ERA are poor measures of player performance: Our readers, or at least the vast majority of them, already know that, and spending 1000 words to make the point is a waste of virtual space.

For this article, however, I’m a little concerned that I may be arguing against a straw man. I don’t think I am. My feeling, based on the baseball writing and opining I see across the Internet, is that there is a legitimate discrepancy in opinion on this topic, even if that discrepancy is generational more than anything else.

Of course, it also wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong.

Either way, take a look at the AL Wild Card standings. You’ll see ten teams within shouting distance of the two wild card slots. Only three of the ten teams have a positive run differential.

By all accounts, the nine wild card “contenders” are at best mediocre ball clubs. To some fans/straw men, the fact that one team from this group will get a chance to play a one game playoff and potentially more is an affront to the sport. The idea that one of these teams could end up beating the Astros in the ALDS after the Astros proved their vast superiority over 162 game season is a travesty.

Well, I’m here to tell you the straw men are wrong. The second wild card slot, and the incentives it provides to MLB’s mediocre, is one of the best features of the game today. Beyond that, the introduction of the ordinary, the unremarkable, the lackluster teams into the postseason mix is well worth the increased likelihood the team ultimately crowned champion will not be the best team, or anywhere close to it.

I mentioned above that the disagreement, to the extent one exists, is generational. Baseball has progressed (or regressed depending on who you ask) from allowing just two teams into the playoffs, to four teams, to eight teams, to the current ten. As a child of the nineties, the only playoff baseball I recognize has featured at least eight teams. To me, a smaller playoff field, like interleague play, feels like a vestige of baseball from a time before multibillion-dollar TV contracts and Internet streaming rights.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins
Whether the Minnesota Twins can overcome the loss of slugger Miguel Sano is one of baseball’s interesting subplots made possible by the expanded playoff field.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

But there are reasons beyond the year in which I was born that make me believe that the inclusion of mediocre teams in the playoff chase is good for the game.

The first reason is a utilitarian one. Simply put, more playoff spots means more contending teams, which means more games with playoff implications, which means more fans across the country will be able to watch their favorite team play meaningful games deeper into September.

Baseball remains a regional sport to many across the country. Fans care primarily about how their team is doing, and less so about the overall league picture. Whatever loss there is to Dodgers and Astros fans in terms of their teams’ games not meaning much down the stretch because they are so far ahead in the standings, it’s more than made up for by the large swaths of fans who will be able to enjoy competitive, meaningful baseball due to the expanded playoff field.

The other benefit of the expanded playoff field is more personal to me. In my opinion, mediocrity in sports can often be more interesting than greatness.

Greatness is wonderful. It should be recognized and celebrated. Mediocrity in and of itself is not inherently better than greatness. The observer, be she hardcore or casual, would probably prefer to watch a tightly played contest featuring the best of the best rather than a sloppy affair featuring something less.

But greatness is also predicable. We know the Los Angeles Dodgers are great. We know the Houston Astros are great. Thos teams don’t challenge us to understand how they’ve reached this point of the season and where they project to go from here.

But the teams fighting for the second AL wild card slot? Those teams are unpredictable. Those teams will challenge us to assess just how good they actually are and whether any of them can rise above the muck to earn that coveted playoff spot.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays
Will the Tampa Bay Rays score a run tomorrow? Multiple runs? Stay tuned to find out!
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Where some may see only mediocrity, intrigue lies. Do the Twins have enough starting pitching to survive being without Miguel Sano for the next couple weeks? Is the greatness of Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons enough to lift an otherwise dreary Angels team to a higher plane? Can the Royals defy the projection systems one last time before Satan’s check comes due this offseason? Can the Mariners survive injuries to nearly every player on their team? Will the Rays score a run tomorrow?

Without the expanded playoff field, these questions wouldn’t matter. They would be mere footnotes to a long season hurtling towards an inevitable Dodgers-Astros matchup. But by diluting the playoffs, we introduce richness in the form of intrigue, intrigue that we would not have otherwise.