While I have never actually written a letter to MLB expressing my ideas for change, there have been two major changes I have lobbied for while discussing the sport with my peers. Apparently, the minds behind professional baseball have finally realized what I have found obvious for years, as both of those changes are now set to take shape.
Based purely on mathematics, the MLB playoffs are the toughest to qualify for among the four major professional sports leagues. Only eight of the league’s 30 teams, barely more than one out of every four teams, make the playoffs. In contrast, 12 of the NFL’s 32 teams making its playoffs, while more than half make the playoffs in the NBA and NHL, with 16 out of each league’s 30 teams qualifying.
The lack of available playoff spots heightens the importance for a balanced playing field that presents each team with a fair opportunity to make the postseason. This has not been the case due to MLB’s present divisional structure, with only four teams in the American League West, six teams in the National League Central, and five teams in the other four divisions.
The logical transition has always been to move a team from the NL Central to the AL West, and my suggestion has been the Houston Astros. The Astros are the perfect choice to make this move. They have been in existence since 1962, but have no traditional rivalries within the National League. By moving the Astros to the AL West, a natural in-state rivalry is formed between the Astros and Texas Rangers.
MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced last week that the Astros will move to the American League in 2013, in accordance with the sale of the Astros franchise to Jim Crane. This creates a balance, at least mathematically, throughout the MLB, as both leagues will have 15 teams, and all six divisions will have 5 teams.
However, in a sport where large-market teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox tend to make the playoffs perennially, having just eight playoff spots would still present an overly difficult challenge for many teams to make the postseason. While the prestige of making the postseason is certainly amplified by the difficulty of obtaining a playoff berth, I believe the leagues to be legitimately strong enough to warrant adding a fifth team from both the American and National Leagues to the postseason.
Selig also announced last week that the MLB owners have approved an additional wild-card team for each league. In the expanded playoff format, each league will send its three division winners and two wild-card teams to the postseason, with the two wild-card teams playing in a one-game playoff to earn a berth into the standard three-tiered bracket.
The timing of this decision is somewhat coincidental. This past season, the final day of the regular season ended up being the season’s most exciting night, with both the AL and NL wild-card races coming down to the final games. By adding a second wild-card team, and having the annual one-game playoffs to determine a berth in the postseason bracket, the tremendous drama those single-game scenarios create will now be an annual occurrence following the regular season.
Even with exactly one out of every three teams making the MLB playoffs once this expansion is implemented, their postseason will still be the most exclusive among the four major professional sports leagues. Making the playoffs will continue to carry prestige. While a league without salary restrictions or revenue sharing will never have an equal playing field, the combination of these two big moves by the MLB go a long way in balancing the opportunity for each of its 30 teams to make it to the postseason.
Baseball is known for its attention to tradition and its resistance to change. The MLB made a great decision by averting its stance and finally making these adjustments, which should have been made years ago.