Later today, according to a report by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, MLB will announce the immediate application of the new, expanded playoff system it had been discussing since mid-winter. The decision will reverberate across the league, perhaps nowhere with more force than Washington.
A quick refresher: An extra playoff team – a second wild card – from each league will make the postseason. The two wild-card teams from each league will play a one-game playoff, and then the postseason will unfold as usual from there: a five-game divisional series, a seven-game championship series, a seven-game World Series.
The Nationals are among the handful of teams likely to be most affected by the new format, pegged as neither a favorite nor an also-ran. Most objective projections, from Baseball Prospectus to Vegas win-total over-unders, have them winning 84 or 85 games this season. Use that as a baseline. Under the old system, they would have to far exceed their expectations. Under the new format, a couple breaks could easily land them in the one-game playoff.
How significant is the introduction of the new playoff team to postseason chances? Since 1996, the first full-length season with the current divisional format, the 32 wild-card teams have averaged 93.96 wins. Meanwhile, the 32 teams that would have been included in the new system averaged 88.84 wins. The threshold for making the playoffs, overnight, would decrease by about four wins.
In other words, the Nationals, 80-81 last year, might now need eyeglasses rather than a telescope to see the playoffs. Even if the Nationals improve by 10 wins and reach 90, a huge achievement, they would still face long odds to make the playoffs under the old format. Of the 32 wild-card teams since 1996, only three won less than 90 games.
Meanwhile, under the new system, seven times since 1996, a team that won 87 games or fewer would have made the postseason – in 1997, the 84-win Angels would have made the one-game playoff. On the flipside, seven of those of 32 have won 91 or more, led by the 96-win 1999 Reds. In the creamy middle, 18 of the 32 would-be playoff teams since 1996 won 88, 89 or 90 games.
Maybe more important, the threshold to stay in the race, to play the kind of meaningful late-September baseball absent in Washington in two generations, went down even more. The Nationals would have to underachieve by a good margin to not even contend for that second wild-card spot deep into the season.
Commissioner Bud Selig wanted the new system so badly not only because it would increase the price of a postseason television contract, but also because it would keep more cities checking the standings and, therefore, boost attendance.
The new system could affect the Nationals’ long-term plan sooner than expected. With a greater of chance of being in the race, the Nationals also have a greater of chance of trying to add a key piece at the trade deadline. Would they risk a choice prospect to improve their postseason chances? They haven’t had to ask that question in a long time.
The revised playoff system offers greater reward for winning the division, so even teams way out ahead of the pack will have something to play for into late September. But it may punish deserving teams. In the most extreme example, under the new system the 102-win A’s would have been forced into a one-game playoff with the 85-win Twins in 2001.
In baseball’s eyes, the pros of the new system far outweighed the cons. For the Nationals, it may have changed the complexion of their season.
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