Playoffs in sports are an American invention.
Soccer leagues throughout the world operate on a system where the regular season championship is based on games against all the teams in the league. When the regular season is over, a champion is determined.
But American sports brought in the concept that the regular season is just a weeding out process, that at the end of the regular season a select few teams would be invited to a post-season tournament of spots to determine the champion.
Today, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League invite more than of its 30 teams into the post-season. Sixteen NBA and NHL teams advance to the playoffs, which is 53.3 percent of all teams.
The National Football League invites each of eight division winners plus two wild card teams from each of two conferences into the playoffs. That’s 12 teams of a 32-team league, which is 37.5 percent, which looks good against the NBA and NHL examples.
But until a couple of years ago, Major League Baseball had them all beat in the exclusivity department. With 30 teams, MLB invited three division winners in each of two conferences and one wild card, which totaled eight teams, or 26.6 percent of its teams, to the post-season.
Recently, MLB decided to add a wild card team to each conference playoff, for a total of 10 teams in the playoff. That raises its percentage to 33.3 percent of its 30 teams getting the playoffs, which is still better than the rates of other leagues.
And that decision has worked out well.
As of July 31, when the Major League Baseball trading deadline rolls around, only four teams in the 15-team American League are more than five games out of a wild card position. In the National League, it is a little more exclusive, with eight teams seemingly out of contention.
But that means 18 of 30 teams consider themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot at the time when teams are deciding whether to sell talent to the contenders are buy talent from non-contenders. The second wild card position, which adds at least half a dozen “contenders” to the field, means that teams with talent they need to get rid of are in the catbird seat, with more buyers competing against each other to stay competitively relevant.
While the idea of adding wild card teams makes a mockery of much of the regular season, in baseball’s case, the plan has worked.
Now, of course, the NFL is thinking about adding yet another wild card team to its playoff scene, which would put 14 of its 32 teams in the post-season, and that is too many (43.75 percent).
Having more than half the teams in a position to chase a post-season bid at the midseason point is a great thing. Having a significant majority of the teams actually eliminated from the post-season is also a good thing.
At this point, baseball has it right. Have 30 teams chase 10 spots, creating multiple teams at the end of the season doing everything they can to get one more win, or avoid one more loss.
Congratulations to baseball for making this fix. Now do something about the strike zone.