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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

November 17, 2011 at 12:48 PM

Mariners’ playoff odds about to go up, despite Astros addition to division

Numerous people — including myself — have noted that the addition of the Astros to the American League West in 2013 (which became official today) will have a negative effect on the M’s playoff aspirations.

Well, yes and no. Certainly, the addition of a team to the division would logically make it harder to win the division title. The various strengths and weaknesses of each opponent play a part, of course. But those are cyclical. None of the five teams are so financially dominant that they threaten to become a perennial powerhouse like the Yankees or Red Sox. They’ll have good stretches and bad stretches, and the fact that each now has four teams to beat out rather than five should make it harder for any one team to win the division.

But there was another element to today’s announcements in Milwaukee, where the MLB owners are holding their quarterly meetings in conjunction with the General Manager Meetings. The long-rumored addition of an additional wild card team in each league was confirmed by commissioner Bud Selig, who said it might happen as soon as next year.

Please feel free to correct my math and/or logic here, but that seems to me to be a significant increase of each team’s odds of making the playoffs that, for the Mariners, more than offsets the addition of the Astros.

The American League currently has 14 teams, and four of them make the playoffs. That means each team has a 29 percent chance of making it to the postseason. When the Astros move to the AL, it will have 15 teams, and under this new format, five of them will make the playoffs. That’s a 33 percent chance. (And if the new format is instituted next year, the odds will be even better for one season, until the Astros come aboard — five out of 14, or 36 percent).

Now, you can argue until next week whether this is a good thing for baseball. Some people are still upset that MLB went to the wild card in the first place in 1994 (when the season ended in August because of the strike, so that the wild card never came into play until 1995). Heck, some people wish that the leagues hadn’t divided into divisions, and the pennant winners went straight into the World Series, as was the format until 1969. One of the allures of baseball has always been its purity, and the fact that, unlike the NHL, NBA and NFL, making the playoffs has been a precious, and relatively rare, thing.

But arguing that poijnt now is a futile proposition. It’s a done deal — the playoffs are being expanded, like it or not, so we might as well discuss the ramifications.

What this does is give teams outside the AL East some legitimate hope of being a wild-card entrant. The AL East has completely dominated the wild card in the American League, earning 13 of the 17 berths since it was instituted (76 percent). That breaks down to seven for the Red Sox (1998, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008, 2009), four for the Yankees (1995, 1997, 2007, 2010), one for the Orioles (1996) , and one for the Rays (2011). The AL West has had three wild-card berths (Mariners in 2000, A’s in 2001, Angels in 2002), and the AL Central one (Tigers in 2006).

Last April, when the extra wild card was first proposed, I researched how the playoffs would have been affected each season since the divisions were expanded in 1995. Here are the results — the Mariners could have had four extra playoff berths.

If the new format had been in place this season, the Red Sox would have made the playoffs as the second wild card team, avoiding all the angst and fallout from their September collapse (same for the Braves, for that matter). It also would have undermined the classic final day that many have called the most exciting single day of baseball in MLB history. And it would have given the AL East three teams in the postseason — an embarrassment of riches.

Nevertheless, the addition of a second AL wild card should open up that avenue more frequently to the other divisions. In my research, here’s how the extra wild card would have broken down, through the 2010 season: Six would have come from the AL West (with the possibility for three more berths by virtue of ties), and three apiece from the Central and East. So it would have been a bounty of postseason riches for the Mariners and their cohorts.

That’s not to say the Mariners are going to make the playoffs next year, or any season soon. For starters, they have to figure out how to win more games than they lose. But despite the addition of the Astros in their division, they now have another avenue, one which, theoretically, should improve their chances of getting to the postseason.

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