Last year, Major League Baseball introduced a new playoff format that included adding an additional wild card team in each league. The two wild card teams have a one-game playoff to determine who moves on to the divisional series match up. This format may increase the number of teams later in the season that have a chance to make the playoffs, but it also presents a problem of not sending the best team into the post season.
Many times, the wild card seed for the playoffs is a close race that comes down the final few games of the season. Last year however, the Atlanta Braves held a six game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals but were forced to play one game to determine the wild card winner. This was detrimental for the Braves as they lost the game, with the infamous infield fly causing mayhem on the field and possibly costing the Braves the game.
This year, the National League race came down to only two teams as the next closest team, the Washington Nationals, were eliminated from contention without being a factor in the final series of the regular season. The American League race was much closer, as five teams were looking to claim the two wild card spots through the last few games. Eventually, the Cleveland Indians claimed the top wild card with the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays tied for the second wild card spot. The Rays and Rangers were forced into a one-game tiebreaker.
Game 163 as it was proclaimed was not a playoff game; it was an extension of the regular season where the stats counted and both teams were allowed expanded rosters. Each team had 37 active players for the tiebreaker game. This is vastly different from the wild card play-in game, which is a playoff game and teams are limited to 25 players.
While the American League race this year favored the new format with three teams being a game apart, the National League race last year did not. It allowed a sub par team to sneak into the divisional round by winning one game when it was six games behind. As most experts will tell you, anything can happen in one game. Texas League hits fall in, one wild pitch can cost a game winning run, and any given thing can cost a team one game. By having a six game lead, the Braves had proven their worth but fell victim to the one game playoff.
Wild card format now benefits division winners
There is much more drama with the wild card play-in games. That is one positive that has been seen through the first two years. Three out of four visiting teams have won the wild card game, with the Pittsburgh Pirates being the lone home victor. The home crowds have been some of the best of each season, as sellouts occur, and two teams this year ended playoff droughts that had fans more excited than ever.
The division series is the best of five. The league championship and World Series are both a best of seven series. This allows for teams to have a bad game or to have external factors such as the crowd or umpires leave them with a loss. With other games to make up for it, a team is not rewarded for simply getting lucky. Although the teams in the playoffs all have had winning records and rightfully earned post season bids, some teams falter once October rolls around while others flourish. The San Francisco Giants were down in both of their playoff series last year, and then proceeded to sweep the Detroit Tigers four games to zero. This showed their perseverance as a club and they earned the right to be called World Series champions. If they had been forced to play a one game wild card, they could have easily lost their first game and another team would have eventually been crowned champion.
Major League Baseball wants to increase fans’ attention through the end of the season. They want higher ratings for games late in September between a contender and a pretender. They want to make more money with the extra advertising dollars from the wild card games. As the most exclusive playoff pool of the four major sports, an eight team race has expanded to ten, with the last team in each league getting some calls that another team didn’t and winning one more game or having to settle with a tie breaker.
The Tampa Bay Rays won the wild card tie-breaker game and the wild card playoff game, both being road games. The regular season ended Sunday and the Rays were forced to play on Monday and Wednesday. Their opponents in the divisional series, the Boston Red Sox, have not played since Sunday and will not play until Friday. A five day layoff in baseball is almost equivalent to the month and a half gap that college football teams face when playing in the national championship game each year.
It isn’t easy to stop playing for the amount of time when you are used to playing every day for six months. This is a drawback to having won the division and waiting to see who would wind up winning the wild card to face them. Luckily for the Rays, they won both of their games and already have the playoff atmosphere in their clubhouse in full swing, while Boston has yet to take the field for the post season.
I believe that the play-in game with two wild cards was a bad move by Bud Selig. There is too much emphasis placed on one game between two teams that may or may have been close in the standings to end the season. While a game 7 is justified in that both teams have already won three games apiece and have had opportunities to win the series, the wild card is essentially a tie breaker that doesn’t take into account a team’s depth with their starting rotation and ability to truly prove itself. It is a game 7 with no room for error. There is no denying the drama and passion that is present at these games, but the losing team is left being teased that it was about to make the playoffs and then told its season is actually over after one game.
Some experts have suggested having a three game series. The problem with this is that the division winners would then have to wait for that series to end and would not be playing for probably a week’s time. This would be unfair to them, despite having the security of a divisional series berth. I think fans generally like the new playoff format unless your team is the one to lose the wild card game. There has been enough action and positive feedback to warrant baseball continuing the extra playoff game. At least it isn’t like the NBA where teams with losing records are making the playoffs every year. There is still a high level of competition that any baseball fan will appreciate and enjoy watching.