It's official. Major League Baseball has added a second wild-card team to its postseason, beginning this year. The two wild-card teams will have a play-in game, then the postseason will move on to the division series round. Here's one of the key details:
Adding Wild Card teams this year created a logistical issue: The regular season is scheduled to end on Wednesday, Oct. 3, leaving two days for travel, weather problems, possible season-ending tiebreakers to decide division titles and Wild Card berths and the Wild Card elimination games prior to the start of the Division Series on Saturday, Oct. 6. The World Series is scheduled to begin on Wednesday, Oct. 24.
A month ago, I asked "What's the rush?" for those very reasons; it's going to create a very tight schedule for the playoff teams, without the off days we've become accustomed to in recent years. At least this is for one year only. In 2013, says Ken Rosenthal, these shouldn't be major issues:
The schedule will include a greater number of days between the end of the regular season and start of the division series, accommodating potential tiebreakers as well as the wild-card round.
That's all well and good, so let's just hope that the weather gods smile favorably on October 2012 and don't cause any unnecessary delays in getting the play-in games done.
But what does this mean for baseball in general? What might it mean for your team? Here are some common complaints, and why I think most of those concerns are unwarranted:
"There's too many teams in the playoffs!"
Not really. Baseball, alone among the four major North American team sports, has been pretty stingy about allowing its teams into the postseason. Even with these additional two teams, there are still only 10 of 30, the fewest of the four leagues -- and remember, two teams will play just one game. Then the playoffs will continue with the division series round, the same as it's been since 1995.
"Letting too many teams in cheapens division titles!"
On the contrary, it makes winning your division that much more important. Say, the AL East, for example. Rosenthal's article makes the case eloquently:
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman offered a damning indictment earlier this spring, saying his team conceded the AL East to the Tampa Bay Rays two years ago because the format reduced the meaning of the division title to "nothing more than a t-shirt and a hat."
You can be assured that under the new system, in the event that the two other wild cards are both from the AL East (a very possible scenario), that Cashman won't want the Yankees to be in the one-and-done game.
"Teams that aren't in the play-in game have a pitching staff advantage!"
That's kind of the point. Wild-card teams have been given equal footing in the playoffs the last 17 seasons, except for not having home field, which has not been that meaningful anyway. This gives the division-title teams, especially if they clinch the titles early, a chance to get their rotations in order, while the wild-card team becomes more of a survivor.
"There will be too many mediocre teams in the playoffs!"
Not really. Here's an article that lists of all the teams that would have been the second wild card since 1995, and here's another that has all the matchups that would have taken place under the new system had it been in effect the last 17 seasons.
Three of those games -- indicated by asterisks in the second link -- were tiebreaker games that actually did get played for wild-card berths, and at least two of those (Giants/Cubs in 1998, Padres/Rockies in 2007) were good-to-classic matchups that, MLB hopes, will happen again with the play-in games.
Via Mark Zuckerman, here are the win totals for the teams that would have been the second wild card since 1996 (1995 excluded because it was a 144-game season):
84, 85, 85, 85, 86, 86, 87, 87, 87, 88, 88, 88, 88, 88, 88, 89, 89, 89, 89, 89, 89, 90, 90, 90, 90, 91, 91, 92, 93, 93, 93, 96.
The average win total of those 32 teams is 89. Now, here are the win totals for the actual wild card teams since 1996:
88, 88, 89, 89, 89, 90, 90, 90, 91, 91, 91, 91, 92, 92, 92, 92, 93, 94, 94, 94, 95, 95, 95, 95, 95, 95, 95, 96, 96, 98, 99, 102
The average win total of those 32 teams is 93. While there are some outliers in both groups -- an 84 and a 102 -- we're talking about four wins' difference over 162 games, not a significant number, and of the 64 teams, 52 of them won between 88 and 96 games, which in my opinion is good enough for a team to make the postseason. There have been many division titlists who won the same or fewer regular-season games than wild cards. The best teams will survive the one-and-done game.
"It'll ruin any chance for a day like we had last September!"
Well, no it won't, and instead we might get a day like that every year.
Let me explain.
First of all, the confluence of events that resulted in the fantastic finish to the 2011 regular season was virtually impossible to predict and ended up that way only because the Rays came back from a seven-run deficit, the Red Sox blew a save with two out and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, and the Braves lost in extra innings to the Phillies, clinching a wild-card berth for the Cardinals.
How many times are you going to repeat that by random chance on the final day of any regular season? The odds of that are pretty close to zero.
Instead, we'll get two games -- likely both played on the same day -- in which the winner moves on and the loser goes home. It'll be a celebration of baseball drama every October, instead of once every 100 Septembers.
The only complaint I have about the new system is that they should have waited until 2013, when the leagues realign and (presumably) everyone's playing an identical schedule, with five teams in each of six divisions. As Rosenthal points out:
The additional playoff berths will create newfound hope for teams that rarely make the postseason. The Toronto Blue Jays are one obvious example, and even rebuilding clubs such as the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates can now dream of reaching the playoffs sooner.
"It's going to hurt the division winners who have to start on the road!"
Well, yes. Yes, it is. Shoehorning the extra teams into a 2012 schedule that had already been laid out months ago wasn't the greatest idea; obviously, the dollar signs seen by MLB moguls who looked at the money they could make from two play-in games trumped common sense. This raises the possibility that a play-in survivor could start at home and win its two home games, thus forcing a team with a better record to win three straight games to advance to the LCS.
Fortunately, this will only be an issue this year. Next year, when they can draw up a schedule that actually accounts for the extra wild card teams, the division winners will go back to having their home games first.
In general, this will only be good for baseball; unlike the NBA, where you begin almost every year with six or eight teams virtually guaranteed to get into the postseason and a similar number who have zero chance, in baseball, almost every year, you have a team come out of nowhere (the 2011 Diamondbacks are an excellent example) to make the playoffs. The new system gives two more teams a shot. Bring it on.