More Wild Cards: Great Idea, Or GREATEST Idea?

NEW YORK, NY: Nick Swisher #33 of the New York Yankees is safe at second base for an eighth inning pinch hit double ahead of the tag from Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

A lot of people like the idea of adding one Wild Card in each league, with a one-game, winner-take-all first round in the postseason. SI.com's Joe Sheehan is not one of those people.

So, in the wake of the news that we're going to have two more postseason teams and an extra round in the annual tournament, I couldn't help noticing these two headlines ripped from the pages of competing websites ...

Expanded playoffs are good for baseball

and

Additional wild cards won't solve problems; they'll compound them

The first of those topped a column by Ken Rosenthal. The nut grafs:

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.

Some will complain that the high-revenue New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will proceed to the postseason almost automatically, but only one of those teams would qualify as a division champion. The other would face the terrifying prospect of a one-and-done.

Winning the division should matter, shouldn’t it? But too often under the current system, the cushion of the wild card deterred division leaders from giving maximum effort in the season’s final days.

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."

That won’t be the case anymore.

The other headline tops a column by Joe Sheehan, and Joe hates Hates HATES this new postseason protocol. See, where many or most observers see a positive -- the two best teams the league potentially fighting like the dickens for first place -- Joe sees a negative. A big Big BIG negative.

He does ramble on for a few thousand words, in fact I think this is just the first installment in Joe's forthcoming book: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Bud. Here's a representative sample, though:

The second-best team in baseball could go from fighting for a division title and the best record in its league to a one-game playoff against a team it was miles ahead of for six months. It may sound far-fetched, but it is not that far removed from what we would have had in 2010 had the rule been in place. It's pretty much what you would have gotten in the AL in 2005, where the Yankees and Red Sox tied for first place while the "second wild card" would have been the Indians, five games clear of the A's for the No. 5 seed.

This is a really bad idea. It's one thing to throw away September because you're looking for easy cash on the heels of being tagged for $280 million in CBA violations. It's another to set up a system that has the ability to turn your regular-season results into a bad joke because you didn't listen the first time. The scenario that people want to avoid, the September of 2010? It happens when two great teams play in one division together. If you force one of them into a Coin Flip Game, you will always be invalidating a great six-month season in a single afternoon, which is no way -- no way at all -- to run a sports league. The Coin Flip Game isn't "making the playoffs" any more than the play-in game in the NCAA's is "making the tournament." No one confuses Tuesday in Dayton with Friday in Charlotte, and no one will confuse Monday afternoon at Suncoast Dome on MLB Network with Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium on TBS.

Joe made this case last year, when we first heard serious talk about a new format. I have this odd memory of arguing with him about it then, which is odd because I don't know where we would have been arguing. Maybe just in my head.

Anyway, he's absolutely right. That's going to happen. We're going to have two great teams battling it out at the end of the season, and the loser will have to play a one-game playoff, quite possibly at a big disadvantage because its best starting pitcher isn't available while its opponent -- the other Wild Card -- has its No. 1 starter all rested and ready to go.

Here's the thing, though ... How often is that going to happen, really? How often will two great teams fight for the division title, while the No. 2 Wild Card is cruising to its postseason berth? I don't know. I don't think Joe knows, either. Of course it will happen. Lots of things happen. But more often than not, I'll bet, that great team that finished in second place will still be favored in the Coin Flip Game.

Here's another thing I'll bet Joe doesn't know: How seriously does the new format impact the chance that the best team in the league actually reaches the World Series? Because that's Joe's primary argument, as near as I can tell. That the fairness of the postseason is compromised. Well, further compromised. And he's right. It's now obviously less fair than it was. But if the chance of the best team reaching the World Series was 31 percent and now it's 28 percent, is that really worth getting exercised about?

I'm just making up numbers. But it's an empirical question. Anybody with reasonable programming skills could build a model in about three minutes. I just don't know that anyone has, yet.

Except -- and here's where I think Joe might be missing the boat -- I would be surprised to learn that some really smart guys at Major League Baseball haven't built that model. Joe blames everything on Bud Selig, because Joe sees this move as buffoonish and, let's be honest, Bud Selig is really good at coming across as a buffoon. But Bud Selig doesn't just sit at his desk in Milwaukee all day long, twirling his imaginary mustache and devising schemes to drive Joe Sheehan crazy. There are other people involved, and a lot of them are reasonable enough sorts.

I think Joe's missing another boat, too.*

* This is probably a good time to mention that Joe Sheehan is one of my favorite writers, and a friend. Bernardo Bertolucci once said that you can argue only with those you fundamentally agree with, and Joe and I agree about almost everything that matters.

As Joe's headline suggests -- and as he actually writes in the text -- his contention is that MLB screwed up by creating Wild Cards in the first place, which resulted, occasionally, in relatively meaningless pennant races between the best teams. So the new format is designed to restore those pennant races.

But the new format isn't designed to do any such thing. The new format is designed for one reason, and one reason only: to get two more teams in the playoffs every year. The teams want it because they have a better shot of getting into the playoffs, and the players want it because (you guessed it) they have a better shot of getting into the playoffs.

Making the occasional pennant race more meaningful? That's just a happy (for most of us) consequence.

Also Joe's absolutely wrong about the Coin Flip Game. It won't be anything like the NCAA's play-in games, which feature (relatively) lousy teams with absolutely no chance of winning even one more game in the tournament, let alone the championship. Baseball's first-round playoff games will be loaded with meaning, because a) one or both of the teams will be really good, and b) the winner will actually have a considerable shot at winning the World Series.

I might be wrong. But you know, the sport isn't conducted for the Yankees and the Rays, or the Yankees and the Red Sox. I'm not all that worried about the occasional unfairness to one of those clubs. I'm looking forward to those one-game playoffs, and I'm looking forward to a down-to-the-wire pennant race between two great teams. I see Joe's point. I just think that for everything good we're losing, we're gaining at least as much.

Or close enough to wait and see, anyway.

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