The Major League Baseball playoffs are in full swing (whoa big unintended pun) and the new format has a lot of people talking. It’s been somewhat of a distraction from the actual on-field action. I can’t stop wondering about the need for the extra Wild Card in each league and the effect it has had on the rest of the playoffs. There are arguments for and against the extra “round” and I can certainly see both sides which leaves me twisting in the wind. I truly do not know what to think. I’m on the metaphorical fence (more baseball wordplay).
The one game wild card showdown feels like manufactured excitement. After the exciting finish to the 2011 season many people howled that there was no reason to change something that sprouted so organically from the former postseason structure. The hustle to get that final spot made magic. Yet the league added a second wild card team to seemingly ensure a win or die scenario in each league no matter what. I would also make the point that the late season collapses by the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves that caused so much madness on the final night of the regular season were not exactly commonplace. Expecting that to play out the same way year after year would be foolish and the rarity of the drama of that evening only added to its lore. So MLB decided to make sure that we’d see something like that every year and in the process, perhaps even more teams would be left playing for something meaningful come October.
However the way I see it, the one game wild card playoff puts added emphasis on winning the division. Teams can no longer coast into the wild card slot because it guarantees them nothing except a win or go home game, In the past, the lone wild card team got a best of five shot at the top regular season team in their league and at least one home game. Now they have to win in a pressure cooker just to see the next round. However, that team now gets two guaranteed home games thanks to the Division Series’ new 2-3 format that seeks to move the series along by allowing only one travel day.
So now we have teams getting rewarded for winning their divisions with a five game series but then also somehow getting penalized by having to spend the first two games of a series on the road. Are you confused? Me too.
Now that the first two games of each Division Series have finished we have arguments for and against the format. The Oakland Athletics have to return to their home park down two games to none to a Tigers team that has Justin Verlander in their back pocket. Oakland gets their three home games but they’ve got to win all three and beat arguably the best pitcher in the sport to advance. On the flip side they had a shot to win each of the first two games and failed to do so. I don’t think it’s asking too much to split two road games when the road team is the higher seed. Out west, the Cincinnati Reds laughed in the face of supposed disadvantageous formatting by smacking around the San Francisco Giants. They now have three chances at home to close out the series.
It’s going to take a few years of gathering samples to find out where the advantage truly lies but somehow I get the feeling whining about the format is akin to an old man yelling at a cloud. I think MLB is still tinkering with this process and I wouldn’t be shocked if the process received a minor tweaking - but this format is here to stay.
If I had the final say, and starting next year with each league having fifteen teams it could make more sense, I’d eliminate divisions entirely and have each team play a balanced schedule. Jeff Passan wrote about it here back in 2010 and I think him and a few others are dead on. It would get rid of a lot of the gripes people have about the current format and my Cub-related sour grapes aside – the crappy division winner no longer gets in while the hard luck 90 win team from the AL East (this is somewhat hypothetical) gets left at home.