With bowl season less than a week behind us, everyone’s minds are on altering college football’s postseason format for the first time since 1998, when the BCS was established. But in an attempt to provide some distraction from the disappointment of Stanford’s close Fiesta Bowl loss, I’m going to focus on another league making similar changes in the near future: the MLB.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement signed last November, the MLB postseason will feature two more wild-card teams, one each from the National and American leagues, which will participate in a one-game playoff with their league’s other wild-card club starting in either 2012 or 2013. It’s the first major change to the baseball postseason since the division series was added in, yes, the late ‘90s, and it further parallels the plus-one model that has become popular among NCAA football pundits because it increases — albeit just slightly — the number of teams with the potential of winning a title at season’s end.
Single-game playoffs are hardly new to baseball; as tiebreakers they can mark a nail-biter of an ending to the regular season. And in four of the past five years, at least one of the two wild-card races have come down to a single game, so it’s not like the second wild-card bid is entirely unmerited.
That said, adding a second wild-card team only takes away from the September chaos at the tail end of the MLB season, a 162-game marathon that exhausts even the most dedicated of fans and, just like the three-hour game itself, turns off a good chunk of our generation with its slow pace. Remember last September, when late-inning heroics at three separate venues jettisoned the Rays and Cardinals into the postseason above the Braves and Red Sox? With a second wild-card bid, not only would all four teams have made it to the playoffs; they likely would have clinched a berth days in advance. Taking away from that final-day-of-the-season excitement is a serious mistake, and with the lack of parity in today’s MLB, you shouldn’t expect nearly as many down-to-the-wire races after the second wild-card team is added.
What’s more, there’s a serious wear-and-tear factor at hand for the players here. One game might not seem like much, but the travel and exhaustion accumulate quickly. Go back to 1997, when the Dodgers and Mets finished tied for second in the NL wild-card standings behind the Marlins. The Mets lost the season series with the Dodgers 6-5, so the tiebreak would have been played in LA. If the Mets won, they would then have to travel back to Miami for the wild-card showdown, soon followed by a best-of-five series beginning in Atlanta. By the time New York had its first home game, it would have traveled over 8,500 miles and played in three cities. Knowing how the MLB likes to push up its postseason schedule, the Mets probably would’ve had to do it all in less than a week. And they wouldn’t even be out of the first round yet.
Just as frightening, what if there’s a three-way tie for the wild card, which nearly happened between the Rockies, Padres in Mets in 2007? Or if one of the wild-card teams is tied for a division lead as well? Point is, one-game tiebreaks can build up in a hurry, and by the time we have a single wild-card “representative,” the three division leaders will be well rested from all the time they had spent twiddling their thumbs. If anything, this system could make it harder for a wild-card club to make a run deep into the playoffs.
Baseball is supposed to be a simple, approachable game; pick up a bat, throw a ball and you’re well on your way. We’ve already had “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s thrown World Series, the DH rule, Pete Rose’s gambling, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ cocaine use, George Brett’s pine tar, the addition of interleague play, Sammy Sosa’s corked bat, Bill James’ sabermetrics, steroid allegations against practically everyone, instant replay for home runs and Armando Galarraga’s umpire-revoked perfect game (in that order) confound that legacy.
Add two more wild-card teams to the list.
Joseph Beyda is a baseball purist at heart, but likes to bring a little sabermetrics into the newsroom with plenty of pie charts and spreadsheets. Let him who will be the next “Greek god of walks” at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.