MLB Playoff Expansion: How Adding a Wild Card May Hurt the Wild Cards
Major League Baseball announced on Friday that the agreed-upon expansion of the Wild Card will officially start this season. This is the least surprising news of the year.
The format only adds a one-game playoff, but expanded playoffs mean more nationally televised elimination games, which means more eyes on baseball in October, which means, most importantly, more money for MLB. On its face, the expansion is fine, though I'm actually rather surprised how many people are in favor of it.
Sure, most owners and managers would be in favor of expansion because it gives each team a better shot to make the playoffs. Charlie Manuel of the Philadelphia Phillies, however, is not among that group. Uncle Cholly came out earlier this week in opposition to the expanded playoffs, fearing it will further de-emphasize the regular season and marginalize the playoffs.
Remember, the Phillies won 102 games last season before getting eliminated by a wild-card team that won 90 games. Clearly, adding more teams into the mix does not excite the manager of the league's best ballclub.
Some pundits stress that adding another team would have actually helped the Phillies last season. If the Cardinals had to face the Braves in a winner-take-all play-in game, the winning team of that matchup would have been even more taxed heading into the Division Series against the Phillies. Certainly, managers wouldn't be able to hold pitchers back from this one-game playoff, so even if the wild-card teams are set well in advance, the extra playoff game can only help the top seed in each league.
Having said that, the logistics of this year's schedule will give the wild-card winner two home games to start the divisional round, followed by three on the road at the top seed. I understand the travel issues in a truncated time frame, but MLB is totally rewarding the wild-card winner by giving them the first two games at home.
If one of the wild-card teams is riding a hot streak to end the season—or even uses the one-game playoff game to get hot heading into the Division Series—they now have two games at home to start the series, putting a ton of pressure on the top seed to win all three of the remaining games in their park if they lose the first two on the road.
With all that said, it's not the top seeds who should be complaining. In theory, the top seeds (after this season's scheduling quirk) will be at a serious advantage in the Division Series moving forward. The teams that have a legitimate excuse to complain about the new expansion are…the wild-card teams.
Wait, what? The new rule gives more wild-card teams a chance to play in the post season. How are the wild-card teams being screwed here?
Well, the existing wild-card teams are the ones getting the shaft. The "fourth seed" in each league—though often the Wild Card has more wins than other division winners and, until this year, could not play the top seed if that team was in the same division—will now have to face a one-game playoff to advance to a round they would have already qualified for in the old system.
Yes, adding a fifth team to each league's bracket does ensure the fourth-place team a modicum of breathing room, but how great can that breathing room feel when they know it doesn't matter how many games ahead of the fifth seed they finish the regular season?
In 2010, the 95-win New York Yankees lost their division, but qualified for the playoffs as the Wild Card. That team, under the new rules, would have hosted the 89-win Boston Red Sox in a one-game playoff. The Yankees had six more wins than Boston that season, but under the new playoff structure, Boston would need only one win—albeit on the road—to advance past the Yankees in the playoffs.
In 2009, the 95-win Red Sox would have hosted the 87-win Rangers in a one-game playoff, while the 92-win Rockies would have hosted the 88-win Giants. In both of these instances, the actual wild-card winner is being immensely punished for not winning its division, yet qualifying for the playoffs by a huge margin.
You can make a case the Red Sox should be punished for not winning their division, but they had eight more wins than the Central champion Minnesota Twins that season, making the whole "winning your division" argument a bit disingenuous.
As for the Rockies, they had four more wins than a division rival, but would have to face them in a one-game series to move on? That just does not seem fair.
In 2008, the 95-win Red Sox would have hosted the 89-win Yankees, a six game difference once again settled by one game.
In 2007, we would have had total chaos. Detroit and Seattle both won 88 games, which would have caused a one-game playoff to determine which team advanced to a one-game playoff with the 94-win Yankees.
The list can go all the way back to when the Wild Card started. 2006 would have seen another six-game disparity between the 95-win Tigers and the 89-win Angels.
In 2004—the year the Red Sox broke the curse—Boston won 98 games, but lost their division to the 101-win Yankees before sweeping the Angels and dispatching New York in the ALCS, en route to a World Series, curse-breaking sweep of the Cardinals.
That Red Sox team would have faced a one-game playoff against the Oakland A's, who won 91 games that season, potentially changing baseball history forever. You never know, Moneyball could have ended differently.
While the new rule will be good for more fans in more markets during the regular season, keeping teams in the race far longer than in previous years, it's clearly not perfect and might make you wonder if it's actually any better.
Expanding the playoffs never is perfect, but at the very least, Bud Selig has guaranteed his real legacy will remain fully intact. When we see a run of 100-win teams getting knocked out by 88-win clubs who got hot at the right time and make a run to the championship, we know who to thank…and blame.
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