MLB Playoff Expansion: Why 2 Wild Cards Are Better Than One

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MLB Playoff Expansion: Why 2 Wild Cards Are Better Than One
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It’s official:  Major League Baseball is expanding the playoffs for 2012. 

Thanks to a strong push from commissioner Bud Selig, the players and owners have worked out an agreement to add a second wild card to each league for the upcoming season. 

Originally, the change was not supposed to happen until the Houston Astros' move to the American League in 2013. 

Selig, however, made it clear that it was his goal to have the system in place for the 2012 playoffs and managed to get a deal worked out just as spring training games are getting underway.

The addition of a second wild card is a terrific development for the game, and not just because it means that an additional team will have a chance at winning a World Series every season. 

It will also enhance the regular season, in a variety of ways:

Division Titles are more important.

One thing that is undisputable about this new system is that there is now a clear difference between winning a division title and winning the wild card. 

In recent seasons, we have seen teams in the AL East decide to rest their starters during the division title chase, reasoning that they were going to the playoffs as the wild card team and that there wasn’t enough of a difference between that and a division title. 

In the new system, however, the winners of each division receive a bye, while the top non-division winners must play for the fourth spot.  In effect, division title winners receive an extra reward, while wild card teams receive an additional penalty.

Guaranteed late-season drama.

One of the biggest complaints about the new playoff system is that it reduces the end of the season to a single game for the two wild card teams. 

Here’s my question—why is this a bad thing? 

Contrary to popular belief, baseball has a long history of one-game playoffs. Since 1969, MLB has utilized such games to settle tiebreakers for both division titles and wild cards. 

While this isn’t quite the same thing, the game will still have the winner-take-all feel of any other one-game playoff.

Besides, there’s an easy way for teams to avoid playing in the one-game playoff:  win the division title.

Playoff races will be enhanced.

A lot of people are pointing out that, had this playoff system been in place, we would not have had the terrific late-season drama that we saw down the stretch this past September.  This idea, however, ignores a couple of important facts. 

The first is that we still would have had the one-game playoffs featuring a quartet of teams that won 89 or more games. 

Secondly, last year’s stretch run was the exception, not the rule. 

You don’t have to look far to find a year in which the new system would have improved the race.

In fact, this would likely be the case for the previous four seasons in the AL and three of the previous four in the NL

I will get into this in-depth at a later date, but there’s a strong case to be made that the new system would enhance more races than it would hinder.

The season will not have to be lengthened.

This was another important concern about the playoff expansion, as there are plenty inside and outside of MLB that believe the playoffs last too long as it is. 

Those concerns will be alleviated with this system, as MLB already sets aside a few days at the end of each season to take care of any tiebreakers.  This is why only a single game is going to be played rather than a best-of-three series. 

Additionally, while this system will allow for some extra rest for the division winners, it will not allow them to get too much rest, which could also have the power to derail a postseason run.

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One of the most bizarre aspects of this issue is that the vast majority of the complaints from traditionalists aren’t actually about the addition of a second wild card.   

What they are actually upset about is the creation of the first wild card, which has been scoffed at since its inception in 1993.  This newest expansion has given them another opportunity to complain about it. 

But the wild card has been an unequivocal success in boosting the game’s popularity and ranks as arguably the greatest innovation of the Bud Selig era. 

It is not going anywhere, and it’s probably a good idea to stop fantasizing that it will. 

That doesn’t mean that the system cannot be improved, however, and the addition of a second wild card looks like the best way to do it.

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