Bud Selig announced earlier this month that Major League Baseball will be expanding its playoff format to include an additional Wild Card for each league. This is scheduled to happen just in time for the 2012 season.
What a great move by Selig and company!
The addition of one wild-card spot to each league will keep more fans engaged as the season progresses. It will also place an added onus on the David Glasses and Lew Wolffs of the world to spend more money to keep their teams in contention.
It may also give teams who have been buried by perennial division powers the opportunity for postseason play.
There are a lot of baseball purists out there who are shuddering at the fact that another two teams are going to be added to the postseason fray. Those detractors will argue that two additional Wild Cards will dilute the importance of the regular season. They will become nostalgic and talk about how much better baseball was before the league added Wild Cards prior to the 1994 season.
The purists have it all wrong!
Let's turn the clocks back 20 years and look at the baseball landscape. In 1992, there were 26 teams in the league. Baseball had not expanded to Florida, Arizona or the Rocky Mountains. There were two Canadian baseball teams—the Montreal Expos and the Toronto Blue Jays. The Pittsburgh Pirates were good, the New York Yankees were bad and the Boston Red Sox were still cursed.
It was also a time when the only time you could see your hometown stars play against the other league would be in the All-Star Game or the World Series.
Yes, it added a little more spark to the Midsummer Classic to see stars like Wade Boggs square off against Dwight Gooden—but seriously, who can argue against the success of interleague play?
The way the playoff rules were sent up in 1992 were simple—you either win your respective division or you sit at home.
The Milwaukee Brewers won 92 games that season but failed to qualify for the postseason, as they finished four games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East. If modern rules were in place, they would have been in line for either a division title or the first wild-card spot.
You have to wonder how many teams and players missed out because of this. Just ask Don Mattingly, who played for the New York Yankees during the 1980s and early 1990s. His Yankees teams would have qualified for a wild-card spot in 1985-86 and 1993 by finishing with the third-best record in the American League.You have to wonder whether or not the Yankees would have had such a prolonged championship drought (1978-96) if the Wild Card was in play in the 1980s.
Fast forward to 2012 and the current landscape of major league baseball.
The newly added Wild Cards in each league now raises the pool of eligible postseason teams from eight to 10. That is 33 percent of the league.
If we were to look back to last season, for example—the Red Sox and Atlanta Braves would have qualified for the postseason. It would have offered an interesting first-round matchup possibility for both leagues. The Red Sox would have drawn the Tampa Bay Rays and the Braves would have faced off against the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals.
This doesn't really help small-market teams—right?
Not necessarily true. If the new wild-card system was in place in 1999, two small-market clubs—the Cincinnati Reds and Oakland A's—would have both qualified for the postseason.
The Cleveland Indians would have benefited in 2005, as they would have qualified. The same holds true for the 2003 Houston Astros, who would have also qualified for the postseason under the new wild-card rules.
Should MLB expand the playoff system further?
Having one-third of your league making the postseason is a good balance. This is where the purists are right, as anything more would dilute the importance of the regular season. Just ask hockey fans how important their regular season is in the general scheme of things.
Will the Kansas Cities of the world finally have a chance at making the postseason?
The new Wild Cards will create new opportunities for teams, but it doesn't change the fact that teams need to be successful. If anything, it will create more competition among teams and provide increased playoff opportunities for large-market clubs such as the Yankees.
So a word of caution to clubs—just because there is an extra spot in each league doesn't give you a right to be cheap.
Ultimately, MLB wants to cater to the fans, and the addition of new playoff spots to each league will help them accomplish that goal. The new Wild Cards should be embraced by baseball fans and should provide plenty of constructive commentary in the weeks and months ahead.