MLB Playoff Restructuring: What New Format Would Have Done to Past Postseasons
As the end of the All-Star break ushers in the second half of the baseball season, MLB’s revamped playoff system has a slew of teams thinking they have a shot at a postseason berth.
The addition of a second wild-card team in each league does open up more opportunities down the stretch, but the change isn’t without its dark side.
After all, the second wild-card team will be meeting the other wild-card club in a one-game playoff “series,” and all kinds of fluky things can happen when a single game is all the chance a team gets.
Should the top wild-card team, having already proven its supremacy over 162 games in the standings, have to risk everything on one meeting with a team that might have finished five or six games lower?
MLB thinks it should, but read on for a look at what that arrangement would have meant for past seasons of playoff baseball.
h/t to Ed A. for suggesting the premise for this article.
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One of the real oddities of the new playoff format is that, from a historical perspective, it would have played out extremely differently in the two leagues.
The races for the NL Wild Card have largely been closely fought, with an average of just 2.3 games separating the actual wild-card winner from the team that would have earned the second spot.
In the AL, though, the wild-card spot has usually been secured long before the season’s final day, with a definitive 5.6 games separating the winner and runner-up in a typical year.
Given that discrepancy, we’ll look at each league in turn, with examples of a typical year as well as some of the most extreme cases of close races and blowout finishes.
Note: For purposes of this article, only seasons since 1994 (the first year of the three-division format) are under consideration. Any earlier, and the comparison to seasons that didn’t even have the Wild Card in real life would be too distant to matter.
National League, Moot Point: Cubs vs. Giants, 1998
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Three times in the three-division era, the National League’s wild-card berth has actually come down to just the kind of one-game playoff that will be built into the schedule from now on.
The first such instance came in 1998, when the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants both finished 89-73 in the regular season.
The Giants had the better of the pitching matchup (barely), sending ace Mark Gardner (13-6, 4.33 ERA) against the Cubs’ Steve Trachsel (15-8, 4.46).
Gardner made the first mistake, though, serving up a two-run homer to Gary Gaetti in a scoreless game in the fourth.
A pinch two-run single from Matt Mieske helped Chicago build a 5-0 lead heading to the ninth, and though Kevin Tapani (in a rare relief role) nearly let San Francisco back into the game in the ninth, ex-Giant Rod Beck closed it out to send the Cubs to the NLDS.
(The hero of that Cubs team, of course, had been home run machine Sammy Sosa, years before presumed steroid use obliterated his public image. In the one-game playoff, though, all he managed was a pair of singles, scoring two of Chicago’s runs but driving in none.)
National League, Average Year: Dodgers vs. Expos, 1996
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Settling for the 1996 wild-card spot was a bitter pill to swallow for the L.A. Dodgers, considering that they finished just one game behind NL West champion San Diego.
Even so, it wouldn’t have been made much worse by a battle with a wild-card rival who was right on the Dodgers’ heels, the Montreal Expos.
Montreal, with up-and-coming Pedro Martinez in the rotation and an outfield featuring Moises Alou and Henry Rodriguez, finished just two games behind L.A. in the wild-card chase.
The 24-year-old Pedro, though, probably wouldn’t have started a playoff matchup with brother Ramon’s team, a job that instead would likely have gone to veteran lefty Jeff Fassero.
The Dodgers had an exceptionally deep rotation with three 15-game winners, including not only Ramon Martinez and Ismael Valdez but also second-year star Hideo Nomo.
In a winner-take-all situation, strikeout artist Nomo would likely have given L.A. the edge against the K-prone Expos...but it would’ve been far from a sure thing.
National League, Worst-Case Scenario: Mets vs. Dodgers, 2000
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The much-ballyhooed Subway Series of 2000 was only possible because the Mets (who came in second to Atlanta by a single game in the NL East) rampaged through the National League playoffs as a Wild Card.
Of course, they might never have had the chance if they’d had to survive a one-game playoff with a decidedly less successful Dodgers team.
L.A. finished 86-76, eight games back of New York, but a slugging lineup featuring five 20-homer hitters would have made it a scary opponent in a one-game matchup.
Facing ace Kevin Brown and his league-leading 2.58 ERA wouldn’t have been any picnic either.
The Mets had plenty of power of their own (198 dingers as a team), but neither Mike Hampton nor Al Leiter would’ve offered quite as overpowering a starting pitching option.
New York’s best bet would have been to get to the Dodger bullpen, where closer Jeff Shaw had an unsightly 4.24 ERA despite his 27 saves.
American League, Average Year: Red Sox vs. Yankees, 2008
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For Boston fans coming off of their second world championship in four years, 2008 would have seemed like the ultimate injustice.
They didn’t just beat the hated Yankees to the Wild Card, they finished a full six games ahead of the New Yorkers in the standings.
Nevertheless, the Sox would have found themselves face-to-face with the Yanks in a one-game playoff to advance to the ALDS.
Great for MLB and its TV partners, certainly, but hardly a fitting reward for a Boston club that finished an enviable 95-67, two games behind AL East-winning Tampa Bay.
The one-game format would have been a particular hardship for Boston, because it would have rescued a thin Yankees rotation (which had 20-game winner Mike Mussina and little else).
The Sox had more depth, with four starters topping 150 innings, but neither Jon Lester (who started the actual ALDS opener that year) nor 18-game winner Daisuke Matsuzaka would’ve been any guarantee against a New York upset.
American League, Worst-Case Scenario: A's vs. Twins, 2001
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No team in the wild-card era would’ve been cheated worse than the 2001 A’s by the addition of a second wild-card team.
Oakland finished with an astounding 102-60 record, second-best in the major leagues, but ended up as the Wild Card thanks to division rival Seattle’s record-setting 116-46 campaign.
Those A’s were at the height of their powers, getting a combined 56 wins from Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, while Jason Giambi and Jermaine Dye carried the offense with off-the-charts OPS figures (1.137 and .913, respectively).
And yet, they would have faced a one-game playoff against a Minnesota squad that had finished a ludicrous 17 games lower in the American League standings.
In all likelihood, even Twins ace Joe Mays (17-13, 3.16 ERA) wouldn’t have been able to top Oakland, but no one knows better than Oakland's Billy Beane how unpredictable the playoffs can be.
A good start from Mays, maybe a home run from Torii Hunter...and Oakland might have found itself with 102 victories and a seat in front of the television for the ALDS.