My fellow baseball junkies, I have gathered you here today so that we may give Bud Selig a well-deserved golf clap.
He's earned it. We all had our doubts, but the commissioner's desire to add two additional Wild Cards to Major League Baseball's postseason format has paid off. This year's playoff races have been decidedly excellent.
In fact, the amount of drama in this year's playoff races is completely unprecedented. We've probably seen more hotly contested races in the past, but I don't recall seeing this many of them going on at the same time.
Just think about it. On the last day of the season, the AL East and AL West were still up for grabs. The AL Central and the NL Central weren't clinched until Monday. The wild-card field in the National League wasn't set until Tuesday, and the wild-card field in the American League was set until the last day of the regular season.
Allow me to ask a question that is going to be asked sooner or later: How did all of this happen?
Well, I'll show you.
Incentive for More Teams to Stay in the Race
Think back, if you will, to the All-Star break.
At the time, the AL West champion Oakland A's were barely in the Junior Circuit's playoff picture. They had a record of 43-43 that tied them with the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays for the ninth-best record in the American League. They were 2.5 games out of the second wild-card spot.
It seems strange to think it now, but what a lot of people were wondering at that point was which parts the A's would sell off at the trade deadline. It was all well and good that they had overachieved in the first half of the season, but they would be foolish to think that they could actually keep competing the rest of the way.
This is what most people outside the organization were thinking, and Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com reported that this was actually the sentiment inside the organization as well:
While the A's have had a fine first half and enter the All-Star break with a .500 record that leaves them just 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot, they still see themselves as sellers rather than as contenders. In fact, A's people are hoping Brandon McCarthy pitches well when he comes off the disabled list after the break, so that he can join the long list of pitchers the A's have traded away.
Under MLB's old Wild Card rules, the A's would have been five games out in the wild-card race at the All-Star break. With a deficit like that, the A's could have justified selling a little early if that was the route they chose to pursue.
Instead, they decided to gamble on what was a mere 2.5-game deficit. What the heck, right? They had a few weeks to see whether the team was actually worth a darn before the trade deadline came.
Whatever plans the A's may have had to start a fire sale were eventually put on hold for good when the club proceeded to win 12 out of 14 immediately after the All-Star break.
Once that happened, Billy Beane went into buy mode. All of sudden, there were reports linking the A's to names like Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, Yunel Escobar and Stephen Drew, the last of whom the A's eventually acquired in August.
Another team that could have decided to sell at the trade deadline was the Tampa Bay Rays. They sank to 51-49 on July 27, and they were looking at a 3.5-game deficit in the wild-card race that would have been a four-game deficit under the old rules.
Right around then, reports were coming out from people like ESPN's Buster Olney claiming that the Rays were willing to listen to offers for everyone, including stud pitchers James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson. With Evan Longoria out of commission and the team struggling to maintain any consistency out on the field, it was hard to blame Tampa Bay for keeping its options open.
But Shields and Hellickson ended up staying, and the Rays ended up going 14-3 at one point in August. On August 23, they were leading the AL wild-card race.
The Rays ended up stumbling, but they weren't eliminated from postseason contention until Monday. Not bad for a team that considered trading two of its best pitchers in July.
The A's and Rays are perfect examples of how much the decision to add extra Wild Cards had the desired effect. Major League Baseball wanted to create a situation in which there would be more contenders, and it succeeded because more teams saw an open window to contend.
The league certainly anticipated that teams would avoid selling to stay in the race to the bitter end. What the league probably didn't anticipate was that teams that did sell at the deadline would eventually find themselves back in the wild-card race.
Revival of Thought-to-be-Dead Teams Actually Meant Something
You've already thought back to the All-Star break. Now think back, if you will, to the trade deadline.
On July 31, the Milwaukee Brewers were 47-56 and they had just traded Zack Greinke to the Angels on July 27. The Philadelphia Phillies were even worse off at 46-57, and they had just traded Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. A couple days later, they traded Joe Blanton.
The Brewers were 12 games out in the wild-card race at the time, and the Phillies were 13 games out. Both of them were done. Period. No questions asked.
The Brew Crew started ripping off win after win in August, and by the time September got underway they were only five games under .500 and 7.5 games out in the wild-card race.
By September 21, the Brewers were a season-high six games over .500 and were only 1.5 games out in the wild-card race. They had a legit shot at stealing a wild-card spot, whereas they would have been 7.5 games out under the old rules.
The Phillies went on a similar hot stretch of their own in August, and by September 21 they were only three games out in the NL wild-card race. With Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee healthy and pitching well, they had everyone's attention as a legit threat to sneak into the playoffs.
Under the old rules, they would have been a full nine games out and a threat to absolutely nobody.
So under the old rules, this year's NL wild-card race would been no different from any other wild-card race from years past. It would have featured one team leading the way, and only two or three teams chasing it. Not bad as far as drama goes, but not great drama either.
Including the Brewers and Phillies, there were five teams within 5.5 games of the second wild-card spot as late as September 21. That means almost half of the National League was involved in the wild-card race in some way, a reality that would have made all of our heads explode if there was still only one postseason berth to be earned.
While all of this was going on, there was plenty of intrigue to be found in the division races as well.
Division Races Mean a Whole Lot More
When MLB's Wild Card expansion was first announced way back in March, one of the selling points was that it would "increase the rewards of a division championship."
It wasn't entirely clear at the time that MLB had a good point about how the new Wild Cards would affect the division races. Sure, a division title meant a couple extra days of rest and maybe a chance for a given club to align its pitching, but was that really that much of a significant change?
Uh, yeah. It's pretty obvious that it is now, anyway.
Once again, we can turn back to the A's for a fine example. They just won the AL West with a sweep of the Rangers, and they were able to do it in large part thanks to their bullpen. It was lights-out, and everyone contributed.
Seriously. Everyone. No exceptions. Bob Melvin wanted to win the division so bad that he used both Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour on five consecutive days. When it comes to relievers, that's just something you don't do.
Melvin did it because he knew what was at stake. Winning the division would mean a couple extra days of rest for his relievers, and it would also keep them from having to play a do-or-die Wild Card Game on Friday in which he may have had no choice but to exhaust his bullpen once again. Given the circumstances, his recklessness with his relievers was very much worth the potential payoff.
Just think how things would have been different in years past. If the A's could have settled for the lone wild-card berth if they didn't win the division, we probably would not have seen Cook and Balfour pitch five days in a row. The A's could have been guaranteed a spot in the ALDS either way, so it would have been foolish for Melvin to exhaust his relievers. A wild-card berth was just as good as a division championship in the old days.
Not so much now. We saw the Atlanta Braves relentlessly pursue the Washington Nationals in the NL East and the Baltimore Orioles relentlessly pursue the New York Yankees in the AL East. In fact, the only division races that weren't all that interesting in the end were the races in the NL West and NL Central.
One assumes teams are still motivated by the whole badge of honor thing that comes with winning their respective divisions, but there's more at stake this season than mere pride. You get the sense that clubs have realized just how important those couple extra days of rest really are. They realize that winning their divisions come with both symbolic and tangible rewards.
This is what MLB was teasing when it spoke of increased important of division championships back in March. If anything, MLB may have actually undersold the importance of division titles when the decision was made to expand the league's playoff format.
There's definitely excitement in the air. So much so, in fact, that I actually feel comfortable in saying that the spirit of the 2011 season is alive and well.
The Excitement of 2011 Actually Seems Petty By Comparison
The 2011 MLB season was a long, weird, twisted thing that ultimately spiraled down to one ultra-important day: September 28.
None of us really need convincing that September 28, 2011, was and still is the single greatest day of regular season baseball in MLB history. It featured the Red Sox and Braves collapse, the Cardinals getting into the playoffs on the strength of a complete-game shutout, and the Rays getting into the playoffs on the strength of a furious comeback against the Yankees and a walk-off homer off the bat of Evan Longoria.
Even at the time, none of us figured that we'd ever see anything like it ever again. And as far as most people were concerned, MLB all but made it official when the Wild Card expansion was announced.
Many were quick to point out that both the Red Sox and the Rays would have made it into the postseason at the end of the 2011 season, ditto both the Cardinals and the Braves. There would have been no drama, and, well, the end of the season would have totally sucked.
Now we know better.
Though the A's clinched the AL West in rather thrilling fashion on Wednesday and Yankees sewed the AL East hours later, it's likely that the final day of the 2012 regular season won't end up being as memorable at the final day of the 2011 regular season. But whether that was ever a possibility in the first place is very much up for debate, and I'll wager right here and now that the last couple weeks of this season put the last couple weeks of the 2011 season to shame.
On September 23 last year, all six divisions had been clinched. The only drama to be found was in the wild-card races, and we had no way of knowing that the Red Sox were going to lose their 2.5-game lead and the Braves were going to lose their three-game lead.
By comparison, consider how things were on September 23 this year. Only two divisions had been clinched, and both wild-card races were rocking. The Rays and Angels were both within 3.5 games of the second wild-card spot in the AL, and the Diamondbacks, Dodgers and Brewers were all within 4.5 games of the second wild-card spot in the NL.
Nothing could be taken for granted in the NL wild-card race because the Cardinals were doing little to distance themselves. Nothing could be taken for granted in the AL wild-card race because the Angels and Rays were both in the middle of winning streaks. Combine the wild-card races with the division races, and you had drama galore.
Even as recently as a couple of days ago, things were still very much up in the air. All three AL divisions and the NL East were still un-clinched, and the Angels, Rays and Dodgers were all still within striking distance in the wild-card races.
There's no way of knowing if the division races would have been this intense under the old rules, but we know for a fact that the wild-card races certainly wouldn't have been so intense. Under the old rules, the Angels, Rays and Dodgers would have already been eliminated entering Monday's action.
The phrase "down to the wire" comes to mind when you think of all that has transpired at the end of the 2012 season. This is what MLB was hoping for, and it's exactly what MLB has wrought.
So I say again, a golf clap for Mr. Selig, please. It's the least we can do for this lovely thing he has given us.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.