One of the things that separates Major League Baseball from other professional sports in this country is the exclusivity of the playoffs. Yet this September is highlighting the benefits and detriment of the still relatively new second Wild Card in each league.
But does having one race that means everything and another that has been decided for weeks make Bud Selig's master plan better or worse for the postseason race?
There have been a lot of varying opinions on the addition of another team to the postseason. For instance, in September 2012, Gabe Lacques of USA Today wrote about mediocre play being rewarded.
Lacques' argument stemmed from 2012's late-season collapses by Pittsburgh and Los Angeles in the division races only to be kept alive because of the second Wild Card and the Orioles possibly being forced into a one-game playoff against a team they might have a better record than when in past years they would have gotten a five-game series.
(For the record, Baltimore and Texas wound up having the same 93-69 record in that Wild Card playoff game.)
Fast forward one year later, Mike Bauman of MLB.com applauds Selig's effort to get another playoff team into the mix.
...The Rangers and Rays are in the lead for the two Wild Card spots at this point, but the Orioles, Indians, Yankees and Royals are all in solid contention. Six clubs battling for two postseason openings is the kind of thing that has allowed the Wild Card to gain more than just a foothold in baseball's postseason.
No one disputes that more races is a good thing for baseball. You want to have more teams in a race because it generates more fan interest, and that can result in better television ratings or more ticket sales in some cities.
Look at what's happening in the American League right now. Those six teams Bauman listed are within 6.5 games of each other for the top two wild-card spots.
You have the perfect mix of big-market teams and rising small-market franchises ready to take the next step perhaps a year or two sooner than anyone thought they would. Selig undoubtedly had this in mind when he created this format before the start of the 2012 season.
Of course, there are going to be times when things don't work out the way you hoped. All you have to do is look at the National League race right now to see that happening.
What could be one of the best division and wild-card races in recent memory between NL Central rivals Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati has instead lost most of the drama because all three teams will, barring some historic collapse in the next three weeks, be in the playoffs.
All that we are waiting on is to figure out which two teams will be in the one-game playoff and which one can prepare for a five-game series.
St. Louis (19 games left) leads Pittsburgh (also 19 left) by one game and Cincinnati (17 games left) by two games in the division. Pittsburgh holds an nine-game lead over Arizona, while Cincinnati is seven games up in the wild-card race.
For all intents and purposes, everything is decided. That is exciting for fans of those teams but doesn't do much for the rest of us.
However, as boring as the NL playoff race this season is, I am willing to chalk it up to a one-year anomaly.
I mean, without the second Wild Card, none of the six AL teams mentioned would have a prayer at making the postseason. Even if it's not doing much to draw crowds at the box office, it does make for a lot of excitement down the stretch.
Plus, all you have to do is wind the clock back one year to Sept. 13 to see the advantages of having the second Wild Card.
In 2012, there was the scenario where all NL division leaders (Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco) held leads of at least 7.5 games and were going to the postseason. But at the same time, there were seven teams within 4.5 games of a wild-card spot.
Some of that was because the NL was so mediocre—Arizona was the seventh team on the list with a 71-72 record. Yet it still didn't change the fact that one good week for one squad and a bad week for another could have pushed you from first to seventh in the standings.
Things were even more chaotic in the AL. Baltimore and New York were tied atop the East with an 81-62 mark. Chicago held a one-game lead over Detroit. Texas was up three games on the hard-charging Athletics.
Then you dive into the wild-card standings, where the Angels, Rays and Tigers were all within 5.5 games of a playoff spot.
That translates to 18 out of 30 teams that still had an honest chance to play October baseball. Even if it is just one game on the road, it still provides hope to win a championship. That's all any team can ask for when a season starts.
On top of all that, the new playoff format has put more emphasis on and rewards winning the division. Before, it was just win a playoff spot and play in a best-of-five series with the best team winning.
Now, teams want to win their division more than ever in order to avoid exhausting all their resources in a one-game playoff leading into a five-game series.
I will fully admit to being against the second Wild Card when first announced. I liked the exclusivity of the MLB postseason. But putting things in perspective, we are still only allowing 10 of 30 teams to play in October. That is a far better ratio than you have in any other sport.
And it also doesn't hurt that we get to see some thrilling, exciting races ready to keep fans on the edge of their seats until the end of September.
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