Earlier today, Major League Baseball made a pair of announcements: the Houston Astros were on their way to the American League, and two additional teams were being added to the MLB playoffs. I am uncertain how the Astros move will play out, as it will even out the leagues but also necessitate interleague play all season long.
Expanding the playoffs, however, is an excellent move, as it will affect MLB in three important ways.
Division Titles Now Mean Something
Perhaps the biggest complaint about the old playoff format is that there really wasn’t much of a difference between winning the division title and winning the Wild Card. The only penalty that the wild-card winner received was that they never got home-field advantage—a fact that almost always applies to the division winner with the worst record.
All of this is changed by the new format, as the two wild-card winners now have a de facto extra round to go through in order to advance along with all of the other division winners. It also gives teams that win the division extra time to rest while the wild-card teams use their best pitchers making it through the do-or-die round.
Suddenly, advancing to the World Series as a wild-card team just got quite a bit tougher.
Guaranteed End-of-Season Drama
Remember the excitement at the end of the 2009 American League season, when the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers held a one-game playoff to decide who got the crown in the AL Central? Well, the additional Wild Card means that MLB is guaranteed two such games at the end of every single season. And this is on top of any other tiebreaker games that might also apply for the divisional crown.
Most Stretch Runs Would Be More Exciting
One of the most common criticisms I have seen about the expanded playoff format is that all of the drama over last year’s wild-card races would not have occurred under this new system. Statements like this tend to ignore the fact that a) the Los Angeles Angels and San Francisco Giants (who were both in the mix until the final week) were part of that drama and b) not every stretch run ends the same way.
In fact, we don’t have to go far to find situations where the additional Wild Card would make things far more exciting. In 2010, the Red Sox and White Sox finished within a game of each other in the push for fifth place in the AL, while the extra round would have added an entirely different dimension in the frantic finish in the NL. In 2009, four teams all finished within three games of fifth place in the AL, while three teams were within two games of fifth in the NL. The Yankees and Twins would have been racing for the extra spot in 2008… need I go on?
Adding the extra Wild Card gives more teams better access to the postseason every single year… which can only be good for the game.