Amid all the little nuances that remain the same every spring — the emergence of semi-consistently warm weather and the Braves’ inability to score runs, to name a couple — it’s a time of significant change for the game of baseball in a number of ways.
The big story for the current season is the addition of a second Wild Card team for the playoffs, expanding the MLB postseason from eight teams to 10. It’s the first time that the number of playoff teams has changed for any of the four major sports since 1994.
The highly polarizing rule change was made months ago, but it was only on Feb. 29 that MLB confirmed that the rule would take effect starting in 2012 rather than 2013.
On that day, the logistics of the format change were finalized, revealing just how much this very, very significant rule change was rushed to completion in order to make a money grab.
Adding a second Wild Card brings two major changes to the way the MLB Playoffs will work. Both present far more negative effects than positive ones. The non-monetary merits of the new playoff format simply do not outweigh the damage that will be done to MLB’s regular season.
The first of the two major changes, is the new one-game playoff in each league between the two respective Wild Card teams.
In 2011, historic month-long collapses by the Braves and the Red Sox allowed the Cardinals and the Rays to steal the Wild Card spots on the final day of the regular season. A one-game playoff, as the argument goes, would have destroyed that Wild Card race, as the Braves and Red Sox would have still made the playoffs and had a coin flip’s chance at still making the Division Series.
The 2009 season, for example, would have featured a four-team race for the second Wild Card spot in the AL and a three-team race in the NL, offering plenty of added drama in a year when both actual Wild Card winners made the playoffs comfortably.
That last bit is half the issue, though. The 2009 AL Wild Card was Boston, which won 95 games; its opponent in the one-game playoff would have been Texas, which won 87. A similar case appeared in the NL, where 92-win Colorado would have faced 88-win San Francisco.
In both cases, a team that performed significantly better over the course of a marathon 162-game season would be at risk of losing its playoff spot based on the outcome of just one game, simply because it failed to win its divisions.
It’s funny, because that’s the strongest argument in favor of a second Wild Card — that it gives teams a greater overall incentive to win their divisions and avoid the one-game crapshoot.
This case, however, is marred by the second major change in the new 10-team setup: the new temporary Division Series format, one that passed far more quietly but is extremely significant.
Since 1998, the five-game series has used a 2-2-1 format for playing sites, with the better-record team hosting Games One, Two, and Five of the series. Now, though, a 2-3 format will be adopted for the 2012 season, letting the team with the worse record play at home in Games One and Two.
This means that the winner of the play-in game in each league — which may well be an 85-win team that snuck into the playoffs — will host the first two games of the Division Series against the top team in the league. In 2009, for example, this could have been the 87-win Rangers hosting the 103-win Yankees.
It’s a one-year fix, as the plan is for the 2-2-1 format to be reestablished in 2013. But the fact that MLB was willing to so easily overlook this issue reveals the true motivation behind this change — not that it was ever particularly in question.
For a single season, baseball is more about success over a long period of time than any other sport, and having a team’s fortunes come down to just one game — except when absolutely necessary, as in the case of a tie for a division lead after 162 games — is simply not a good way to decide anything in this sport.
It is, however, a great way for MLB to make money. At a time when team revenues and values are skyrocketing, as evidenced by the recent $2.1 billion sale of the Dodgers and new multi-billion-dollar TV contracts for the Angels and Rangers.
It’s sad that Bud Selig and friends feel the need to institute a new playoff system that is unnecessary, unwieldy and unaligned with everything that makes the game great.