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In April, Commissioner Bud Selig detailed plans to expand the number of playoff teams in Major League Baseball with hopes for additional wild card slots in 2012. While no official agreement has been made, Selig did say that “ten is a fair number” with regards to adding one more wild card team in each league. Such a change would seem fair, considering baseball has the smallest percentage of postseason teams compared to the other professional sports leagues in America.
In fact, with less than 30% of teams making it to October baseball, MLB isn’t even close to the NFL (at over 37%) and the NBA and NHL, both of whom allow more than half of teams into their lengthy postseasons. Selig was the man who adopted the wild card team in the first place, and he seems correct in thinking adding two more spots would be fair for a number of reasons.
Two more playoff teams means a more exciting August and September of playoff races. This year, competitive teams like the Tampa Bay Rays have almost no shot at making the postseason, simply because of the superior teams ahead of them in the standings. However, the Rays are ten games above .500 and have one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball, certainly a scary team in October. They have a better record than all of the teams in the American League Central, who are fighting for that division title, and would be in the middle of a race in almost every other baseball division as well. But this year’s Rays aren’t the only team who could have benefitted from an additional playoff spot. In fact, if the Rays were positioned as the second wild card team, there would be four teams within five games of them, including the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels, who would likely not find any other way into October this year.
Another underrated upside to adding a wild card slot in each league is the impact on the trade deadline. With another way into the playoffs, more teams would consider standing pat at the deadline or even being buyers instead of sellers. This would be great for baseball, because whether or not teams continue to stay in the race down the stretch, less teams would be waving the white flag two months before the season ends. The biggest question with the two additional teams though is exactly how the playoffs would be shaped with an uneven number of teams in each league.
The proposed idea is to have each wild card team face each other before the rest of the teams begin to play. This instantly creates another advantage to an additional wild card spot, because teams have a real incentive to winning their division. In past years, teams have not played all out towards the end of the season because they would rather rest their players or get a better first round matchup through the wild card, but now division winners would get days off altogether after the season with a first round bye. They would also not necessarily know their first round opponent until the conclusion of the wild card round, and meanwhile those teams would have to burn through their pitching staffs, meaning their top pitchers might not be available to pitch at the start of the next round. The only real issue is determining the length of the first round series. A five-game series is too long, so the options are a dramatic one-game playoff or a three-game series.
I personally don’t think a one-game playoff is a good idea. They are already used in certain tie-breaking situations at the end of the regular season, and I think wild card teams deserve more than one game to prove they belong in October. The problem with a three-game series is the length of time that could be taken by the games. While only three games would be played, the series would need to be fair in terms of the team given home field advantage, meaning team would likely need to travel between each game. The baseball regular season ends on September 28th this year. So, if every team gets one day off before the wild card round, that means a possible first game would be played on the 30th, then a travel day, second game on the 2nd, another travel day, and then the possible third game on the 4th of October. Then there would have to be at least one more day off before the next round begins, which means that division winners would have to wait over a week without playing, a major flaw in the system. The end date of the season doesn’t affect this either, discussions of shortening the season and ending the year earlier in September would still produce the same week-long break.
I am a strong supporter of the idea of expanding the playoffs to ten teams. I think that there aren’t nearly enough teams in the baseball postseason, and there certainly are at least two more deserving teams every year who fought through the length of the season with impressive records in each league. As a fan, I want to see more teams and players in October than just the usual suspects, and another wild card spot allows for that opportunity to exist. Small market teams would have a much easier time building strong rosters to get to October, and could be involved in great stretch runs towards the end of the season.
As for the issue of scheduling the first round, I think the solution can develop from the use of day games as well as changing the first round format. Instead of using a one-one-one system with teams changing home field every game, the road series team could open at home with the other team getting the final two games at home, eliminating the chaotic travel problem. If every team plays a day game on the final day of the regular season, teams could travel and play the first game of the wild card round the next day or evening. Then a travel day and the final two games at the other ballpark would mean the entire wild card round would take up to five days with a day off after a third game. Then the following round would commence with division winners only experiencing a five day break of baseball. While it’s not a perfect system, a team that finds itself too rested and comes out slow in the beginning of the next round would have the advantage of having their ace available to pitch, whereas the wild card team may have used their best pitchers already. I see far too much upside to adding two wild card teams and hope baseball manages to make this change for the upcoming 2012 season.