There has been more talk lately about expanding the playoffs to include a second wild card team from each league. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said he’s open to the idea. Proponents site two reasons for doing this — on-field fairness and off-field drama.
We’ll examine the latter reason first. Take a look at this year’s American League race. The Yankees and Rays are battling it out in the final days of the season for the AL East championship. This should be a very dramatic, tense time for both teams, as well as their fans. But it is not because the loser is assured the wild card spot. The same thing happened during those Yankees-Red Sox races over the past ten years or so. What should have been epic battles lost a bit of their luster because both teams were going to the post season anyway. So it’s a very valid argument.
But let’s move to this year’s National League race. The Giants, Padres and Braves are in a fierce battle for the final two playoff spots. One of those teams will spend October at home. It’s all very dramatic. If there were two wild card spots, all three teams would get in, and there would be virtually no drama (of course, the Padres and Giants would rather win the division than be the wild card, but they’d be in the playoffs just the same). The same thing happened during the 2007 and 2008 Mets collapses. If they were assured a wild card spot, those collapses would have had much less of an impact.
So the “drama” reason actually cancels itself out. The on-field reason holds much more water. Under the current system, there is not much of a disadvantage to being the wild card team. Yes, that team plays one fewer game at home, but so too does the division winner with the worst record. But the wild card team gets to set up its pitching staff the same way as the division winner. The thinking is that if there were a one-game elimination matchup between the two wild card winners, those teams would have to use their best pitchers, making the ace of the winning team unavailable until the middle of the next series, and probably only for one game at that. That gives a huge advantage to the division winner — an advantage many people feel they earned by winning their division.
I understand the argument, but I like things the way they are. Only eight teams make the playoffs in baseball, as compared to 12 in football, and 16 in basketball and hockey. That often times puts undeserving teams — sometimes with losing records — in the playoffs. In baseball, you can rest assured that the teams in the playoffs earned those spots. It means that much more.
Let’s say the two-team wild card system was in place in 2007 and 2008, and the Mets got one of those spots but lost the wild card games. Sure, the Mets and their fans could say “Hey, we were in the playoffs!” But deep down, we all know it would have meant nothing.