Adding Wild Card Throws Off Playoffs

Jacob Eisenberg vents his frustrations with the MLB’s new playoff format…

Lost in all of the hoopla from the very public labor disputes between the NFL and NBA’s players and owners was the seemingly painless new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) struck between MLB and its players.

Unlike in the NFL and NBA where the disputes disrupted early season protocol, the MLB found resolutions to their disagreements before any practice or game time was missed.

Unfortunately, one key amendment’s negative impact within the MLB’s new CBA is getting so little attention. By allowing a second wild-card team to join the postseason in each league, Commissioner Bud Selig has declared the MLB playoffs will never look the same again…

I simply don’t get it. I love the MLB postseason just the way it is. It isn’t like the NBA in which the playoffs take too long from April to June. It isn’t like the NFL playoffs that see the top teams from each conference, get an extra week off. (As evidenced from the Packers sloppiness in round two of the postseason, the extra week of rest after Week 17 may be nothing but superfluous.) In the MLB playoffs, more than in any other professional sport, luck is a central component to success. This makes the postseason so enticing to watch.

What perplexes me most is why Selig would agree to this amendment after last season’s nail biting final few weeks, let alone the madness that ensued on the last day of the regular season. Not only did the Cardinals come back from a 10 ½ game deficit with a mere 32 games left in the season to outright win the National League (NL) wild-card from the Atlanta Braves, but the Rays pulled off an even more monstrous feat in the American League (AL). After trailing the Red Sox by nine games on Sept. 3, the Tampa Bay Rays rallied in the last month of the season to catch up to the Red Sox. However, on Sept. 28, the Red Sox still possessed the advantage in the wild-card. Had the Red Sox held their 3-2 lead in the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles, they would have been playoff bound. In Tampa Bay, a loss meant the end to the historic comeback. As the night played out, Tampa Bay miraculously came back from a 7-0 Yankee lead to win the game. Almost simultaneously, 850 miles away, Jonathan Papelbon blew a two-out ninth inning lead, allowing the Rays to swoop in and claim the final playoff spot.

By allowing two wild-card teams from each league, Selig is effectively ending any chance of drama late in the regular season.

From the outset, adding a second wild-card team to each league seems extremely beneficial to the sport. The league would get more television revenue from fans watching the additional one-game playoff round between the two wild-card teams. Teams would have a 20 percent greater chance of making the postseason heightening interest from their fan base. And overall, elite teams would have a lot more to play for come September because of the substantial advantage of winning the division over winning the wild-card.

Despite all of those advantages, the two-team wild-card plan ignores a key issue: baseball is random. The reason why the MLB playoffs are not played in a single elimination format is because anything can happen in any given game. Although luck is a central part of the game, the league tries to ensure the deserved team will win in the long haul. It is called the World Series, not the World Game for a reason. To win the championship, your team must have a perfect combination of greatness, strategy, and luck. By adding a second wild-card in each division, Selig is allowing for the possibility of a less-than-great team to win the championship.

I firmly believe no team that finishes third in their division deserves the right to play for the World Series. I understand it may be more difficult to finish third in the AL East than to finish first in the NL Central, but in reality if the team is truly great, they should be able to overcome that obstacle.

Never during the regular season will you see a team play another team for a mere single game. This is because baseball, by nature, is cumulative. Unlike the NFL, which features a one game at a time mentality, it is crucial for MLB teams to plan ahead. Managers don’t plan for one game at a time; they manage for the long run. In an elimination game, the Yankees will pitch Mariano Rivera for at least several innings. During the regular season, using Rivera’s arm in such a taxing manner wouldn’t even be considered.

Creating a one game playoff is cheap for all parties involved. Pitchers are quickly thrown from the patience of the regular season to the burdening pressures of win or go home. It’s cheap for the managers who have to alter their schemes to accommodate for that same approach. It’s cheap for the first wild-card team who deserves an unimpeded crack at taking down the top seed. And most of all, it’s unfair to the fans who are tricked into believing their team has actually made the postseason when in actuality, there is a strong chance they are eliminated within a day.

Both the Cardinals and Rays deserve praise for finishing last season so strong, not the punishment of having to go through another obstacle before making the real postseason. How many people actually remember the 2008 play-in game between the White Sox and Twins? If a tremendous play-in game from three seasons ago (when they were still rare), which resulted in a 1-0 shutout for the White Sox, isn’t going to having lasting memory, what makes Selig think two annual play-in games are? After 162 games, a wild-card team should not have to play a 163rd to prove they’re worthy of the postseason. As evidenced by St. Louis last season, 162 games is just enough to prove postseason worth.

Originally Published in The Emory Wheel on 01/30/2012

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