The MLB has broken its playoff system.
I’ve been very vocal about that for the last year. What they have now is bad. Really bad. Under no circumstance does it make any sense that two MLB wild card teams should have a one game playoff to decide which team gets to move on to a real round. That amounts to no more than flipping a coin, a couple wrong bounces, a gust of wind, to decide who gets to play a legitimate playoff series. One team can have 20 more wins than the other. It doesn’t matter. And that is just wrong. But, it wasn’t until recently when listening to sports talk radio that I really felt compelled to write about just how dreadful it is. The idiotic statement that nearly made my blood boil? “Wild card teams should be punished for not winning their division.”
What? Is that some sort of joke? Wild card teams should be punished? Wasn’t the whole point of the wild card to give teams with a stellar record in a tough division the opportunity to advance into the playoffs? Aren’t I supposed to be answering questions here instead of posing more?
Well the answer is yes, when the wild card was first instituted in 1994 that was the reasoning, or at least the reasoning that was made public (it probably had a bit to do with money as well, but we’ll get to that later). With the expansion from 2 to 3 divisions, something had to be done to make the playoffs run smoothly. The best way to do this? The best team who didn’t win their division got to play in the playoffs.
There have been countless times when a great team is stuck in a top-notch division, play a great season, but still can’t manage to snag the division championship. Take the Marlins who were stuck behind the Braves in 2003 but went on to win the World Series. Or the next year when the Red Sox were stuck behind the Yankees. Despite having to play the stellar team at the top of their respective divisions more often than they got to play the weaker teams from the Central, they were still able to have a better record than any other second place team in the league. And in the case of the Red Sox, they were able to have a better record than any other team in the AL by six whole games. So you’re to tell me those teams aren’t as deserving of the post-season, despite playing in a harder division and still managing to post a great record? I fail to see any validity there at all.
I always thought baseball had the ultimate playoff system. It doesn’t drag on for ages like the NFL, it doesn’t have over half the teams making it like the NBA. It’s concise, entertaining, and most of all, exciting. After a 162 game season, if the proper top four teams in each league aren’t able to distance themselves, then you’ll simply get an exciting September as well. I’m a die-hard Braves fan, and when it came down to that heartbreaking September collapse a couple years ago, I died hard. But even I can’t say they deserved to have one more game to prove they deserved to be in the playoffs. They sputtered and thus didn’t deserve it. But boy was it exciting to watch, even though I ended up on the wrong side of the celebration. There’s no reason another team who didn’t win their division deserves to keep playing after 162.
In terms of money, yes, a one-game playoff is the sort of thing that should sell out. It’s do or die. If fans don’t want to be there for that, they probably aren’t really fans. But if you expect me to believe that this one game makes more than a five game series, or even a three game series would, then you’re out of your mind. Now, I hope at this point I’ve made it clear that my main qualm is with two wild card teams making the playoffs, but I will say if they do have two teams have a bit of a play-in round. To have it be only one game is absolutely ludicrous. That works in football, it even sort of works in college basketball. Baseball simply isn’t a game where that can work. Let’s look at just the world series. In the history of the fall classic, 40 teams who have lost game 1 go on to win the series. That’s 37%! I don’t care if that isn’t half. It’s still a ton of teams that wouldn’t have won. The Yankees wouldn’t have won that title in 1996. Cubs fans wouldn’t even know 1908 was a year, because they would’ve won in 1945. That’s simply the way baseball goes. It’s a game of inches, but it’s also a game of uncertainty. That’s why the season is 162 games. Over the course of that many games, things are usually going to even out to how they should be. Usually. Baseball is the only major sport where the worst team in the league can beat the best team and it isn’t news. Heck, no one even thinks twice about it. So to bring it down to one game to decide between these two teams is absolutely ridiculous.
Part of that radio argument I grew to loathe was the fact this one game means the wild card team has to throw their first starter and thus go into the next series with their number two. Who does that benefit? First of all, fans want to see number one take on number one. That’s why game ones are so exciting, because otherwise they don’t mean a whole lot (see above stat about teams losing game one and going on to win.) Also, does it really benefit the division winner who is being “rewarded” all that much? Sure, let’s throw Curt Schilling instead of Randy Johnson. Here, you can face Andy Petite instead of Roger Clemens. Let’s give you a huge advantage, we’ll sit Greg Maddux, let you face Tom Glavine, and then have Maddux fully rested for game three when we pull off the sweep. Yeah, it sounds like the division winners are basically getting a bye through this system.
Honestly, I’d be content if the league decided to make the pennant matter again by having no division winners and simply the best team from each league battle in the world series. Without any inter-league play before that to preview things. But I think that’s an argument for another article. Just know the MLB wild card system is absolutely broken, and the league’s going to squander the potential and magic of the playoffs until that is fixed.