Friday, March 02, 2012

Not Wild About (But Not Opposed to) the Idea of Additional Wild Cards

I hadn't really thought much about Major League Baseball's plan for expanded playoffs until a friend of the blog asked me my opinion on Twitter the other day. Said friend, who writes the Outfield Grass blog, is a Mariners fan, but not really in favor of the addition of one wild card per league to the current system. I didn't ask, but I can only assume this is the product of bit of a purist mentality, as he also admitted it would probably help his team. Well, in the long run at least.

Obviously, more teams in the playoffs is pretty much a boon to every team's chances of qualifying, but I thought about what teams might not benefit from such a system. Like I said, that consideration had yet to really cross my mind, but the answer was pretty obvious.

The first teams that popped into my head were the Yankees and Red Sox, of course, but also probably the Phillies. At least in the game's current economic state, which doesn't seem likely to change in the foreseeable future. Then, almost predictably, Phillies skipper Charlie Manuel made some old school remark hearkening back to the days when the best two teams would meet in the World Series. Or, something like that.

Although the two best teams playing in the Series wasn't really guaranteed even in the pre-division play days (the two best teams could conceivably be in the same league), I kind of get where he's coming from. But, adding one more wild card per league doesn't change anything for teams except those that wouldn't have made the playoffs in any system prior to the current one anyway. So, I don't see how it really changes anything for anyone who likes things the way they used to be.

This is not meant to be criticism directed at Manuel, but the playoffs have expanded twice since his utopian scenario existed, and the new change won't affect teams who win their divisions anyway. After the wild card play-in game, there will still be four teams remaining in each league. So, all else being equal, division winners will still have a 25% chance of reaching the World Series.

So, we're really talking about a system that will have the most negative effect on teams who are expected to make the playoffs every year, namely the Red Sox and Yankees. Although the Rays have thrown a wrench into those two teams' collective dominance of the AL East, it's not unrealistic to expect, even in the one wild card system, that most years the weaker of those two teams would qualify for the wild card. Meaning they'll now be subjected to one-game playoffs instead.

I guess what I'm kind of saying is it's a system most fans should be in favor of, since it really only adversely affects the two richest teams in the game, and maybe a few other "haves" as well.

But, as a Yankees fan, I'm really not complaining. I kind of like the idea, in theory, of more teams playing meaningful games right up to the end of season. I don't really love the idea of a one-game playoff. But, given that it will only affect teams who didn't win their divisions anyway, I don't see it as a terrible injustice.

Now, I can only assume that all ties for division championships will now have to be settled by one-game playoffs preceding such wild card games, even when the loser of such a game will still qualify for the wild card. It would seem unfair to settle such division deadlocks by tiebreaker, given the major advantage of making the playoffs as a division champ. I suppose this scenario could further delay the start of the playoffs for all other teams, and given that's a situation MLB is trying to avoid by making the wild cards play only one game rather than best-of-threes, this could potentially be another drawback.

Otherwise, my only major reservation with expanded playoffs is the concern that baseball is gradually going the way of hockey and basketball, where more than half the teams qualify for the postseason (16 of 30 in both sports, to be exact). But, in baseball's soon-to-be-implemented new system, we're still only talking about one-third (10 of 30), so I can live with that.

Just, let's not get any crazy ideas about expanding to 12 any time soon, OK?

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