So, as you know, they will probably add another wildcard team to the baseball playoffs next year. Nobody knows for sure how it will work — a one-game playoff between wildcards, a three-game playoff, whatever — but this extra round seems likely to happen and soon.
I think many people like the concept of adding a playoff. I can see why: I think many of us have been waiting for something meaningful that separates division champions from wildcards. Giving the division champs homefield advantage (which is the only real advantage now) is clearly NOT meaningful enough and the governors of baseball understand that — heck, they give homefield advantage in the World Series to the team that wins a pointless exhibition game.
A one-game playoff between the wildcard teams would certainly provide that separation. Right now, the Yankees and Red Sox are going through an almost entirely pointless August and September, which is sad because they really are great teams and only a half-game separates them in the American League East. Trouble is: So what? They are both going to make the playoffs. The so-called loser in the A.L. East will probably play Texas, while the so-called winner might play Detroit, meaning that the team that takes the division might get the grand privilege of facing Justin Verlander in the opening game. Wow, that should make the last few weeks of the season exciting.
So, yes, I think many baseball fans — most baseball fans — want a system that can bring back some tension to the great pennant races. Imagine now if the Yankees and Red Sox loser would have to play a one-game play-in game just to get into the real playoffs. That unquestionably would add all sorts of excitement to September. And we would get to see even MORE Yankees and Red Sox on television!
I’ve been going back and forth on how I feel about all this — not that Bud Selig is waiting for my approval. I really like the effort to make pennant races thrilling again; I miss great pennant races. I’m not opposed to reducing the status of wild card teams — I think if you don’t win your division, you don’t have any right to complain. I’m not a playoff guy when it comes to baseball, but I can see the value of bringing the do-or-die playoff into baseball’s regular rotation. I do not even mind adding another playoff round to the season, as long as baseball goes with a proposal that I am writing for the back page of Sports Illustrated this week.
So, theoretically, I can see the value. And hey, I’m always for more baseball.
No, my only problem comes when I actually look at the standings.
This year, for instance, the Yankees-Red Sox loser would probably play Tampa Bay or the Angels in a one-game playoff. In the National League, the Braves would probably play the Giants-Diamondbacks loser, or perhaps St. Louis.
Well, does that seem fair? Sure, the wildcard teams have no right to complain. But the Red Sox, who are currently in second place, are CLEARLY better than the Rays or Angels — especially the Rays, who are obviously in the same division. The Braves, at the moment anyway, are a few games better than the Giants, Diamondbacks or Cardinals. I mean we are talking about a noticeable gap between those teams.
— In 2010, the Yankees (or Rays, who might have lost the division had it mattered) would have had to play a Boston team in a one-game playoff even though they had beaten the Red Sox pretty convincingly over 162 games.
— In 2009, the Rockies would have had to play the Giants, even though THEY had beaten the Giants pretty convincingly over 162 games.
— The 2008 season is the only one in the last 16 seasons that the Yankees did not make the playoffs … but in the new wildcard scenario they WOULD have made the playoffs, and the Red Sox — who were six games up at season’s end — would have had to play them in a one-game playoff. Could you imagine if THAT Yankees team — the one hopeful moment for Yankees haters everywhere — had knocked out the Red Sox, beaten the miracle Rays, and then gone on and won the World Series?
— In 2007, the Tigers and Mariners tied for the wildcard, which seems to suggest they would have had to play in a one-game playoff, and the winner of THAT would have played the Yankees in a one-game playoff even though the Yankees were six games better. That same year, the Mets collapse might not have meant anything since the Mets would have still made it as the second wildcard, and they might have knocked the Rockies out of the playoffs before they even began their run to the World Series. This is something else: We talk about how the wildcard would bring back tension to pennant races. But, realistically, it would take some tension of out pennant races too.
— In 2006, the 95-win Tigers would have played the 90-win White Sox in a one-game playoff. Every time these wildcards match up teams in the same division — and as you can see, that’s happening fairly often — it’s plain weird. Suddenly the five game difference between the Tigers and White Sox means nothing?
And so on. Some years, the match-ups come out great. And I suspect that we will all start to feel the rhythms of this new wildcard thing. But as of now, there’s something odd and unsettling about it. Sure we want the Yankees-Red Sox race to matter again. But unless you hate the Red Sox or Yankees — as many of you no doubt do — do you really think it would be fair to have them play the clearly beaten Tampa Bay Rays for the 20th time for the right to go the playoffs? That feels like some second-chance on a game show.
See: While the one-game playoff would indeed be punitive for the BEST team to not win a division, it’s a golden ticket for the SECOND BEST team to not win a division. And, if you look at the standings, there’s often a pretty wide gap those two teams. In 2001, the 102-win Oakland A’s would have played an 85-win Minnesota Twins in a one-game playoff, which would not have made for a pleasant scene for Brad Pitt.
Plus, yes, as I mentioned above, it would mess up as many pennant races as it currently helps. Sure, in the American League this new system would make the Yankees-Red Sox race more exciting. But at the same time, doesn’t it inject a sort of consolation prize to the Giants-Diamondbacks race? Last year, another wildcard unquestionably would have muted that thrilling final weekend with the Giants, Braves and Padres battling for two playoffs spots.
Not that any of this really matters or is even particularly relevant. There’s money to be made in playoffs, and so baseball will plunge forward. I suspect that even if it starts as a one-game playoff, it will eventually become a three-game thing, maybe a five-game thing before too long after that. And while it doesn’t seem especially likely now — and undoubtedly baseball people will shout that this will be the last playoff addition they will ever make — well, I think once you go down that road of adding an extra playoff round, it will keep expanding. They call it “bracket creep” in the NCAA basketball world.
I guess the point is that I can see in the abstract how the added wild card could be fun and exciting. But when I actually plug it in, no, I don’t think it will make the game better. I guess we’ll all get used to it, though.