Second wild-card team will add excitement

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
8:30
PM ET
Buster Posey and Cody RossEzra Shaw/Getty ImagesLast year's last-day Pads loss to the Giants would mean less with another playoff slot.

Bud Selig wants to expand the number of playoff teams, and -- pending eventual approval from the MLB Players Association -- we'll have more playoff teams in 2012.

"I would say we're moving to expanding the playoffs, but there's a myriad of details to work out," Selig said Thursday. "Ten is a fair number."

The details include the possible scenarios and issues for a new system:

  • Would the two wild-card teams play each other? A one-game playoff is the popular suggestion.
  • Would it be fair to have a 95-win wild card play an 84-win wild card in a one-game elimination?
  • Should the two wild-card teams play a best-of-three series? But that means four off days for the other playoff teams.
  • Should the best overall record get a "bye" while the other four teams play each other? But again, that means a bunch of off days.

Aside from the logistics, there are three important issues to be answered:

1. The sanctity and excitement of the regular season must be maintained.

The regular season in baseball matters. You have to play well over 162 games to make the playoffs. You don't want an NBA scenario, in which teams can coast and the only interesting playoff battles are for an eighth seed that is going to lose in the playoffs anyway. If the regular season is cheapened, you risk losing fans.

2. The playoffs must remain important enough for fans to care.

World Series and playoff TV ratings haven't fared well in the past decade. Do you risk losing more viewers by adding playoff games or making a championship seem less relevant due to the randomness of the baseball playoffs?

3. A new system should be fair to the players and teams.

I hope the commissioner's office factors this in.

Before we answer those questions, here's a look back at the past five seasons. We'll list the actual wild-card team first (with wins in parentheses) followed by the team that would have been the second wild card and then the next-best record after that. Let's assume the one-game wild-card scenario.

2010
American League: Yankees (95) versus Red Sox (89). Next best: White Sox (88).
National League: Braves (91) versus Padres (90). Next best: Cardinals (86).

What we gain: Red Sox-White Sox wild-card race.
What we lose: NL West race between Giants and Padres becomes irrelevant.

2009
American League: Red Sox (95) versus Rangers (87). Next best: Tigers (86).
National League: Rockies (92) versus Giants (88). Next best: Marlins (87).

What we gain: Giants-Marlins-Braves (86) three-team wild-card race.
What we lose: Nothing. Twins-Tigers AL Central tiebreaker would have still existed.

2008
American League: Red Sox (95) versus Yankees (89). Next best: Twins (88).
National League: Brewers (90) versus Mets (87). Next best: Astros (86).

What we gain: White Sox-Twins division race becomes a 3-for-2 playoff race with Yankees.
What we lose: Phillies-Mets NL East race (and Mets' collapse).

2007
American League: Yankees (94) versus Tigers/Mariners (88).
National League: Rockies (90) versus Padres (89). Next best: Mets (88).

What we gain: Yankees-Red Sox battle for AL East now becomes relevant; Tigers-Mariners wild-card race.
What we lose: Rockies-Padres one-game playoff that the Rockies won.

2006
American League: Tigers (95) versus White Sox (90). Next best: Angels (89).
National League: Dodgers (88) versus Phillies (85). Next best: Astros (82).

What we gain: Padres (88) and Dodgers both made playoffs, but would be fighting for a more important division title now. Same with Twins (96) and Tigers. White Sox-Angels-Blue Jays (87) wild-card race.
What we lose: Nothing.

Back to our questions

1. The sanctity and excitement of the regular season must be maintained.

I have to admit: I don't think you lose anything here. Yes, in some seasons -- like last year's NL West race -- you'll lose the excitement of a pennant race because both teams will be assured playoff berths. On the other hand, the one-game playoff scenario places a bigger reward on winning the division, so in theory you create exciting division races.

Except ... imagine this scenario. The Rays and Yankees are tied for the division lead entering the final day of the season. David Price and CC Sabathia are both rested. Do you start them in hopes of winning the division title? If you win the division title, you move on to the best-of-five division series. But if you lose that game and the division title, you have one game to advance in the playoffs ... and you've burned your best pitcher. Is it fair to play 161 games and then put teams in that scenario? One thing I know: Managers would vote 30 to zero against having a one-game wild-card playoff.

MLB officials would argue that allowing two more playoff teams creates additional September excitement because more teams have a shot at the playoffs. I believe that's true, although you're really adding only two or three teams a year to this scenario and I think the attendance effect would be minimal.

2. The playoffs must remain important enough for fans to care.

I don't think one additional playoff game will really do anything to boost the TV ratings. You might get a little bump for that one game -- especially if it's the Red Sox or Yankees -- but adding two more playoff teams won't increase your World Series ratings. (Other than potentially putting more big-market teams in the playoffs to have a chance at reaching the World Series, which also means it could hurt World Series ratings by allowing more small-market teams in the playoffs that could reach the World Series.)

3. A new system should be fair to the players and teams.

This is the biggest issue I have with a one-game playoff: How can you ask players to grind it out for 162 games and then have their season come down to a one-game playoff? Joe Maddon has expressed that he thinks this is unfair, and I agree. Baseball, of course, isn't really thinking of the players here, but trying to create more excitement (and thus generate more revenue).

So what to do? Look, the traditionalists who want only the best teams to make the playoffs so a championship means more are pining for a past that doesn't exist anymore. Wild-card teams have won the World Series many times. The best regular-season team rarely wins the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals won in 2006 despite finishing with the 13th-best record. The sport didn't collapse.

So, with all that, I have to say I like a second wild-card team even if I believe the overall impact is fairly minor, but this would be my scenario:

1. Have the two wild-card teams play a three-game series. I think making the other teams have the extra days off isn't that major a factor compared to the one-game do-or-die scenario.

2. No off days in the playoffs, except for two days before the World Series. This gives an advantage to the deeper teams and keeps baseball from playing World Series games in mid-November.

3. And if the Florida Marlins sneak into the playoffs with 83 wins and go on to win another World Series ... well, there will always be next year.

David Schoenfield | email

SweetSpot blogger

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