News broke yesterday that the MLB is more than likely going to add a fifth playoff team to each league starting in 2012. The two wild card teams would play each other, likely in a one game playoff, before the divisional series begins. My immediate reaction to this news is “lord, that is STUPID”. The NBA and NHL each take eight teams from each league for their playoffs. The NFL takes six. The NFL is a whole different beast from the other leagues though, as there are only 16 games in a season and every playoff game is essentially going to be a one game playoff.
The MLB has stood apart from the NBA and NHL because they don’t put half of the league in the playoffs. Now, with the dilution of the playoffs, 1/3 of the teams in the league will be playoff bound. Will there actually be an increase in “playoff races”, though? Below is a chart highlighiting what would have been the second wild card team in each league over the past five seasons, and how many games they “won” the slot by over the next competitor.
So looking at that chart, there actually appears that there would be an increase in competitiveness between the teams fighting for that second wild card berth. But there is one key aspect of things that the MLB is apparently ignoring, and that is tiebreakers. What if, like in 2007, there was a tie between two teams for the final spot? Would there be a playoff on Monday, and then the wild card playoff game on Tuesday before the start of the divisional series on Wednesday? That hardly seems fair, because how is a team supposed to stack their rotation if they are faced with a situation like this? Take the Dodgers for example. Say they’re a game back of the final wild card slot going into the last game of the season, and Clayton Kershaw’s scheduled start is Saturday. You have to throw him Saturday to keep pace. You can’t throw him on Sunday in a chance to win the wild card outright. If there’s a tie and a necessary playoff on Monday, he can’t go there. He wouldn’t be able to go for the wild card game on Tuesday. How fair is it for a team to get into the playoffs, only to be one and done because they needed to use their ace to get there in the first place?
A one game playoff also turns the MLB more into the NFL than I’m comfortable with. In the NFL, the phrase goes “on any given Sunday….”, meaning that upsets can happen at the drop of a hat if one thing happens. Say your quarterback sprains his ankle during the game on Sunday and can’t come back. That’s it, you don’t have a second chance to beat that team. In the MLB, if your player sprains his ankle on the first game of a series, he can wake up the next morning and feel great, and be ready to go that night with some tape.
In the NFL, the hottest team usually wins the SuperBowl. See the Packers from this February as a perfect example. They went into the playoffs on a roll, and went through their competition like a buzzsaw to claim the title. But in the MLB, the best team usually wins. The Giants may not have been the best team this past year, but there really wasn’t a “best” team. Each team had their weaknesses, and the Giants’ had the greatest strength in the postseason: their starting pitching staff. That staff carried San Francisco to their first world title in years, but imagine if the Giants lost that last game of the year to the Padres and went into the playoffs as a wild card team, and had to travel to Atlanta to take on the Braves. It was Tim Lincecum’s turn to start in what would have been the wild card playoff, and if they won, they would have gone into the division series with their ace unavailable until the weekend.
I think it’s crazy for baseball to expand the playoffs. The wild card worked well back in 1995, because it was necessary with expansion. In 2012, there will be no expansion. What’e the excuse now? It’s all about the money, baby. It’s pretty sad that Bud Selig would be willing to destroy even more of the competitive balance of the game for a few extra bucks in the owners’ pockets.