On Saturday, Joel Sherman reported that Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association “have all but agreed [to add] two wild-card teams and hold one-game playoffs in each league to determine which of the wild cards advances.” In other words, each league would add a fifth Wild Card team. It’s a dramatic change to the league’s playoff structure that has been in place for the past seventeen seasons, and could lead to even more glaring shakeups in which the leagues eliminate divisions entirely. The Common Man was slightly horrified and incredibly skeptical of benefits of such a move.
Understandably, there is also a great deal of concern from baseball fans, bloggers, and pundits that adding two more Wild Card teams dilutes the pool of playoff participants, risks allowing an inferior team to win the World Series, and destroys the drama of the regular season. Indeed, as Moshe Mandel of the excellent The Yankee Analysts, pointed out last night, that’s especially true this year, “an extra playoff spot would kill these races. NOT NECESSARILY GONNA ADD DRAMA WITH THAT.” He’s right, with two games left, all five playoff spots would have already been locked up under the proposed new system. The riveting back and forth fight between the Rays and Red Sox and the Cardinals and Braves simply wouldn’t exist, and these teams would be playing out the string in preparation for the postseason.
That said, historically the theoretical 5th playoff spot has been hotly contested, even down to the wire. In fact, the race for 5th has been a nail-biter far more often than it’s been a laugher. Consider:
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The most exciting finish probably would have been in 1996 in the American League, as the Mariners battled the White Sox and Red Sox down to the last day, and actually finished with 161 games played on the year. The M’s would have had to play their 162nd game first, then (if they had lost) a kind of single-elimination Battle of the Soxes, and then the winner of that melee would have to face the rested Orioles in a one-game playoff.
The 2000 National League race would have proven similarly confusing, as the Dodgers went down to the last day with a single game lead over both the Diamondbacks and the Reds and lost to the Padres. The Reds and Diamondbacks also both lost that day with the Reds in particular throwing out a rather silly lineup.
Adding the 5th team would also provide postseason opportunities for teams that have not seen the tournament in almost 20 years. The Blue Jays, for instance, would have made the playoffs in 1998, when they beat out the Angels for spot number five. And the Expos would have run away with the final spot in the 1996 playoffs. Indeed, it’s fair to wonder how that playoff appearance may have altered the destiny of the Expos franchise, and made baseball a more viable long-term endeavor in Montreal. Under the proposed playoff system, only the Royals and the Pirates would have failed to qualify for the postseason since 1995.
Legitimately, then, we can see how adding this 5th playoff team in each league will indeed make the final games of the regular season more relevant for teams, more compelling from a narrative angle, and more financially advantageous for teams whose attendance may be flagging. Yes, it may be overkill, and yes it may allow an inferior team to go on an incredible run and win the World Series like the Cardinals did in 2006, but it also increases participation and the potential for drama that baseball can leverage to make itself stronger over the long term. So despite The Common Man’s initial revulsion at the idea, maybe the playoff expansion isn’t such a bad idea after all.