Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig recently gave a state of the sport address during a Q&A session with reporters, and, not surprisingly, one of the main talking points was the excitement created by the expanded wild card playoff format. However, although the second wild card has positive attributes, such as placing a much greater emphasis on winning the division, it can not take credit for this year’s hotly contested pennant races. In fact, as things have unfolded, the additional playoff spot seems as if it has removed some suspense from September.
A.L. and N.L. Playoff Picture (Under Current Format)
A.L. and N.L. Playoff Picture (Under Prior Format)
Note: Standings as of 9/20/2012. Lead/deficit in the playoff column is the greater/lesser of the team’s position in its division or the wild card standings.
Under the old playoff format, there wouldn’t be any post seasons races in the National League, so, on the surface, it appears as if the additional wild card has had a positive impact. Without it, the St. Louis Cardinals, as well as the three teams within four games of their lead, would probably being playing out the string. However, it’s worth noting that the teams chasing St. Louis are a mediocre bunch, so it’s hard to get too excited about the race for the second wild card, especially when you consider the winner still has to beat the Atlanta Braves to advance to the LDS. Basically, the excitement in the National will be boiled down to the one-game playoff between the two wild cards, as opposed to the lackluster race to determine its participants.
While the addition of a second wild card has had a marginally positive impact on the N.L., it has arguably detracted from the American League races. According to the theory behind the second wild card, the specter of a play-in game was supposed to be enough to scare teams into going all out for the division, but instead, it has turned out to be a safety net. Under the old system, the Yankees, Orioles, Athletics, and Rangers would be playing a game of musical chairs with only three places to sit. Because of the added wild card, however, all four teams currently have a seat at the postseason table. In fact, all four of those teams have at least a five game loss column cushion.
If the current season was being played under the old format, the close Central division race would still be off to the side, but the West and East races would certainly have more urgency, especially for the Yankees, Athletics, and Orioles, all of whom would be fighting for their playoff lives. In other words, these teams wouldn’t need the extra incentive to play for the division because the wild card wouldn’t be a fallback for one of the two teams that failed to win it. Granted, teams in the West and East will still try hard to avoid facing a one-game play-in, but their desperation would be even greater if the alternative was going home.
The second wild card has not only diluted the A.L. division races a bit, but it has also failed to provide a reprieve to lesser teams. Because the Orioles and Athletics currently occupy the two wild cards with the same record, the American League hasn’t enjoyed any benefit from the new format. The Angels and Rays would be five and six games from a playoff spot under either structure, with the only difference being those teams now have an additional team to chase. Does that tradeoff justify forfeiting a frenzied win or go home final two weeks between the Yankees, Orioles, and Athletics?
The new playoff system wasn’t implemented for one season. More often than not, the expanded format should create greater excitement and interest in the division and wild card races. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t happened this year. Having said that, the American League still promises to provide more than its share of theatrics down the stretch, which goes to show that baseball doesn’t need gimmickry to justify its regular season. Although the second wild card does have merit, the next commissioner should take that lesson to heart before trying to ascribe the sport’s success to expanded playoffs (and, by extension, keep adding wild cards).