(Albert Pujols celebrates after the Cardinals clinched a wild-card berth on the last day of the 2012 season. Photo by Getty Images).
Baseball’s expanded playoffs, agreed upon in Novemberwhen the players union and MLB hammered out a new contract, will be coming one year earlier than expected.
Starting this season, 10 teams — five in each league — will qualify for the postseason, instead of eight in the prevous format in place since 1994 (and first used in 1995, because of the ’94 strike wiping out the postseason). Right off the top, that means that 36 percent of American League teams (5 of 14) will play on, compared to 28 percent before. Good news for the Mariners, right? But next year, when the AL expands to 15 with the addition of Houston, that percentage will drop to 33. Here’s an analysis I did earlier on what it would have meant for the Mariners if this format had been in place previously — potentially, four more playoff berths.
The extra team will be a second wild card representative in each league. The three division winners get a bye, while the two wild-card teams will meet in a one-game, loser-out showdown on Friday, Oct. 5 — two days after the season ends. That leaves one day for tiebreaker playoffs and makeups.
The winner of the wild-card game will then play the division winner with the best record in a best-of-five division series, while the two other division champions will meet in a best-of-five. This year, because the 2012 schedule had already been announced, the division series will be played in a 2-3 format — the first two games in the home stadium of the lower-seeded team. Next year, the Division Series will return to the 2-2-1 format used in prevous years, but this temporary format will allow the elimination of the travel day prior to a decisive Game 5 of the Division Series. You can see a likely schedule here, along with a good analysis of what it all means by Jayson Stark of ESPN. The 2-3 format was in place the for the first three years of the division series (1995-97), but it was discarded because many believed it gave an unfair advantage to the lower-seeded team. That team could win two games at home and gain the momentum to wrap up the series with just one more win before the higher seeded team had gotten a chance to play at home. The Mariners faced that situation against the wild-card Yankees in 1995 but managed to win the final three games at the Kingdome after falling behind two games to none at Yankee Stadium.
Baseball traditionalists might not like the fact that two more teams will be getting into the postseason, and I’ve heard people say that it’s not fair for a 162-game season to be reduced to one winner-take-all playoff. I think you have to change with the times. Compared to other sports, baseball’s playoffs are still harder to get into, even with two more teams. Given the popular wisdom of an unfair disparity between small and large market teams, this expansion will give more teams hope of making the postseason, and should make for more excitement at the end of the season. Yes, I realize that last year’s frenzied final day, called by some the most exciting single day in baseball history, would have been rendered largely irrelevant by this format. The aced-out Red Sox and Braves would have made the postseason anyway as the second wild-card teams. But that was a unique situation. There was a reason it was so riveting — we had never seen it quite like that before. I think over time, the extra wild-card will enhance, rather than detract from, late-season playoff races.
And the one-game playoff is the best aspect of this new system. I’ve compared it before to the loser-out games to break divisional ties, such as the one the Mariners played against the Angels in 1995. Those games always have unbelievable drama and tension, because so much is at stake. If you don’t want to have your season reduced to one game, well, win your division. Which is exactly what teams will be trying hard to do, rather than being content to settle for the wild card, which previously didn’t have enough of a penalty. As Ken Rosenthal of FOX pointed out, Yankees GM Brian Cashman said earlier this spring that he “conceded the AL East title to the Tampa Bay Rays two years ago because the format reduced the meaning of the division title to ‘nothing more than a t-shirt and hat.’ ”
I like to see baseball trying new things. It was staid and conservative for far too long. This is a good move to shake things up and try to stir up some more interest.