Three years ago, Major League Baseball decided to add another pair of wild card teams to their once-exclusive postseason party when they created the wild card playoff game—as opposed to series—with the one-game winner advancing to the best-of-five division series.
On the surface it seemed like a win-win situation.
On the one hand, 10 out of 30 teams now make the postseason, instead of 8—which is still more exclusive than the NBA’s (16 out of 30), NFL’s (12 out of 32), or NHL’s (16 out of 30) playoff setup. Plus, with one more winner-take-all postseason game to sell to the networks, baseball got a boatload of money for doing so.
But there was an inherent problem with the setup that’s being exposed this season: What if the team with the second-best record in the league also has the second-best record in the division? In that case, MLB’s regular season runner-up squad could be eliminated before the real playoffs even start—the division series.
The silly thing is that this was basically what the wild card was supposed to prevent from originally happening.
Right now the second-place, 96-win Pittsburgh Pirates are one win from clinching the second-best record in baseball, but they won’t catch the first-place St. Louis Cardinals—already at 100 wins. Yet they will possibly be underdogs against the Cubs—and Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta—in the wild card game.
If they do fall to Arrieta and Chicago, the whole point of the wild card will be missed.
Back in 1993, one of the greatest pennant races—unless you were a Giants fan—concluded on the final day of the season when Atlanta won its 104th game to beat out 103-win San Francisco. Though the 103 wins was the most in the NL in seven years, the Giants still missed the postseason.
Bu that was back in the days where the postseason had room for just the four division-winning teams.
So baseball changed its outdated ways and added another division to each league as well as a wild card spot the following year. This added another round to the postseason and doubled the number of participants. In effect no second-place team—that was also the second-best in baseball—would be excluded again.
But now with the wild card play-in game, the second-best team in the land might only get one game to prove it. That’s not enough to determine a victor in baseball, though, where luck plays a big role (which is why they play a marathon 162 game-schedule), while also negating a deep pitching staff in favor of an ace versus ace matchup.
So while the Pirates wouldn’t get into the postseason at all under the pre-1994 setup, they would at least get a best-of-five series with the one wild card system. It was something that wasn’t broke. Why fix it?