Over the past few days, one of the biggest storylines in baseball has been Bud Selig's (premature?) announcement that MLB would likely expand the playoffs by two teams in 2012, adding an additional Wild Card in both leagues. While we did have a brief discussion on this topic in FanPosts, I thought given yesterday's rainout, it might be a good day to open up discussion on this fairly controversial topic.
According to media reports, the new playoff format would have the two Wild Cards in each league face off in a one or three-game series. Presumably, the winner would then take the role of the current Wild Card winner, facing the league's first or second seed for a chance to play in the Championship Series.
Personally, I enter any conversation about expanding the baseball playoffs with a heavy dose of skepticism. For me, the primary issue is maintaining the integrity and importance of the regular season. Compare Major League Baseball to the NBA and NHL. In baseball, the regular season is used to weed out three-quarters of teams, leaving the top quarter of teams to compete for the championship. In the NBA and NHL, on the other hand, more than half of all teams make the playoffs. This system cheapens the regular season; the net result of months of regular season play is reducing to simply removing below-average teams from the postseason tournament.
Of course, the expanded playoff system works for many NBA and NHL fans, who wait all year for their sport's "second season." This would not be an easy transition for baseball fans, however. Maintaining interest throughout baseball's 162-game season would become infinitely more difficult if the importance of those games were diminished by dramatically increasing the number of teams granted spots in the playoffs.
But, of course, no one is talking about dramatically increasing the size of the playoffs. Adding an additional Wild Card in both leagues would bump up the percentage of teams making the playoffs from 27% to 33%, still substantially less than any of the other major sports (the NFL would be closest at 38%). It doesn't seem likely that such a small net increase would have much effect on the importance we place on the regular season.
In fact, as skeptical as I am of any plan to expand the playoffs, I have to admit that I do see some considerable value in creating a Wild Card round. Despite the Twins inability to ever beat the Yankees in the postseason, I am a believer that the baseball playoffs are largely a crapshoot. Given baseball's current format, with the Wild Card team automatically playing in the divisional series, teams have little incentive to compete for division titles if they already know they have secured a spot in the playoffs via the Wild Card. We've seen this scenario play out several times since the advent of the Wild Card, and it's robbed us of many compelling end-of-season division battles.
By forcing Wild Card teams to face an additional round in the playoffs, the incentive to compete for division titles would grow exponentially. In many ways, creating a Wild Card round in the postseason could actually strengthen the end of baseball's regular season, a goal all fans can get behind.
Of course, there is more to this story than I've touched on here: the length of the postseason, the pros and cons of a one-game Wild Card playoff versus a three-game series, and, perhaps most interestingly, the scenario raised by Joel Sherman of the New York Post, suggesting the idea that a one-game Wild Card round could actually penalize better teams heading into the playoffs. One could also make a fairly compelling slippery slope argument here: at what point does the allure of new postseason revenue lead to MLB adopting a playoff system not dissimilar to the free-for-alls seen in the NHL and NBA?
I have to admit that even though I'm generally against the idea of expanding baseball's playoffs, I am intrigued by the utility of creating a true Wild Card round, and providing teams heightened incentives for competing for the division crown. The fear of a slippery slope aside, I find myself seeing the creation of a Wild Card round actually improving September baseball, rather than cheapening it. Throw in concerns about the length of the postseason schedule, and I'm actually warming to the idea of a two-team Wild Card system with a one-game Wild Card round.
But, boy, am I not 100% convinced. At the end of the day, a one-game Wild Card round feels gimmicky, despite the annual excitement it would inevitably bring.
This is why I'm so interested in hearing the thoughts of the TwinkieTown community. Am I too easily dismissing the implications of bringing more teams into the postseason? Does lengthening the postseason just invite too many weather-related complications? Is their a different playoff scenario MLB should be considering? Or should we just stick with the status-quo, a system that has led baseball into one of its most prosperous eras in history?