I was alerted to this Tom Verducci article on how to "fix" the playoff system by Mike and Mike - yeah, I hate them too, but every other option was in a commercial break. Subsequently they had Tim Kurkjian and Buster Olney on, and both of them agreed with Verducci, the latter also providing an even more extreme proposal himself.
Long story short, in order to address a non-existent problem, these guys propose changes that will water down the game and will in all likelihood do nothing to significantly increase ratings or bring added attention to MLB during September.
Let me state up front that I am not opposed to change. I advocated for the Wild Card long before it was finally implemented - aided, no doubt, by being a Mets fan sick of seeing his team win 90+ games and finish second every year (to teams that shouldn't have been in the division in the first place, mind you). I supported interleague play. I obviously have embraced sabermetrics. I like the limited use of replay. So I'm not the type of guy who blindly opposes all changes to the game. But we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere.
First of all, Verducci's premise is off. He frets that baseball loses out on popular attention during the month of September when football starts. As Darth Vader would say, nothing can stop that now. Like it or not, the NFL is the most popular league in this country. It has become something like a civil religion. Adding a phony little playoff race is not suddenly going to narrow the gap between baseball and football in September.
Secondly, his reasoning is confusing.
One problem is that the wild card doesn't have a strong enough disincentive. Its perceived value by the clubs is too close to that of a division title. The oft-repeated philosophy of, "We don't care; as long as we get in" is an indictment of the system. Moreover, there are too few real contenders and too few meaningful games in September.
What to do to restore excitement to September? It's time for baseball to think about adding another wild card. The idea, which I first heard from Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, works like this: two wild cards in each league -- the two non-division winners with the best records -- play a Wild Card Elimination Game. The loser goes home. The winner advances to the Division Series to play the team with the best record.
How do these two paragraphs not contradict one another? The Wild Card isn't a disincentive, so lets add more? That is illogical. I love the Wild Card, but it can hamper as well as enhance the feel of a pennant chase. If there were no wild card the Yankees and Rays would be engaged in a classic pennant race pitting the two best teams in baseball. Can you imagine what those September series between the two teams would be like if only one of them could make the playoffs? How much buzz would there be for those games? A ton.
Adding another wild card (or two, as Olney proposes - in addition to eliminating the divisions) could actually make matters worse. Verducci cites the 2008 season as evidence for his proposal, but it does just the opposite. If there were two wild card spots, the drama at the end of that season would not have happened because the Mets, Brewers and Phillies would all have been guaranteed playoff spots. Instead of a tense, last day of the season pair of games that the entire baseball world focused on, we just would have watched a pair of warmup games.
That being said, there are times where the Wild Card chase does breed more excitement, and if there were a second (or third) Wild Card, that would produce the occasional wild finish. But there are probably as many times when the existence of the Wild Card waters down the finish of a season as it does add to the thrill of the final week or so of the season. We need to look at the proposal from a pure baseball perspective: does it help or hurt the game? I think it does the latter, and it would do so without the corresponding benefit that Verducci and the others foresee.
The baseball season is a pure marathon. The current post-season format already nullifies this to some extent by adding elements of complete randomness. There is a reason that the team with the best overall record has won the World Series only a few times since the advent of the Wild Card. Each added round of the post-season, with an additional layer of short series, increases the odds that the superior team will run into some bad luck. Now I'm not saying this is completely a bad thing. Upsets can be exciting. But when you consider the nature of baseball, at least compared to other sports, we're already stretching how far we should go in punishing good baseball teams.
Another driving force behind this proposed change is - you guessed it, fairness. We have to make sure that as many teams and fanbases remain interested for as long as possible. Heaven forbid that fans of a .500 teams become disinterested in the season before the final pitch is thrown. But there are two problems with this - one theoretical, one practical.
First of all, should we be in the business of artificially increasing the number of playoff contending teams? It's one thing for the NFL with its 16 game schedule to permit a few extra teams into the post-season, but baseball has a 162 game schedule. That is more than enough time to prove your playoff worthiness. If you're not even good enough to win the Wild Card, too bad. I don't believe in rewarding barely above averageness in order to keep a few more fans happy.
Moreover, would it really achieve said goal? Lets look at this year's playoff race. If there were one extra Wild Card in the American League, the White Sox and Red Sox would be more alive than they are now as both would be fighting it out for the fifth playoff spot. So the fans in Chicago and Boston would have something more to look forward to - and Lord knows we need to do everything in our power to keep those fanbases happy. As for the National League, it really wouldn't increase the number of viably competitive teams. Right now there are four teams within three games of one another for the Wild Card. All that would change is that two of these teams would be shut out instead of three, but it wouldn't really change the nature of the playoff hunt and the number of teams involved. All those teams right on the outside - the Marlins, Mets, and Dodgers - would be realistically no closer to being in the playoff race with an additional Wild Card - or even two additional Wild Cards.
Again, different years will breed different results, but over the long haul I don't think these changes would breed the sort of results these guys are looking for.
One proposal made by Olney does merit some consideration. He would scrap the divisions and have the top six teams in each league make the playoffs. I disagree with the last part - I'd keep it at four - but I can see case for doing away with the divisions. It would eliminate the problems associated with unbalanced divisions and would be a greater guarantee that the four best teams in each league made the post-season. The only thing that gives me pause about this proposal as that it might curtail some of the great geographical rivalries. Would we be as contemptuous of the Phillies and Braves if were competing with 11 other teams on top of those two and the Marlins and Nationals? Then again, maybe it wouldn't make a difference. But I do think that idea has more going for it than expanding the number of playoff teams.