A deal was reached so that each league would take two wild cards, each playing each other in a single-game, winner-take-all showdown in the home park of the better record team. While many purists of the late twentieth century called 1993 The Last Great Pennant Race with the Braves and Phillies taking it to the last day of the season, of the last season where second place doesn’t count, 2011 can be apply labeled The Last Great Wild Card Race with the Red Sox losing out to the Rays on game number 162. If this season is a mimic of last season in the A.L. East, the Sox and Rays would play the showdown game. As much as I like to think of myself as a purist, opposing the designated hitter and thanking The Lords of Baseball for making Astroturf (virtually) extinct, the arguments for implementing this change are fair.
Although two second place teams, or possibly the second and the third place team in the same division can make postseason for at least one game, it actually enhances the value of finishing in first place. From 1995 through 2011 (no postseason in 1994 due to player’s strike), a team could clinch the wild card berth and still have a chance at winning a division. The philosophy of many who manage big league teams (or those manipulated by their owners) is to say we are In Like Flynn and rest our best players, utilize the September call-ups, and play out the season, dulling interest in the home town fans. Beginning this year, only first place guarantees admission to the mainstream playoff system; the two wild cards get a lottery ticket, as it were. Even if the better record wild card wins 100 games and the other is 82-80 (the epitome of mediocrity), when you only play one game, any team can win on any given day! Get the darn division and you really are in like Flynn.
My only gripe is this change should have been accompanied by scheduling revision. You are telling the teams that clinch wild cards to continue to play hard to win your division but you play a regular season schedule with more total games out of one’s division than in one’s division, not giving a team a reasonable chance to catch a team they played the last regular season series against before August 1st. At least one more than half of the season should be played in one’s own division; in a 162 game season, at least 82 games should be in one’s own division and the closest to that in a five-team division would be to play each division opponent 21 games times four opponents for a total of 84 games. This is all but impossible now; with the Houston Astros switching leagues in 2013, requiring interleague play to expand to thirty games with 28 teams playing in their own league and the two orphans in each league playing each other. As I blogged back in January, allowing each league to have an odd number of teams was the big mistake, not the second wild card.
We will have to live with the pre-1998 format in the best of five with the first two games in the home park of the weaker team and up to five in the home park of the stronger team as the regular season schedule was finalized before the playoff format change. It will be changed back for 2013. Also, now that there is a significant difference in winning a division versus winning a wild card, there will be no more head-to-head to decide seeding in ties for first where the loser would be guaranteed the wild card—there will be a one-game playoff on the off-day between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the postseason.