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Commentary: MLB’s plan to expand playoffs misses mark
by Aaron Retherford
Mar 03, 2012 | 893 views | 0 0 comments | 2 2 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On Friday, Major League Baseball voted to expand its playoffs to 10 teams, to account for an extra wild card team in both leagues.

I pretty much knew it was going to happen, but I hoped it wouldn’t. In my opinion, the MLB playoffs were already perfect in terms of the number of participants and the level of competition. I enjoyed the fact that it means something to reach the playoffs, while in other major sports leagues, like the NBA and NHL, over half the teams are allowed to continue their seasons after the regular season.

I don’t feel the change will ruin the playoff experience, but playing one extra game to force some October excitement is a bit over the top. How often is baseball in September boring? There’s almost always drama surrounding a race for a division or wild card.

So why the change for MLB?

“This change increases the rewards of a division championship and allows two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement.

I beg to differ.

If you’re going to expand the playoffs, then make it seem like the wild card teams are playing in the playoffs. In this new format, the two wild-card teams in each league will play one game to decide who advances to a respective division series.

What’s the point? So a team with a five-game lead in the wild-card standings could lose one game to the second-place team in the wild-card standings and miss the playoffs? Yeah, that makes total sense. Baseball should never be decided by one game unless the teams are tied.

If anything, make it a best-of-three series. At least the better team will likely emerge. It’s all about sample size. Sample size is exactly why I don’t think MLB needed to expand the playoffs.

Baseball plays around twice as many games as any other major sport in America. If 162 games hasn’t shown who the top teams are, what is a 163rd game going to prove?

The problem is people have forgotten why wild-card teams are important. You need wild-card teams in order to strengthen the playoff field, not water it down. It rewards teams that had strong regular seasons, but might have been stuck behind the top team in the league.

Is it fair the Red Sox could win 110 games, finish in second place behind the Yankees and miss the postseason, while the White Sox could finish five games over .500 and win a weak AL Central to clinch a playoff spot? No. Hence the need for a wild card.

With unbalanced scheduling, interleague play and parity between divisions, there’s no objective way to accurately rank teams. However, no one wants to see the second-best team in a league not be allowed to compete in the playoffs, which could happen without wild cards.

Wild-card teams shouldn’t be punished because they have had success in the playoffs lately. They could be anywhere from the second-best to fourth-best team in the league. They should be capable of achieving success. In order to win the World Series, wild-card teams have to win 11 postseason games just like everyone else. Isn’t that proof enough they deserved to win the World Series?

But how much does adding a fifth team from each league to the playoffs really help? Proponents of the change believe it will give division winners an added advantage when it comes to playoffs.

First off, does it give an advantage? Other than the possible inconvenience of traveling for one game, wild-card teams aren’t being punished by the extra game. Wild-card teams likely had to fight until the 162nd game in order to qualify for the postseason. Only by luck would those teams have their desired pitching rotations set up precisely for the playoffs anyway. People seem to think they will have to waste their aces in the wild-card round — that’s if they are even available to pitch.

Last season, the wild-card St. Louis Cardinals qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. They started Kyle Lohse in their first playoff game against Phillies ace Roy Halladay. Yes, Kyle Lohse, and opening the postseason with a guy who started the season as the No. 4 starter didn’t seem to faze the Cards’ during their run to a World Series championship.

Second, since it’s just one extra game, division winners aren’t benefiting from extra rest days. A three-game series would have given them an advantage, but that‘s not realistic with MLB‘s love for scheduling a game every other day.

That leads me to another question. Why are division winners always put up on a pedestal? Should teams be rewarded for beating really bad teams in their division if they are in reality simply the strongest of the weak.

It happens in other major sports. Did the 8-8 Denver Broncos, who finished in a three-way tie for first in the AFC West, really deserve to host a playoff game this year against the 12-4 Steelers, who also tied for the best record in their division? Seven other teams finished with an 8-8 record and didn’t make the playoffs, along with the 9-7 Tennessee Titans.

It’s not uncommon for at least one of the wild-card teams to have a better record than one of the division winners. In 2010, the Yankees claimed the wild card and had a better regular-season record than both the AL Central and AL West winners.

ESPN analyst Terry Francona brought up another interesting point. The winners of the wild-card round could have an advantage by coming off a momentum-building victory to start the playoffs, while the division winners have to sit and wait.

If a division winner ends the season on a roll, does it really want to lose that momentum by waiting around? As long as there are no injuries, most teams would rather just keep playing. Look what happened to the Green Bay Packers. They lost one regular season game. Then they came off a much-deserved bye in the playoffs and were dominated by the visiting N.Y. Giants.

Combine the wait with the fact the wild-card winners host the first two games of their League Division Series this year, and the teams that finish with the top regular-season records in the league are faced with an uphill battle. Maybe Selig only wanted to help out the No. 2 and 3 teams.

Overall, it just feels like this plan was quickly thrown together without taking into consideration all the implications, especially since this year‘s regular season and playoff schedules were created far in advance of this decision. The lover of chaos inside me hopes there is a BCS-esque mess in October.

How about this one? The Yankees, Red Sox and Rays all finish in a three-way tie for first and the two wild card spots. I love those three-way tiebreakers. Or how about just two teams tie atop a division. Since MLB and the players’ union agreed if there’s a tie in a division, those teams must play to decide who falls into the wild-card round and it shouldn’t be left up to a tiebreaker.

A team closes out the regular season on the road in one city and has to play its division rival the next day in a different city but loses. So it has to play the other wild-card team in a different city the next day, but lucks out, wins and then it opens the division series at home. Four cities in five days would definitely give the opponent of that team in the division series an advantage.

Adding extra playoff teams will keep more teams in the hunt for longer. Of course fans of those teams affected will like the new setup. I’m just a baseball fan in general and liked my eight-team playoff. Besides, how much longer does the baseball season have to get?

Aaron Retherford is a Sparks Tribune sports reporter. He can be reached via email at:
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