MLB wildcard games have created a fair and fabulous play-off format – one that will likely end after this year


We might not realize it now, but these are the good old days for Major League Baseball’s pennant campaign and the upcoming playoffs.

It’s not easy to develop a fair playoff format that checks a wide range of boxes:

Correctly reward dominant teams and maintain the integrity of a 162-game season.

Give wild-card clubs access to the playoffs so that fewer fans – and franchises – leave too early.

And, let’s not forget, making a ton of money for owners and players alike.

Baseball was right to add a second wild card spot in 2012 – and one-game playoffs in every league. It rocked an otherwise staid format, producing the most indelible playoff moments of the past decade. While the other three playoff rounds – Division Series, League Championship and World Series – may sizzle or stagnate from year to year, the game of jokers has been almost unanimous.

It’s a counterintuitive yet effective prelude – providing the biggest thrills at the start of the playoffs, instead of the conclusion.

Let’s not forget that there was the 11th round of Edwin Encarnacion bomb on foot at the Rogers Center – with the game’s tallest lifter standing, unused, in the enclosure. Juan soto burning a lot by Josh Hader so hard that the ball finally turned, seductively, away from Trent Grisham to allow a run forward to score.

An infield-fly call that was okay – unless you live in atlanta. Johnny Cueto, drop the ball on the mound. A water fountain that did not easily give way to that of Sean Rodriguez fists of fury. MadBum, twice. Brandon crawford crush the future brother-in-law Gerrit Cole’s season.

Madison Bumgarner celebrates after the Giants won the 2014 wild card game against Pittsburgh.

If there’s one thing baseball is lacking, it’s proper blood sugar. Too often Next Big Things is anointed prematurely, or two good months of play can spark false and unsustainable hope for a team or player.

But joker play allows both avid and casual fans to defy baseball convention and attribute an abundance of import to a single game. It feels both healthy and appropriate.

Unfortunately, this year’s payouts (Oct. 5 for the American League, Oct. 6 for the National) could be the last. The current format, admitting five teams per league in the playoffs, is under fire from the pro-expansion playoff crowd and also from a contingent who, inspired by an abnormal two-team sprint in the West NL, believes that a game is insufficient safety net for a second place team.

It’s baseball, and it’s a year when the current collective agreement expires, and so the money will talk, even more than usual. In the nearly two years since Commissioner Rob Manfred’s desire to expand the playoff field became public, there is no suggestion that the league’s stance on more playoffs has changed.

While a contingent of players – and other stakeholders concerned with the game beyond the number of lucrative TV windows it can provide – remain concerned that the integrity of the regular season may be compromised, it is it’s hard to imagine avoiding an extended playoff, probably of 14 teams, under current negotiating conditions.

Players are determined to make inroads after years of salary flattening despite booming incomes. It would be hard to die on the hill of regular season integrity while demanding a bigger slice of the pie. Denying the free money would also be difficult when two of the game’s main sources of revenue – massive local TV deals and fan traffic – face existential crises in the form of cord cuts and the usual changes brought on by the games. COVID-19 attendance restrictions.

In these negotiations, conceding an extended playoffs could be a win-win situation for the union – creating the impression that they are “giving” something to the league, while also getting a slice of that expanded playoff pie.

And that’s a bummer – because the current format, from that point of view, seems about perfect.

Oh, do you think a one-game knockout is unfair? If you’re this year’s Dodgers or Giants, you’re right. The California rivals have had NL West’s finest race since 1993, when the Atlanta Braves took care of Fred McGriff, ran an absurd 51-18 run and received a huge boost from Mike Piazza, who before passing a questionable recall election slammed a pair of Game 162 home runs as the Dodgers knocked out the Giants.

The Braves have won 104 games and the division. The Giants won 103 games and returned home.

Two years later the wild-card format made its debut and in 2012 a second wild card was added, allowing for plenty of soft landings for finalists from multiple divisions.

This year, however, the Giants and Dodgers cannot lose. LA has gone 29-11 since the July 30 acquisitions of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner – but remains 2.5 games behind the Giants. Right now they’re set to win – you guessed it – 103 games but finish second in the division.

Max Scherzer and the Dodgers face the prospect of a wild game for the winner.

Max Scherzer and the Dodgers face the prospect of a wild game for the winner.

Cue the cries of injustice that one of those teams – most likely the Dodgers – will have to win a play-in game, with their six months of greatness subject to nine random innings. Enemies of gambling think it would be much fairer for a team like the Dodgers to have a best of the three, at least, to avoid a bad jump or, God forbid, a bad call alone to put it in. end.

It’s terribly difficult to say to a team that has won 103 wins, “You don’t like that? Play better.

But here’s the trick: a a decade of research by MLB.com showed that the winners of Game 1 of a regular season series got two of three wins, a whopping 76% of the time. The 2020 playoffs, when the pandemic inspired a three-game wildcard streak, also confirmed this: Of the eight series, six were sweeps. Only the Padres-Cardinals and A’s-White Sox saw the loser of Game 1 win.

Plus, winning just one game would put a lot less stress on the pitching staff as they prepare for the next round.

A Dodger team with 103 victories against a Reds or Padres team with 84 wins It would sound disgusting on paper, but nearly a decade of joker games shows us that this is also an extremely freakish clash. Since 2012, nine of the 16 AL and NL wild-card matches have pitted teams with identical records or separated by a single match.

The team that got the shorter end of the stick was probably the 2015 Pirates, who won 98 games, lost the division by two games to the Cardinals and had to host the Cubs with 97 wins. Jake Arrieta dominated them, leaving a jug of Gatorade to Rodriguez, a drug as the Pirates were taken out.

But would a better of the three do them better? It’s hard to imagine Francisco Liriano and AJ Burnett at the end of their careers toppling Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks on consecutive nights.

Alas, it is now the wild card game itself on the ropes. A 14-team format would offer a first-round pass to just one club, which could produce its own inequalities.

Do you think it’s unfair that the 2021 Wild Card Dodgers only play one game?

Well, consider that in 2019, the last full season before the pandemic, three LA teams won over 100 games. If the playoffs were played in the advertised 14-team format, only the 107-win Astros would receive a pass.

That would have left the Yankees (103 wins) and Twins (101) to welcome the Red Sox (84 wins) and Indians (93), respectively. Yes, a Red Sox team that posted a 5-14 all-year record against New York, then fired their GM, could advance to the playoffs by simply winning two of three at Yankee Stadium.

It’s certainly more lucrative, but probably no fairer than the current format.

Like the myriad of college football stab wounds in the playoffs, each season of baseball produces different results, with some adapting better to one specific postseason format than another. There can be years of great mediocrity where seven teams in each league perform perfectly.

But now there is a decent sample size with which to judge the configuration of the five-team wildcard game. Much of it was fair, and more importantly, it was compelling.

Enjoy it while you can. It will be a shame to see him go.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB wildcard sets have created a new format, but will likely end after 2021


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