By Steve Perrault – Follow on Twitter: @Steve_Perrault
The current Wild Card playoff format in Major League Baseball needs to be changed. You play 162 games – the biggest grind in all of professional sports – and then the destiny of your entire season comes down to just one game?! That simply doesn’t feel right.
The current format of the two best non-division-winning teams in each league facing off in a one-game playoff to make it to their respective Divisional Series’ has been in effect since 2012. While the thrill factor of a winner-take-all game is nice, this “round” of the playoffs feels more like the play-in games of the NCAA Tournament, which no one actually considers to be a real part of the Big Dance.
The first issue I have with the format is that some teams have the advantage of lining up their “ace” starter for the Wild Card Game, while other teams are throwing their ace pitchers just to get INTO the Wild Card Game. This – and other flaws with the system – could all be solved with my master plan to fix the Wild Card playoff format.
The proposal (in theory) seems simple. Have a best-of-three series between each set of Wild Card teams to determine who goes on to face the best division winner in each respective league. A common complaint to this proposal is that the division winners would get rusty during the time they’d have off from the end of the season to the start of the ALDS and NLDS. This notion seems a bit over-done, as the worst case scenario – even if a game were to get rained out – is that the Wild Card best-of-three series would last a total of four days.
So, with this format, you would leave that Monday after the season ends open for any potential tie-breaker games. Then you would play the Wild Card best-of-three series’ from Tuesday through Friday. This would mean the Divisional Series could start that weekend. This would also mean the divisional winners would have a total of five days off after the regular season had concluded. What player wouldn’t want to have this time to heal up for the playoffs? I would be willing to bet that the majority of MLB players would rather have this rest period than jump right back into the action, with the aches and pains still fresh from the marathon that is a 162-game season. If you can’t maintain your rhythm during a gap that is no different than that of the All-Star break, than I have zero sympathy for you, my friend.
Former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa mirrored the feelings that a best-of-three Wild Card series would be better, but he still understands the impact it would have on the divisional winners.
“Two out of three is a better test, but it’s unfair to have division winners waiting so long,” La Russa said. “It also puts the priority on winning the division. Before, there wasn’t enough penalty for being the wild card. For the teams that complain about sudden death, win your division. If you feel it’s unfair then refuse the spot and pass it to the next team.”
La Russa seems to understand both sides of this debate, but he isn’t factoring in the insanity that is playing 162 games and then having all of that work come down to the 1-game playoff.
He also doesn’t take into account how certain teams can draw the short straw by having a great record but still needing to play the Wild Card Game on the road, because they play in the best division in baseball.
Case and point. The Cubs, at 97-65, will have to go to Pittsburgh to take on the Pirates, who are hosting their third straight Wild Card winner-take-all game. While the Cubs may have the potential N.L. Cy Young winner in Jake Arrieta on the mound, they shouldn’t have to be in a situation that all their success this season could be for nothing by late Wednesday night. Who wouldn’t want to watch these impressive teams battle it out in a best-of-three series to see who deserves the right to take on the division-rivaled Cardinals for a chance to go to the NLCS?
Another issue with the current Wild Card format is the added momentum it provides the winner of these games heading into the Divisional Series. The fatigue factor doesn’t matter when it’s only a 1-game playoff, so you’re left with a step up on your next opponent that most likely just cruised to their division title. For example, just last season both Wild Card Game winners – the Giants and the Royals – made it to the World Series, and did so with relative ease. After winning their Wild Card “play-in games,” the two teams combined to go 14-2 on their way to meeting up in the Fall Classic. It would make for a much more balanced set-up if you had to grind out a best-of-three Wild Card series and then immediately head to the best division winner’s house to start the best-of-five Divisional Series.
It would be a shame if the biggest turnaround stories in the game, in the Cubs and Astros, didn’t get the opportunity to have playoff baseball in their home ballparks this year. Both teams have featured some of the best young and entertaining players in baseball, and that’s the kind of talent I want to see as much as possible when the games matter the most – in the playoffs.
When the Astros take on the Yankees Tuesday and the Cubs try to leave Pittsburgh with a win on Wednesday, just know that this Wild Card format could be better. Simply put, a best-of-three series would provide a more deserving Wild Card winner and would make for a more compelling playoff format.