The Cohen Chronicles: Eight Misbehavin’
Major League Baseball announced last week what most observers have known for months: it is adding one wild-card team to each league, increasing the total number of playoff teams from eight to ten. Reaction to the postseason expansion has been mixed, with some analysts commending the move and others condemning it. To those who question the addition of a fifth playoff team in each league, I have a simple response:
The most frequent complaints about the playoff expansion are that it devalues the regular season and that it unfairly penalizes teams in stronger divisions, who run the risk of ending up in the one-game wild-card playoff if they rest their regulars in September. Baseball writer Joe Sheehan went so far as to term it an “unimaginably stupid” idea. Both of these are valid complaints, but the benefits of the playoff expansion outweigh the harms.
Complaints about making the regular season meaningless have been rampant since the wild card was introduced in 1994. Before the introduction of the wild card, the thinking goes, every team went into the season with the goal of winning its division. With the advent of the wild card, the goal has shifted from winning the division to simply making the playoffs, and the second wild card will further cement this new line of thinking, say the traditionalists.
Well, before the wild card, the only way into the playoffs was by winning a division. So, if a team set a preseason goal of winning its division, wouldn’t that be the same as a goal of qualifying for the postseason?
In 1974, the Baltimore Orioles won the AL East with a 91-71 record but lost in the AL Championship Series. In 1997, the Orioles won the AL East with a 98-64 record but lost again in the ALCS. Both are stellar seasons, right? Well, according to the anti-wild card crowd, the 1974 AL East crown should be celebrated, but the wire-to-wire triumph of ’97 is meaningless because the wild card had been introduced, and so winning the division lost its significance.
No, I don’t understand the argument either.
The other criticism—that it unfairly penalizes teams in stronger divisions—has significant merit. The thinking is that teams in weak divisions—such as the 2011 Detroit Tigers, who won the AL Central by 15 games over the second-place Cleveland Indians—can rest their starters down the stretch, since their divisions lack a viable challenger, ensuring they will not end up in the one-game playoff. Teams in stronger divisions, though, would be forced to go all-out in September in an attempt to avoid the wild-card game, robbing them of the ability to align their rotations for the postseason.
In theory, this makes perfect sense—why reward weaker teams that happen to play in lousy divisions while placing stronger teams at a disadvantage? But the two-division era—to which Sheehan and others criticizing the new format seem to be longing for a return—was no stranger to this same situation. In 1991, the Atlanta Braves won the NL West by a single game over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Meanwhile, in the East division, the Pittsburgh Pirates finished 14 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals. And in this case, the Braves weren’t playing to avoid a one-game playoff. They were playing to avoid going home for the winter.
This is not to say that this is not a valid argument—quite the contrary. But it is hypocritical to act as though it is a problem unique to the two-wild-card system.
But wait, you say! A second wild card would have deprived us of the excitement of the Night of 162 last fall, when, in the span of 25 minutes, two of the greatest September rallies in baseball history were completed. If the second wild card had existed last year, you say, Robert Andino, Dan Johnson, Evan Longoria, and Hunter Pence would never have secured their places in history, because the Braves and Red Sox would have made the playoffs anyway. And you’re absolutely right. Win-or-go-home games represent baseball at its finest.
So what could possibly be better than two such games, every October, guaranteed?