We knew it would come about eventually.
Major League Baseball expanded its relatively rigid playoff structure in 2012 with the addition of a second Wild Card spot. Part of the intention was, of course, to make the stretch run more exciting for more teams and fan bases. You can’t totally tune out some teams because you never know, they might just sneak in there. After an unprecedented finish to 2011, MLB thought it would be a decent idea to let the good times roll with added suspense.
Objectively speaking, there is no staggering difference between the old system and the new system. Two teams get to play what is essentially a “coin flip” game, with the winner going on to play the division winners in the traditional Division Series. Now, instead of a scenario in which teams can tie for a Wild Card spot and get their play-in tiebreaker, they don’t need to tie and get to play the tiebreaker anyway. Now, a tiebreaker for the second Wild Card spot—that would be real fun.
Two coin flips!
But, has the addition of that second spot in 2012 fundamentally altered the suspense we are subject to, or is it just another bell or whistle on top of an already exciting race to the finish line?
There is evidence to suggest that teams have approached the system differently. Surprise contenders such as Oakland, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and the Los Angeles Dodgers have had additional reason to actively seek reinforcements to prepare for the chance to play in to playoff baseball.
The Pirates fell just short one year ago and they are even more compelled to push to the finish than they were a year ago. Similarly, the Dodgers could be equally compelled to wheel and deal on the basis of winning the NL West, but the play-in potential is there and they are prepared for both.
Conversely, the cautionary tale that is 2011 could be looming large over the 2012 season.
In the AL, five teams are within the same striking distance of the top Wild Card spot that Tampa Bay captured in Game 162 last season. Oakland, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Detroit and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are all within the 9.5 game precedent set by the Rays in 2011. Similarly, if we use that as a marker, there are four teams within 9.5 games of the top NL Wild Card spot.
Even if there were just the one spot, it still appears that plenty of teams would be legitimately in the discussion of Wild Card contention.
What can we take away from this?
It’s not apparent that we can effectively call the addition of the second Wild Card spot a success in its first year. While it has been fun to effectively include more teams in the playoff race discussion, the margin separating the Wild Card teams from one another would have ensured a tight, exciting race regardless of whether the coin flip game ever existed.
St. Louis would be 3.5 games back of the Braves and Baltimore would be a half game back of the Athletics. The other teams in each respective race would be clustered tightly enough that they would be in the conversation no matter what.
While the allure of the Wild Card game will no doubt keep stronger hopes afloat in fan bases on the outer rim of Wild Card contention such as Pittsburgh or Anaheim, the fact is that even if we were to re-institute the one Wild Card system tomorrow, there would still be enough of a race to set up a photo finish. The stretch run in 2012 has nothing to do with a change in the rules. It’s simply good, exciting baseball.
References & Resources
Wild Card standings used courtesy of MLB.com