How to fix MLB's playoff system
Half of the eight playoff berths this season are all but locked up already
To add excitement to the races, baseball should add a second wild card entrant
The two wild card teams would then play each other in a one-game elimination
BOSTON -- The entertainment beast that is the National Football League -- where a stinking, meaningless week two preseason game was the most watched show of its week last month -- truly commands the American consciousness with the start of its regular season this week. And for the second straight September, baseball offers the resistance of a lack of pennant races and national narratives.
September in baseball this year comes down to this: one month to eliminate three teams, with seven teams competing for four playoff spots. Half the berths already are locked up. (There was only one real race last year by the end of September, harming TV ratings.) The American League East is an example of how baseball lost some of the thrill of September: the Yankees and the Rays, the two best teams in baseball, are separated by just 2 ½ games but have no real race to speak of. Both are locks for the postseason, and because there is little difference between winning a division or wild card, both will play out the string.
One problem is that the wild card doesn't have a strong enough disincentive. Its perceived value by the clubs is too close to that of a division title. The oft-repeated philosophy of, "We don't care; as long as we get in" is an indictment of the system. Moreover, there are too few real contenders and too few meaningful games in September.
What to do to restore excitement to September? It's time for baseball to think about adding another wild card. The idea, which I first heard from Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, works like this: two wild cards in each league -- the two non-division winners with the best records -- play a Wild Card Elimination Game. The loser goes home. The winner advances to the Division Series to play the team with the best record.
Here's how it would have worked last year: the Rangers would have played the Red Sox in Boston (winner gets the Yankees) while the Giants would have played the Rockies in Colorado (winner gets the Dodgers). The Tigers still would have played a tiebreaker game against the Twins in Minnesota for the AL Central title -- making for three "ultimate" games in which it's win-or-go-home for both teams.
In 2008, the Elimination Games would have been the Yankees at the Red Sox (30 years after Bucky Dent) and the Mets at the Brewers. Got your attention yet?
Let's count the ways why this could help baseball:
Baseball is guaranteed two postseason games every year that are win-or-go-home. Think about March Madness. One reason we love it is because it is single elimination. Even the casual fan gets excited about the blunt urgency of win or go home.
Baseball? Such "ultimate" games happen way too rarely. Baseball has staged 105 playoff series in the wild card era. Guess how many times a series went the distance -- in any round -- to set up a win-or-go-home game. Time's up. The answer is only 18 out of 105. That's 18 "ultimate" playoff games in 15 years. Only one of the past 14 postseason series has gone the full complement of games. That game, Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS, was the most watched baseball game in cable history.
Now think about that Tigers-Twins game last year, which wasn't a playoff game, but everybody knew it was win-or-go-home. The nation tuned in, though it began at 6 p.m. Eastern and hardly included major markets. It drew 6.5 million viewers, making it the most watched cable telecast of the night and the most watched game of the regular season. Its 4.2 national rating was higher than the 3.1 average rating for the Division Series. Why? People understood what was on the line.
Every NFL game has the feeling of being self-contained, with the stand-alone quality of say a movie as opposed to the serial quality of a baseball series. Baseball games rise to that level of urgency when they are "ultimate" games.
More teams are in the race. This year, the Red Sox and Blue Jays would be chasing the White Sox, and the Cardinals, Rockies, Marlins and Dodgers would be chasing the Giants.
The Yankees and Rays are in a real race. Now it's much more important to win your division than the wild card, in which you could get knocked out of the playoffs with one game. It keeps meaning in September games for runaway leaders.
Second-place teams face a more difficult road to the World Series than a division winner. That should be obvious, but it's not the case now.
(Yes, wild cards can't get the homefield advantage in the Division Series or LCS. But again, 83 percent of all series never even get to that last game anyway.)
Now think about this road if you don't win your division: you have to burn what would have been your Division Series Game 1 starter in an Elimination Game. If you lose, you go home. If you win, you have to immediately fly to the No. 1 seed's city and play Division Series Game 1 against a rested team with your next best pitcher.
That puts a premium on winning your division, validating the 162-game season. It should put a stop to teams not caring whether they get in as a division winner or wild card. In 1996, the Dodgers and Padres reached the final day of the regular season tied for first place, but guaranteed of a playoff berth. Neither team took the game very seriously.
I have a hard time thinking of a down side to this system. It doesn't add days to the postseason calendar. It gives two more games to the postseason inventory -- not just any games, but win-or-go-home guaranteed ratings games. It rewards division winners and penalizes second-place teams. It makes for more contenders, more meaningful games, and more teams that can raise a postseason banner.
I have run this idea past commissioner Bud Selig in the past and received little enthusiasm for it from him. He didn't argue against it so much as he argued for the current system, which he regards as something that is humming along nicely and does not need repair. I'm less sure.
So I ran the idea past Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. He has his ace, David Price, lined up to pitch the last day of the season but has no reason right now to use him even if the Yankees and Rays are tied that day. Maddon understands all the reasons to go for a second wild card, especially how it makes September more interesting. But Maddon did have issue with one aspect of the idea.
"I don't like the season coming down to one game," he said. "You play 162 games and it all rides on one game. I'm not sure that's fair."
"Okay," I told him. "There's a solution to avoid that: win your division."
"I still don't know if it's fair after playing that many games," he said.
"Ask Jim Leyland," I said. "He played 162 games, lost one and went home last year with Detroit."
"That's more than gut-wrenching," Maddon said. "That's disemboweling."
"So what would you do?"
"Maybe you could play best out of three," he said. "You play a doubleheader. If you split, you go to the other team's park the next day to decide it."
"Sounds like American Legion."
Maddon is a manager, so of course he would argue for some wiggle room. But why make accommodates for second-place (and possible third-place) teams? The 2005 Astros never played a meaningful game in their division for the final four months of the season -- never closer than eight games after May 7 -- and yet they went to the World Series and played just as many home playoff games as road games (7).
And really, nobody is going to watch a doubleheader that may or may not decide who advances. And playing three games in two days before a Division Series is too burdensome.
The point is that we have 16 years of the wild card format to examine when it comes to the impact of September and October. Selig's special committee for on-field matters, in conjunction with baseball's TV partners, should engage in serious study and deliberation. The question is not whether the current system is broken. The question is whether there is a better system.