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Extra Wild Card for the 2012 MLB season?

by Matt Smith

It now seems likely that MLB will introduce an additional Wild Card place in each league from this coming season onwards.

A final decision is still to be made, but MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has consistently stated that his preference is to expand the playoffs as soon as possible and his comments on Friday suggest that’s almost certain to be the case.

Such a decision would be controversial. There is an inherent unfairness in the current MLB structure and it will be exacerbated by the introduction of an additional Wild Card spot.

The new Wild Card playoff round

It has already been agreed under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that the current postseason structure will be changed. Five teams from each league will make the playoffs rather than four, with the two non-division winning entrants from each respective league facing each other in a single game play-off – or ‘play-in’ as some are calling it – before the rest of the postseason unfolds in the same way as the current format.

There’s no doubt that the new format will produce two incredibly exciting contests while also correcting the current undesirable situation in which the importance of winning a division has been devalued.  There is sure to be occasions when a team is eliminated from the playoffs after losing a single Wild Card game to a team that won seven or eight games less than them over the course of the regular season; however, those hard-luck teams will know that they could have avoided such a fate if they had won their division in the first place.

On balance, therefore, the change should make the already-exciting MLB season even more dramatic. Once we have an equal competition consisting of six divisions of five teams, hopefully playing schedules of very similar standard, we can look forward to a fascinating new era in the Major Leagues.

The trouble is, that’s not going to be the case this year.

We will continue to have an uneven distribution of teams in different divisions (four divisions of five teams, one division of six teams and one division of four teams) and a subsequent ‘unbalanced schedule’ in which teams competing for the same prize (a Wild Card) can play schedules of quite significant variation in overall quality.

That’s already the case with the single Wild Card, but adding an additional Wild Card in each league without addressing the division structure and scheduling issues will only make it more likely that a team is able to beat another in the race for the postseason by taking advantage of playing more often against weaker opposition.

The Houston Astros will move to the AL West in 2013 to level the divisions up, although we don’t yet know if that will lead to a fairer schedule, with reports suggesting that a final decision on the fixture list structure is still to be made.

In any case, it would make much more sense to hold off from expanding the playoffs and introducing the changes in one fell swoop for the 2013 season.  Instead, it appears as though the extra Wild Card will be pushed through quickly.

It might not prove to be an issue, we’ll have to wait and see how the 2012 season pans out. However, it’s clearly not perfect and while some will say it’s only one season, that will be no consolation if it could have been the season for your team to win it all.

Other points

There are two other notable points from the news story linked to above that are worth considering further.

Don’t forget that the two Wild Cards in a league will be the two non-division winning teams with the best win-loss records, not the two best second-placed teams. It will therefore be possible for a division to produce three postseason entrants and a team that finishes third in their division could become World Series winners.  The AL East is the most obvious division currently where this situation could arise (and would have done in 2011 if the season had played out in the same way under the extra Wild Card system).

Secondly, the ESPN report confirms that if two teams have the same win-loss record at the top of a division, they will play a single-game tiebreaker to determine who wins the division rather than using the regular season head-to-head record between the two teams.

That’s a fair change considering the consequences of qualifying for the postseason as a division winner or a Wild Card will now be much greater.  However, it’s a reminder that the schedule has to include a gap to take this potential into account and that Game 163s, of which we’ve had a few in recent years, could become more common.

Selig has regularly voiced his opposition to the World Series extending into November and has made moves in recent years to stop this from happening, but a Game Seven in 2012 could well be scheduled that late in the year if the additional Wild Card round is hastily added for the upcoming season. It would also probably lead to a switch from the recent practice of starting the World Series on a Wednesday night.

That could mean the World Series begins on a Friday night – or potentially move back to the previous Saturday night start – which from a British perspective would make the early first pitch time for the Series opener easier to work around.

Still to be determined

While Selig’s comments make it seem almost certain that there will be ten postseason teams in 2012, we’re nearly into February and we don’t yet know for definite what the postseason format is going to be for the season ahead.

With details about the MLB.TV subscriptions typically announced in the first week or so of February (it was 9 February last year), the race is on to see if we’ll know how the playoffs will work before examining the prices and features of MLB.com’s 2012 offerings.

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