The MLB Playoffs have forever been among the most exciting and dramatic spectacles in all of professional sports; the Red Sox come back from three games down in the 2004 ALCS, the Astros v Braves 18 inning marathon in 2005 and Roy Halladay’s NLDS no-hitter for the Phillies spring to mind as recent examples. With such excitement abound in the MLB postseason, who thought we needed any more?
Apparently, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was just not satisfied. Since 2012, the MLB playoffs have included a one-game play-in game to be played between the two best wild-card teams; that is, the teams in each league with the best records that did not win their respective divisions. This gives one extra team the opportunity to make the playoffs than the previous format, in which the best wildcard team would make the playoffs without a play-in game.
Proponents of this new format argue that it adds to the excitement of the playoffs. It is as if a Game 7 is being played before the playoffs have even started. Additionally, it allows for more fans to be involved in the playoff excitement, as an extra team is included in the festivities. Some also argue that the inclusion of the play-in game places more emphasis on the importance of winning the division to avoid such a game. In the past, teams were content with winning the wildcard because once the playoffs started, each team had about the same chance to win as the next.
However, there is a reason that the MLB season is 162 games long: It allows for teams to have the occasional bad game or fluke error and not be too harshly penalized in the long run. Such a long season allows for the best teams to be accurately assessed. This is why playoff series have always been five or seven games long; it is difficult to know, with certainty, which is the better team from only one game.
This is the issue at hand with the one-game wildcard play-in. It is simply unfair to have the fate of the team rest on one single game after a grueling 162 game season. This opens up the opportunity for the playoff hopes of one season to rest upon one controversial call by an umpire, or an unusual error in the field. Longer playoff series prevent this from being an issue.
Chipper Jones, the recently retired and future hall of fame Braves third-baseman, voiced his concerns over the format change in a September 2012 interview for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I think it’s stupid, to be honest with you…You say to yourself, we could possibly have the second- or third-best record in the National League when the season’s over and we have to play a one-game playoff just to get in. That doesn’t seem fair because anything can happen.” Jones also proposed a solution to the issue, “Now if you were to say the two wild-card teams will play a best two-out-of-three, I’d be OK with that.”
While such a modification seems to be the best compromise between those who realize the injustice this one game could cause and those who want the extra team and drama in the playoffs, Bud Selig shot down any chance of this happening in a July 2014 online Town Hall meeting on MLB.com. Selig cited the fact that a three game series would extend the MLB playoffs beyond a desirable date. “The playoffs take a long time. I am bound and determined to make sure that baseball is done by October 31.” One solution to this problem would be to shorten the regular season itself; to shorten the regular season by two weeks would allow ample time for a best of three wildcard series, and still allow 140+ games to take place. That, though, is another conversation entirely.
There is the chance that a change is coming, as Selig is set to retire from his post as commissioner in January of 2015. His replacement, Rob Manfred, has been Selig’s right-hand-man since 1998. This change in regime may just bring about the type of change that the MLB needs in its playoffs format, though Manfred is likely to approach issues through the same lens as Selig as he has worked alongside him for so long.
If the MLB won’t budge on the length of playoffs, then the best option is to return to the playoff format before 2012 (which was in place and successful for 17 years). There is simply no way that the fate of a team can be accurately decided in a one-game playoff; baseball is not conducive to such a sudden-death style of elimination. People often forget that the playoffs used to consist of only two teams–the two teams with the best records in the American and National leagues at the end of the regular season would play for the World Series. Financially, though, a return to this format would not be prudent for the MLB. If the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays were the World Series contenders, Major League Baseball would miss out on TV viewership from the majority of the country. The pre-2012 format was the perfect balance of including teams from a host of different markets in the playoffs, without compromising the integrity of the playoffs themselves; that is, the best teams were the ones who had a chance to compete in the playoffs and the World Series.
The play-in game between two potential wildcard teams vastly underestimates the complexity of the baseball season, and discredits the hard work of the teams who rightfully earned their spot in the postseason. Baseball is quite literally a game of inches; it is nothing short of irresponsible to keep the play-in game, and allow the opportunity for one misplaced pitch or questionable managerial choice to dash the hopes of a team’s entire season.