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MLB's wild-card games created a fair and fabulous playoff format – one that likely ends after this year


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We may not realize it now, but these are the good old days for Major League Baseball’s pennant drive and forthcoming playoffs.

It’s not easy to develop an equitable playoff format that checks a wide array of boxes:

Properly rewarding dominant teams and upholding the integrity of a 162-game season.

Providing access to the postseason for wild-card clubs so that fewer fans – and franchises – check out too soon.

And, lest we forget, making a ton of money for owners and players alike.

Baseball got it just about right in adding a second wild card berth in 2012 – and one-game elimination showdowns in each league. It jolted an otherwise staid format, producing the most indelible playoff moments over the past decade. While the other three playoff rounds – Division Series, League Championship and World Series – can sizzle or stagnate from year to year, the wild card game has almost unanimously delivered.

It is a counterintuitive but effective prelude – providing the biggest thrills at the outset of the playoffs, instead of the conclusion.

Lest we forget, there was Edwin Encarnacion’s 11th-inning walk-off bomb at Rogers Centre – while the game’s greatest reliever stood, unused, in the bullpen. Juan Soto scorching a Josh Hader pitch so hard that the ball ultimately spun, beguilingly, away from Trent Grisham to enable a go-ahead run to score.

An infield-fly call that was correct – unless you live in Atlanta. Johnny Cueto, dropping the ball on the mound. A water cooler that did not easily give in to Sean Rodriguez’s fists of fury. MadBum, twice. Brandon Crawford crushing future brother-in-law Gerrit Cole’s season.

If there’s one thing baseball lacks, it’s an appropriate sugar high. Too often, Next Big Things are prematurely anointed, or a good two months of play can spark false and unsustainable hope for a team or player.

But the wild-card game allows fans both avid and casual to fly in the face of baseball convention and assign an abundance of import to just one game. It feels both healthy and appropriate.

Unfortunately, this year’s installments (Oct. 5 for the American League, Oct. 6 for the National) may be the last. The current format, admitting five teams per league into the postseason, is under fire from both the pro-expansion playoff crowd and also a contingent that, inspired by an anomalous two-team sprint in the NL West, feels one game is an insufficient safety net for a second-place team.

It’s baseball, and it’s a year in which the current collective bargaining agreement expires, and so money will talk, even more than usual. In the nearly two years since commissioner Rob Manfred’s desire for an expanded playoff field became public, nothing has arisen to suggest the league’s stance on more playoffs has changed.

While a contingent of players – and other stakeholders concerned with the game beyond how many lucrative TV windows it can provide – remain concerned the integrity of the regular season may be compromised, it’s hard to imagine staving off an expanded playoff, likely of 14 teams, under current bargaining conditions.

Players are determined to make inroads after years of flattening salaries despite booming revenues. It would be challenging to die on the hill of regular season integrity while also demanding a larger piece of the pie. Turning down free money would also be tough when two of the game’s primary revenue streams – massive local TV contracts and fan attendance – are facing existential crises in the form of cord-cutting and habitual shifts wrought by COVID-19 attendance restrictions.

In these negotiations, conceding expanded playoffs could be a win-win for the union – creating the perception they’re “giving” something to the league, while also getting a share of that expanded postseason pie.

And that’s a bummer – because the current format, from this view, looks just about perfect.

Oh, you think a one-game knockout is unfair? If you’re this year’s Dodgers or Giants, you have a point. The California rivals are staging the finest NL West race since 1993, when the Atlanta Braves dealt for Fred McGriff, went on an absurd 51-18 run and got a huge final-day boost from Mike Piazza, who before embracing dubious recall elections slammed a pair of Game 162 homers as the Dodgers knocked out the Giants.

The Braves won 104 games and the division. The Giants won 103 games and went home.

Two years later, the wild-card format debuted and in 2012, a second wild card was added, allowing for plenty of soft landings for multiple division runner-ups.

This year, though, the Giants and Dodgers can’t lose. L.A. has gone 29-11 since the July 30 acquisitions of Max Scherzer and Trea Turner – yet remains 2 ½ games behind the Giants. Right now, they’re on pace to win – you guessed it – 103 games but finish second in the division.

Cue the cries of injustice that one of these teams – very likely the Dodgers – will have to win a play-in game, their six months of greatness subject to nine innings of randomness. Wild-card game haters feel it’d be much fairer for a team like the Dodgers to have a best-of-three, at least, to avoid a bad hop or, heaven forbid, a bad call alone from ending them.  

It is awfully hard to tell a 103-win team, “Don’t like it? Play better.”

But here’s the thing: A decade’s worth of research by MLB.com showed that winners of Game 1 of a regular season series went on to take two out of three a whopping 76% of the time. The 2020 playoffs, when the pandemic inspired a wild-card round of three-game series, also bore this out: Of the eight series, six were sweeps. Only Padres-Cardinals and A’s-White Sox saw the Game 1 loser prevail.

What’s more, winning just one game would require far less stress for a pitching staff as it readies for the next round.

A 103-win Dodger team vs. an 84-win Reds or Padres team would look gross on paper, but nearly a decade’s worth of wild-card games shows us it’s also a wildly anomalous matchup. Since 2012, nine of the 16 AL and NL wild-card games pitted teams with identical records or separated by just one game.

The team that got the shortest end of the stick was probably the 2015 Pirates, who won 98 games, lost the division by two games to the Cardinals and had to host the 97-win Cubs. Jake Arrieta dominated them, leaving a Gatorade jug to rope-a-dope Rodriguez  as the Pirates were eliminated.

But would a best-of-three done them any better? Hard to imagine Francisco Liriano and late-career A.J. Burnett toppling Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks on consecutive nights.

Alas, it’s now the wild card game itself on the ropes. A 14-team format would provide a first-round bye to just one club, which could produce its own inequities.

You think it’s unfair for the wild-card Dodgers of 2021 to play just one game?

Well, consider that in 2019, the last full pre-pandemic season, three AL teams won more than 100 games. If those playoffs were contested under the reported 14-team format, only the 107-win Astros would receive a bye.

That would have left the Yankees (103 wins) and Twins (101) to host the Red Sox (84 wins) and Indians (93), respectively. Yep, a Red Sox team that went 5-14 all year against New York and then fired its general manager could advance in the playoffs by merely winning two of three at Yankee Stadium.

That’s certainly more lucrative, though probably not fairer than the current format.

Like college football’s myriad stabs at playoffs, every baseball season produces varying outcomes, some fitting more snugly into a specific postseason format than another. There may be years of great mediocrity where seven teams in each league works perfectly.

But there’s now a decent sample size with which to render judgment on the five-team, wild-card game setup. It has largely been fair, and more important, it has been compelling.

Enjoy it while you can. It will be a shame to see it go.