MLB: The Playoff System Is Just Fine


BASEBALL’S TWO WILD CARD GAMES are now complete, with the Rays and Pirates moving on to face the Red Sox and Cardinals in the divisional round. And predictably, there’s a chorus of complaints about how unfair the system is, how a 162-game season shouldn’t come down to a one-game playoff. To which I say: shoosh. Not only is this system fair, it’s arguably the best system baseball has ever had, and we don’t need to muck it up.

I’m old enough to remember when baseball’s playoffs only included 4 teams from a 26-team field. And that system sucked. For 20+ teams, the season was over by August, and for a lot of teams, the season ended much earlier than that. You often knew by June if your team had a chance of winning its division, and then you’d just write off the rest of the season.

After expanding two a three-division format in 1994 (prematurely ended by the players’ strike), the wild card era finally began in 1995, adding a third divisional round on top of the league championships and World Series. And for a while, this seemed like a solid solution: one more division winner, one extra slot to reward the best non-division winner. If nothing else, it kept teams in hunt longer, adding meaning to the longest regular season in sports.

It eventually became apparent, however, that the one-wild card system had some drawbacks. Many years division rivals like the Yankees and Red Sox or would clearly both be locked into playoff spots, and wouldn’t have any reason (other an extra home game) to compete for the division title. Sometimes they’d play head-to-head with a week to go and would rest players and reset their rotations for the playoffs, which felt a bit lame.

So the current system, pitting two wild card teams in a one-game playoff, might be the best we could ever ask for. The second wild card will clearly kept a lot of teams in the hunt longer (this year, it seemed like 6 teams were chasing the second AL spot until the final week), and the one-game elimination format offers all the incentive in the world to win your division and avoid an all-or-nothing elimination game. And as viewers, we get instant drama: it’s like two game 7s to kick off the playoffs, with everything on the line. How can you beat that?

To the people who say, it’s unfair that you could get knocked out in a single game, I say: TOUGH. You had 162 games to get a better spot, and didn’t. Suck it up and win the wild card game. The Reds, Pirates, Rays and Indians weren’t robbed of anything by this format; they were given a fair reward for being the second (in some cases, third) best team in their division. Eventually, as all sports leagues do, baseball will get greedy and add even more playoff teams to the mix; enjoy this system as long as you can.