Monday, July 16

Wild-card wouldas

As you may know, Major League Baseball has added a second Wild Card for both the AL and NL this year, expanding the post-season field from 8 to 10 teams. Like any such change, the move has its proponents and its detractors. Some like the challenge of qualifying for the postseason in a sport where fewer teams make it; others like the notion of keeping more teams in a pennant chase deep into the summer.

I don't have a strong opinion either way on this matter. The first Wild Card was and remains a smashing success for the game - anyone who argues otherwise now is delusional. But I think maybe it was an appropriate place to stop - few baseball fans want the game to turn into basketball or hockey, where half (or more) of the clubs qualify for the playoffs. I'm not saying those models don't work for those games - the NHL and NBA playoffs are tremendous - just that there's a reason why baseball has a 162-game schedule. On the other hand, as a fan of the small-market Cleveland Indians, I recognize that the change is much more likely to benefit my club as an underdog sneaking in than it is to hurt them as a titan being upended by the fifth AL team sneaking in.

Some have suggested that the rich teams are more likely to snap up the extra postseason berths, and that may be true, but I thought hey, just for fun, let's see who would have grabbed the second extra slot in each league since the 1994 realignment.

Editor's note: I have the leagues backwards in 1996 and don't feel like going back and revising it.

It's actually not a bad variety of teams, not dominated too heavily by any one club. In the AL, over these 17 seasons, 11 teams (of the AL's 14) would have qualified in years they otherwise did not (yes, I know things might have played out differently had the second Wild Card actually been in place). Only the Royals, Rays, and Orioles wouldn't have been helped out. Mariners fans might have seen postseason baseball in as many as four additional seasons, and our Tribe would have qualified in both 2000 and 2005.

Recently, though, the economics of the AL have started to shine through, as the huge-spending Yankees, Red Socks, and Rangers would have gobbled up the past four extra slots in addition to the tournament spots they already monopolized during that time. Prior to that, though, three straight AL Central teams laid claim to the bonus Wild Card.

Although the AL is regarded as more of a financial and on-field hegemony than the Senior Circuit, only 9 of the NL's 16 teams would have benefitted from this year's rules change. The Cardinals, Pirates, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Cubs, Marlins, and Brewers would have all failed to slip in that final spot, though all of them (except of course the Pirates) have appeared in postseason play over the past decade.

I'm sure the game will be fine either way - the second Wild Card isn't necessary and is a pretty obvious TV grab, but perhaps it will make for some additional compelling hardball. Looking back on past data, it seems that the extra playoff slot was well-distributed in each league, but unfortunately also shows that the rule would lately have been a rich-get-richer scenario and robbed decent fans of the joy of the years when Boston and New York stayed home for October.

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