In Defense of the 1-Game Wild Card Playoff

From conversations with my fellow TYA bloggers, I get the sense that a lot of people do not like the looming 1-game Wild Card playoff system. For the first time, the Wild Card teams will not immediately advance to the division series, and will instead play each other in a winner-take-all single game.

I like the new rules quite a bit. My friends and I are already getting ready for October 5th – playoff Friday. A couple of us have already taken the day off of work. We’re excited for two intense games between four really good teams. Its a baseball event.

That’s really what the new wild card system boils down to: the creation of an event. MLB is going to kickoff its playoff season with the most exciting baseball game they can manufacture. And we’re going to get it every year. Too often, we watch playoffs that are full of easy sweeps, boring 5-game victories, or anti-climatic endings. Now, we’re guarantee two Game 7s at the beginning of every season. That’s intense, and is going to create lots of Bucky Dent/Matt Holliday memorable moments for our collecting baseball memories.

We’re getting more baseball. There will still be the same number of teams advancing to the 5-game division series. The only difference is that one of those teams has to jump through an extra hoop in order to get there. Yes, this may disappoint a team like the Yankees, who played pretty well for 162 games and may have to bet the whole season on a single game. However, how much different is that really than disappointing a team like the Oakland Athletics, who played pretty well for 162 games but would otherwise probably miss the playoffs by 1 or 2 wins? The only difference, in my mind, is that we’re taking the same distinction–1 win over 162 games–and making it more dramatic and fun.

In my mind, there is really only one downside for the playoff system: its creates more of a mismatch in the division series. The team that got stuck with the one-game playoff may have to burn their top starting pitcher. For the Yankees, this is the difference between C.C. Sabathia pitching two games in the division series instead of one, which is a pretty big deal.

The remedy for this, in my mind, is not changing the Wild Card format, but instead extending the division series to 7 games, with only one off day. I’m not a fan of a 3-starter baseball series, as it privileges teams that are top heavy. The change would still advantage the division leader, but less so than the current version. The Yankees could probably get two short-rest games out of C.C. Sabathia in a 7-game series. It would also eliminate the awkward Away-Home setup that we have this year.

At the very least, I would wait to cast judgment on the 1-game playoff. Let’s see how much fun it is this year. Maybe it turns out to be an anti-climatic exercise in manufacturing excitement, but I doubt it. I think it will a fantastic day of baseball, where I’m sitting on the edge of my seat even if the Yankees aren’t playing. We remember those epic Bucky Dent games more than we remember the individual moments of most longer series.

E.J. Fagan been blogging about Yankee baseball since 2006. He is a Ph.D. student at University of Texas at Austin.

4 thoughts on “In Defense of the 1-Game Wild Card Playoff

  1. roadrider

    Well, you’re entitled to your opinion but I am not a fan of manufactured hype, which, as you’ve acknowledged, these one-game playoffs are. Games like the Bucky Dent game or the 1962 or 1951 post-season NL playoffs were exciting because they happened rarely and not by design.

    The novelty of this scheme will wear off pretty quickly and it’s almost certain to be replaced by a 3-5 game series in a few years. This is why I dislike the whole playoff expansion idea. I don’t even really like the original wild card scheme but I can at least rationalize it because of the inequities introduced by the three-division set up (which, of course was specifically designed to create an artificial need for another playoff round which could be sold to the networks).

    If the Yankees are involved I’ll watch. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure I can find something better to do.

  2. jim p

    “The team that got stuck with the one-game playoff may have to burn their top starting pitcher. ”

    As someone who never liked the single wild-card, I sort of like that fact. There are teams who won their division, and the one that didn’t, in the post-season. Seems fair to me that they should be handicapped. Depending on the math, having the sixth or seventh best team in a league be World Champions… ah, I dunno. Never liked that.

  3. Joe G

    I’m fine with the wildcard team burning their best starter, because it puts them at an immediate disadvantage, which a WC team should be at. The only negative I see is that it doesn’t let the #1 seed know who they are playing until the last minute. And in this years case, the WC team isn’t even the worst team in the AL. Maybe they could allow the #1 seed to pick who they play in the first round?

  4. Dlogan

    The only thing a liked about the wild card in past years was it ensured the second best record in the league would get in.
    Now you may have the 5th place team from each league in the World Series! MLB is making it harder to have the 2 best teams in each league playing for the World Series.

    Yes, it will be a best of 3 eventually then 5 and Divisional series will be 7….and then 4 wild card teams so teams like the Red Sox and Mets still have a chance at the Playoffs after losing 90 games…..

    …And don’t give me other sports do it!

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