What's The Best Playoff Format?

I'm not thrilled with the idea of expanding the postseason, simply because it does cheapen the regular season. But I'm on record suggesting that if the postseason is expanded, adding one Wild Card per league and adding a one-game playoff between each league's Wild Cards 1) would be compelling television, and 2) would make the regular season better, as the best teams in each league -- if in the same division -- would fight like hell to actually finish in first place.

Then I read Joe Sheehan's and Joel Sherman's takes on the subject, and suddenly I wasn't quite as sanguine about the idea.

Here's the thing ... When the Wild Cards were introduced in 1994, one of the rationales was that it was more fair ... That teams like the 1993 San Francisco Giants -- who won 103 games and fell a game short of paydirt -- deserved a berth in the postseason tournament. Of course, what I argued for some years is that while the Giants might have been perfectly deserving -- particularly compared to the winners of the other divisions -- if you let the 104-win Braves and the 103-win Giants into the playoffs, you've just deprived baseball fans of the single most dramatic story the sport has to offer: a meaningful down-to-the-wire battle between two excellent teams.

And in fact, that's exactly what has happened.

Now, almost everyone today believes the trade-off was a good one. I'm not sure I agree, but that was a long time ago and we're not going back.

Anyway, my point is that the current format is supposed to reward the best second-place team. But adding another Wild Card in each league might actually punish the best second-place team while rewarding an inferior team.

Hypothetically, let's say the Yankees and the Red Sox enter the last weekend of the season tied for first place, both with postseason berths locked up. Meanwhile, the Rays don't have a shot at the division title, but have locked up the second Wild Card. The Yankees and Sox will have good reasons to fight like hell for first place -- they don't want to get stuck playing in the Wild Card round -- while the Rays can take it easy, setting up their rotation and resting their regulars for that same Wild Card round. Result? Whoever comes in second might actually enter the first round of the playoffs at a disadvantage to the third-place Rays.

That's hardly fair, right?

Here's the thing, though ... I don't think it would actually happen like this very often at all. Everybody's favorite example is the American League East (which is why I used it). But in 2010, the third-place Red Sox would have been fighting like hell with the Chicago White Sox for the second Wild Card. In 2009, the Yankees beat out the Red Sox by eight games; the second Wild Card would have involved two teams in the Central and the Rangers. In 2008, the Rays and Red Sox would have been fighting like hell for the division title, but the Yankees, White Sox and Twins would have been fighting like hell for two of the other playoff spots.

Point being, for every dogfight between division rivals for the best record in the league, there's going to be at least that many teams fighting for the second Wild Card.

That's my guess, anyway. Just looking back through a few more years, I had a hard time finding even one case where the second Wild Card was able to punt the last weekend of the season.

Well, not that hard. As Sheehan points out, this did happen in 2005. The Red Sox and Yankees wound up tied for the East lead with 95 wins apiece. If there'd been a second Wild Card, it would have been the Indians, who won 93 games, five games better than the next-best second-place team.

But would letting the Indians in have been so awful? Joe cites the example of 2005 just a few sentences after complaining (in his subscription-only newsletter), "The second-best team in baseball could go from fighting for a division title and the best record in its league to a one-game playoff against a team it was miles ahead of for six months." 

The Indians didn't finish miles behind the Yankees and Red Sox, though; they finished two games behind them. Granted, when you consider the strength of the respective divisions, the Yankees and Red Sox probably were quite a bit better than the Indians ... but still, I just don't think this "problem" would actually happen real often. Most years, that second Wild Card team is going to be fighting for its life, right down to the wire.

Sheehan wants to get rid of the Wild Cards altogether.

Well, my friend, that just isn't happening. We're going to have the current setup for a while longer, or we're going to add another Wild Card in each league. I'm not wild about the latter, but I don't think it will be as bad as Sheehan (or Sherman) thinks. And I still think if you're going to do that, then the one-game playoff is the best option.

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