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MLB's New Wild Card, And Embracing The Randomness

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Major League Baseball is adding a new playoff spot in each league, maybe as soon as next season, and instead of complaining about it, we should accept it, and perhaps even be excited about it.

SECAUCUS, NJ:  MLB commissioner Bud Selig speaks during the MLB First Year Player Draft held in Studio 42 at the MLB Network in Secaucus, New Jersey.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
SECAUCUS, NJ: MLB commissioner Bud Selig speaks during the MLB First Year Player Draft held in Studio 42 at the MLB Network in Secaucus, New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Last season, and in many seasons previous, there were eight playoff teams in Major League Baseball, with four in each league. Now, after some lengthy negotiations, Bud Selig says there will be ten playoff teams, with five in each league. Maybe as soon as next year, but definitely in time for the year after that. In addition to the existing wild card slot, there will be a second wild card slot.

This idea has been met with resistance, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it's a change to a system that didn't seem to be in need of any change. Before, there were six division winners and two wild cards, and that worked just fine. Peaches, even. Why make it different? People will always be opposed to changes to the familiar routine, even when the changes might be necessary. There's no reason to believe that this change is necessary.

There's also been the criticism that baseball is just doing this to drum up more money, as if that's a new thing, or a surprising thing. Of course baseball is doing this for the money. No matter what they say to explain this to the fans, they've studied this issue, and determined that it will generate revenue. Baseball is a business, and more money makes businesses more successful.

But a real popular criticism, and the one I'm going to address here, is that adding a new wild card slot in each league diminishes the significance of the regular season. Under the new system, the two wild cards in each league will play a one-game playoff, with the winner advancing to the LDS. It's therefore conceivable that a league's fifth-best team could make the LDS - maybe even at the expense of the league's second-best team - simply by winning one game. "Why even play 162 games if it's going to come down to this?" some people have asked.

But there's an important thing to understand, here - the regular season and the playoffs are separate things. Completely separate things. People aren't fond of the idea of a league's fifth-best team making the playoffs because they want only the very best teams in the playoffs. They want only the very best teams in the playoffs presumably because, on some level, they want to know which team is the best. But the playoffs don't prove which team is the best. The playoffs don't prove anything.

The playoffs are random. Not completely, but mostly, and this isn't an original thought. In the playoffs, any team can beat any team, and when, say, the 2006 Cardinals win the World Series while the 2006 Mets and the 2006 Yankees and the 2006 Twins do not, well, what does that tell us, other than the Cardinals won 11 games?

The playoffs aren't about finding the best team in baseball. The regular season will usually tell you which team is the best team in baseball. It isn't perfect, but it's pretty good, because the sample size is large. The best team in baseball last season was the New York Yankees, or, maybe, the Philadelphia Phillies or the Texas Rangers. None of these three teams won the World Series, but there wasn't any outcry that the system was broken. The regular season tells you one thing, and the playoffs tell you something very different.

The playoffs feature short series, allowing for randomness. They're scheduled such that teams can manage their rosters in a different, more top-heavy way than they do during the year. Adding another wild card and a one-game playoff makes things more chaotic and increases the likelihood of an 86-win team winning the World Series, but what's more randomness in a random system?

Once you let go of the idea of the playoffs proving much of anything, I think you can embrace the change. The playoffs exist not to prove, but to provide drama, theater, unforgettable moments. Moments that can simultaneously mean nothing and everything. Now, to the existing system, we've added a pair of guaranteed one-game playoffs. The drama is both very much manufactured, and very much real. The intensity of those one-game playoffs isn't going to be artificial.

We already had a wild card. We had it for a while. The baseball playoffs might have been the most "pure" when each league's top teams met in the World Series, but it hasn't been that way since 1968. We're a long way beyond complaining that the playoffs might not reward the right teams.

You might ask, well, if you're okay with ten playoff teams, what about 12? What about 14, or 16, or, hell, why not every team? Where do you draw the line? To which my response would be, it doesn't much matter. Introduce too many teams and you have other teams waiting a long time to get started, but that isn't an issue here. We're talking about a pair of one-game playoffs, presumably to be played on the same day. That's not much of a scheduling delay.

The MLB playoffs exist to devastate and thrill, and nothing else. With the new change, there's no reason to believe they'll do that any worse, and they could easily do that better. Change is change, and change can suck, but I suspect that we'll all adjust to this one in no time. We might even love it. Those one-game playoffs are gonna be sweet.