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In Defense Of The Wild Card One-Game Playoff

Oct 1, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) reacts after striking out against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the sixth inning of the National League wild card playoff baseball game at PNC Park. The Pirates won 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When MLB first came out with the two wild card per league format, and made it so that the two wild card winners in each league would play a one-game playoff to advance to the NLDS, I hated the idea.

I hated the idea that, after a 162-game season, a team’s entire fate rested on just one game, a game in which so many strange things can happen.

Last year, the Atlanta Braves fell victim to a ridiculous infield fly rule call that cost them at least one run and, quite possibly, their season. After 162 games and 94 wins, the Braves were out of the playoffs after just one game.

It didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem right.

But after watching the two wild card games the last two nights, I’ve come around. If MLB is going to have two wild cards per league (which I still am not a huge fan of), then a one-game playoff makes more sense than anything else they could do. And I will give you my reasons.

  • All teams are given the same chance to win their division as everyone else.

The Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians didn’t HAVE to be wild card teams. They were wild card teams for a reason. They weren’t as good as the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, both of whom won their divisions. In fact, Cincinnati finished in THIRD PLACE in their division, albeit with 90 wins.

But remember, back in 1993, when there were no wild cards, the San Francisco Giants missed the playoffs entirely even though they won 103 games. The reason they didn’t make the playoffs is because the Braves won 104.

The Giants finished with the second-most wins in the NL, six more than the Phillies, and yet they didn’t even get to play in a wild card play-in game. You can bet they would have killed for that chance.

Win the division next year, guys. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

That was the last year there was no wild card in baseball. By that time, in order to make the playoffs and get to the LCS, a team had to beat out six other teams to win their division. And up until 1969, teams had to beat out NINE other teams in the regular season just to make the playoffs, although the winners of the National League and American League instantly played in the World Series at that point.

So while it’s much easier to make the playoffs now, it’s certainly much more difficult to get to the World Series.

Let’s face it. The Reds, a third place team, were lucky to even get to play in the one-game playoff. If they want to avoid that fate in the future, they can do what the Braves did after last year’s disappointment.

Win the division. It’s just that simple.

  • The season is too long to play more than a one-game playoff.

Think about how long a Major League season is. Teams play about 30 spring training games. Then they play 162 regular season games (and sometimes 163). Then there is a one-game playoff, a five-game LDS, a seven-game LCS and then a seven-game World Series. Unless MLB is willing to shorten the season back to 154 games (which would never happen, as owners would rather sell off their own children than lose gate revenue), there is simply no way to make a wild card series longer than one game.

  • Teams waiting on the wild card winners can’t sit around for more than a week.

If MLB did decide to go to a three or five-game wild card round, the teams that actually won the division would likely be put at a competitive disadvantage. Why? Baseball players are used to playing every day. Aside from the All-Star break, the most days off a player gets during the regular season is one, and maybe a second if there’s a rain-out or something. But baseball players are not conditioned to sitting around for six or seven days without playing baseball.

A wild card team that continues to play remains in the rhythm to which they have become accustomed during the regular season, while the division winner becomes rusty. You can’t penalize the division winners, who earned a bye through the wild card round, by making them watch soap operas and play simulated games that don’t simulate jack.

It’s already bad enough that the Braves, Dodgers and Cardinals are playing their first playoff game four days since their season finale on Sunday. Anything longer than that would be dumb.

  • One-game playoffs feed into the short attention spans of an NFL-obsessed American sports audience.

One of the reasons mainstream sports fans have trouble with baseball is the time it takes to invest in the game.

I love it. I love the 162-game season. I love all the playoff games. I love sitting and watching the game draw itself out. But most sports fans, especially NFL fans that MLB would love to draw in, think the baseball season goes on too long.

But these one-game playoffs are just what the doctor ordered for these folks. It’s an elimination game. One-and-done. No muss, no fuss. You can tune in for one night, see a winner, and get closure. It’s not like a TV procedural that you have to stay with week after week. The time commitment required is nominal.

It’s really the only way MLB can replicate what the NFL does and appeal to those types of fans. For that reason, it holds a lot of appeal.

 

Listen, I get why some people don’t like the one-game wild card playoff. For the teams that lose, it doesn’t even feel like their team made the playoffs. There’s no time for the losers to enjoy their regular season accomplishment.

But that’s the point. Up until last year, Cincinnati’s third-place, 90-win season wouldn’t have even allowed them to sniff a playoff game.

So the point remains. If you want to enjoy your postseason run a little more and give yourself a better chance at beating out the misfortunes of bad luck and bad umpiring, your best bet is to win the division and avoid the one-game playoff.

And if you happen to be in that one-game playoff, count your lucky stars you’re there. Because historically, you’d be home playing golf.

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