Tuesday and Wednesday night the first “round” of the 2015 playoffs took place with the wild card games. The Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs defeated the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates respectively to advance the Divisional Series. Many fans have shown their disinterest in the one-game, winner-take-all format, but at the end of the day, it’s a great format.
This year was a rare, yet special season in the National League as the top-three teams in all of baseball all came from the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinal had the best record in baseball at 100-62 with the Pirates (98-64) and the Cubs (97-65) right behind them. This set up the wild card game in Pittsburgh where the Cubs won the game, thus sending a 98-win team home. Fans on social media were upset – as they should be – but some of their unhappiness is due to the current playoff format. While it may seem unfair, it’s a good format.
The format is good due to the fact that it adds more emphasis on winning the division. If a team wins the division, it qualifies for the League Divisional Series and assures a best-of-five series. If a team doesn’t win the division yet wins a wild card spot, it sets itself up for a one-game, winner-take-all wild card game, where anything can happen. The division winners get rewarded for their body of work throughout the season, while those who don’t win a division and win a wild card spot have a single shot to advance.
Some fans said they want a best-of-three series for the wild card, but what if the series results in a sweep? That extra game would essentially be meaningless. Then what, a best-of-five series? That wouldn’t be fair to the wild card winners as they would then have to play in the LDS. Some fans were saying that it’s not right that the top-seeded team (St. Louis) was “rewarded” by facing the second or third best team in all of baseball. At the end of the day, however, it’s not likely that the two wild card teams will be the second and third best teams in baseball. This was a great season for the Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs and the Cardinals were rewarded by winning the NL Central with a spot in the NLDS. The other two teams had to fight it out in order to advance to play the Cardinals. It may not seem like a reward to play the third best team in baseball, but that’s not always going to be the case.
Those wanting a best-of-three playoff series for the wild card teams want this due in large part to the fact that throughout the regular season, the teams play in series of two, three or four. The argument against that is that it takes away from the excitement of a winner-take-all game. The addition of the second wild card team in 2012 allows more teams a chance to make the playoffs. The smaller market teams, like the Pirates, have a better chance of making the playoffs with the second wild card spot, opposed to having just one wild card winner from each league. This generates more excitement and revenue to those smaller market teams who can’t always compete with the larger market teams.
The one-game wild card format makes the game even more exciting. It gives the opening games of the playoffs a game-seven type feel, which is the best scenario in all of sports. These wild card games typically see the two team’s aces squaring off against one another. In the Cubs and Pirates game, the pitching duel was Jake Arrieta of Chicago toeing the rubber against Gerrit Cole of Pittsburgh. The story going into the game was whether or not the Pirates could overcome Arrieta, who could possibly win the Cy Young this season, especially after his historic second half of the season. Arrieta proved to be too much for the Buccos, thus ending their season. The Pirates and Cubs both had better records than the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, but those two teams won their respective divisions.
Fans were wanting the playoff seeding to be changed, but that would essentially eliminate the divisions. Those fans compared it to how the NBA adopted a new playoff seeding for this season, but there is a glaring difference; in the NBA eight teams makes the playoffs (which are all best-of-seven series) from each conference, which is half the league. In the MLB, only 12 teams make the playoffs. The division winners would then not be rewarded for winning their division and they could be put that in the do-or-die game and their efforts towards actually winning the division could go for nothing. Someone on social media wanted away with the divisions altogether and just take the best six teams and sees them accordingly, but that isn’t the solution.
In order to win your division, a team usually has to play well against the other teams in their division. In the case of the Pirates this season, they did not take care of business in their own division, while being great against all the other divisions. Pittsburgh finished with a sub-.500 record against the other teams in the NL Central, finishing just 34-42 in the division. That makes 42 of their 64 losses in their own division. Had they finished at least .500 in the NL Central, they wouldn’t have played in the wild card game and would have been awaiting the winner of the Cardinals and Cubs. Instead, the 98-win team is heading home for the season. Of course you feel bad for the Pirates, but not every team can win the World Series and that’s the risk teams take by not winning the division.
Adding a three-game series would be detrimental to the current format. Those two teams would have to blow through their pitching staffs and that would put them at a disadvantage in the LDS. The fact of the matter is simple: win your division and get rewarded by not playing in the anything-can-happen wild card game.
The current MLB playoff format is just fine and adds more emphasis on winning a division over the course of the 162-game regular season. The first goal of every team is to win the division and make the postseason, thus giving them a shot at the World Series.
There is one question to be asked to the fans of the teams who get eliminated in the wild card game. That question is, if your team had won the game, would you still be in uproar?