Saturday, July 28, 2012

MLB Setting The Table For Wild Card Races

It’s kind of hard to tweak something with as much tradition as Major League Baseball.

The game has been around for so long, that any addition or subtraction to the rules brings about change that we, as fans, aren’t always excited to see implicated. Because, let’s face it, change in sports makes us a little squirmy.

Instant replay is a perfect example. Although the NFL has tinkered with the technology for years, we still question the idea of our national pastime leaving decisions up to anyone or anything but the umpires. It helps the game, but being creatures of habit, we root against it, hoping to find a flaw in the system.

Now Major League Baseball is introducing a new change to the rules. Starting this postseason, there will be two Wild Card teams from each league rather than one. The two Wild Cards from both the AL and NL will square off in a one-game playoff, deciding who will host the best team in the league in the actual first round of the postseason.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. We had this last year. Each league’s Wild Card spot was decided on the very last day of the season. The Cardinals and Rays fought their way into the playoffs thanks to losses by the Atlanta Braves and the Boston Red Sox. The Cardinals went on a magical run and ended up capturing their second World Series in six years. 

The final games of the season produced something comparable to this year’s new system. We saw two games decide the final members of the playoffs and not to mention the Cardinals and Rangers capped off the drama with the greatest World Series ever. The Rangers were an out away from capturing a championship twice while The Cardinals’ late-game heroics carried them to the title and, without the a Philadelphia Phillies defeat of the Braves, they wouldn’t have been there at all.

Here’s the problem. In the old system, we weren’t guaranteed a playoff-like atmosphere on the last day every season. It’s rare that the two teams battling for the Wild Card have the same record going into the final game of the season. It’s great when it happens, but it would be even better if it happened every single year.

That’s why this season has already been so competitive. Going into July 28, there are eight teams in the AL within 5.5 games in the Wild Card race. There are five teams in the NL within 5.5 as well. So we are talking about 13 teams battling for four spots that will eventually be just two spots in the playoffs. That’s the definition of exciting.

The most intriguing race is in the American League. The two teams leading the race as of July 28 are the Los Angeles Angels and the Oakland Athletics. What’s even more interesting is that the four teams trailing the Yankees in the AL East are all in Wild Card contention. Baltimore is 2.5 games back, Tampa Bay is 3.5 back, Toronto is four games back and Boston is trailing by 5.5 games. Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago are all battling for the AL Central, which means there are two more teams that will compete for the final two Wild Card Spots.

The National League is just as competitive. The Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves are atop the Wild Card standing as of July 28, but the Dodgers, Cardinals and Diamondbacks aren’t far behind. The Nationals are the only team in the NL with a comfortable lead in their division, which means there are two other teams in the mix: the Cincinnati Reds and the San Francisco Giants.

There are so many teams in it right now and it’s still not clear who the best team in baseball is. The Yankees have the best record in the AL while Cincinnati and Washington are tied for the best record in the NL. The Yankees got off to a slow start, but they and the Rangers have been the class of the AL since the middle of May. The Nationals are the most complete team in the NL, but with questions surrounding Stephen Strasburg’s innings limit, they could very easily fall of in the last month.

August is just around the corner and with August comes September and with September comes October and with October comes the World Series. I can’t think of a season with so many storylines and so many races. I can’t think of any year that there were 13 teams still vying for a playoff spot with at least three divisions sewn up.

It’s obvious that Major League Baseball wants to reproduce last year’s late-season drama. They’ve found a way to change the rules and make sure that every season ends with a one-game playoff.  

Sometimes change comes with discomfort and resistance, but in the case of Major League Baseball’s postseason, change could make all the difference in the world.

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