Playoff Pinch Hits: Wild-Card Teams Dominating MLB Postseason

By Sam McPherson

Like him or not, outgoing MLB Commissioner Bud Selig brought some changes to the game of baseball in the last two decades — most notably the expansion of the postseason in 1994 (even though it wasn’t until 1995 that we saw it happen for real).

The idea was that more playoff spots would keep more teams — and their fans — interested in the regular season for a longer period of time. Doubling the postseason participants from just four teams in 1993 to eight teams would add excitement to the game.

In 2012, Selig did himself one better, expanding to 10 playoff teams with the addition of a second wild-card team in both the American and the National leagues.

Now, in 2014, baseball is looking at a situation where the fifth-best team in the National League’s regular season might be on its way to the World Series, while the fourth-best regular season team in the American League is already halfway there.

Three of the top four teams in the regular season lost their League Division Series — and lost badly. The top two teams in the NL went a combined 2-6 against the lower-seeded teams, and in the AL, the best team from the regular season was swept by a wild-card team.

Is this what Selig wanted? Is this what baseball wants? What’s the point of winning your division over a 162-game season if you barely receive an advantage in the postseason for doing so?

Pittsburgh’s Dilemma

Consider the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had a postseason berth wrapped up already heading into the final game of the season. But they still had a shot at the NL Central title, and they went for it.

Going for the division title probably cost them their chance to win the wild-card game three days later, because they spent their best starter on Game 162 trying to win the division. They would have been better off sandbagging the game and resting Gerrit Cole.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants were eliminated from the NL West race a few days earlier, and they were able to rest their best starter and save ace Madison Bumgarner for the wild-card game.

One decision looks smart now; the other, not so much. Was it worth it for Pittsburgh? Certainly not.

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Angels and Nationals: Home-Field Disadvantage

The Los Angeles Angels won 98 games this season, and the Washington Nationals won 96 games, making each the top team in their respective league. But in the five-game LCS setup, that earned them just one extra game at home — one they never even got to use. Sure, they both lost two games at home right away to wild-card teams, so you could argue they lost their advantage.

But shouldn’t 162 games means more than just those two home playoff games? Not the way it’s currently set up in MLB. There’s little to no advantage in a short series for the higher-seeded team.

Just once since 1999 have the top teams in each league advanced to the World Series, and that was last season when the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals made it to the final round. Shouldn’t the 162-game season give a better advantage to the top teams?

Wild-Card World Series

For three straight years in the early 2000s, a wild-card team won the World Series: the 2002 Angels, the 2003 Marlins and the 2004 Red Sox. The Cardinals won the Series in 2011 as a wild-card team, and we can’t forget those 1997 Marlins. Three straight years in the mid-2000s, wild-card teams also lost the World Series: the 2005 Houston Astros, the 2006 Detroit Tigers and the 2007 Colorado Rockies.

The 2000 New York Mets and the 2002 Giants also lost World Series as wild-card teams.

Five wild-card teams have won the World Series, and five other wild-card teams have lost it. That’s 10 wild-card teams in the World Series in the last 19 seasons, with a good chance at least one — if not two — will make it in 2014.

While Selig’s little “experiment” has opened up the postseason to more teams, it’s also cheapened the value of winning the division and playing the best over the previous six months.

It has reduced the postseason to the proverbial coin flip, and teams that play better over 162 games deserve better odds than that in the MLB playoffs.

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Check out other Playoff Pinch Hits.

Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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