October is just days away, and that means that the MLB playoffs are almost here. The playoffs consist of a few precious weeks of nail-biting for all, heartbreak for most, and eternal glory for a lucky few. A grueling season of 162 games can culminate in a single at-bat, and we bask in every second of it. Clinching a playoff berth has always been cause for celebration, but some teams have more time to celebrate than others. While the division champions sit on their laurels and dream of championship rings, each league’s two wild card teams must sweat it out in a one game playoff. Many may argue that a one game playoff is not a fair evaluation, and they may be right. But the threat of an entire season coming down to this one game creates an incentive for teams to keep pushing through the end of the season, and adds to the magic and mystery that defines the postseason.
For nearly a century, there were no divisions, and no wild cards. One team from each league won the pennant and duked it out to be champion of the world. This may, fundamentally, be fairest system. Teams with dominant regular season records cannot be upset by teams that were barely over .500, and no team has an easier schedule than any other team in its league. However, this left many teams who found themselves outside of striking distance of first place with little incentive to remain competitive through the entire season.
Divisions were not created until 1969, when each league divided into two divisions, adding an extra round to the postseason. The first wild card appeared in 1994, with three divisions, one wild card, and yet another round. In 2012, the playoffs underwent yet another change in structure. There are still three divisions, but there are now two wild card teams per league. These two teams meet head-to-head in a one-game playoff to make it into the first round.
This format raises many questions. There is a reason that the rest of the playoffs are longer series. Each individual baseball game is unpredictable, with outcomes decided by a single pitch. A narrow gap separates the best and worst teams. In 2013, the top teams after the regular season (Cardinals and Red Sox) had a winning percentage of .599. This means that even the most successful teams will drop four games out of every ten. The margin between wild card teams is even slimmer. A one-game playoff could easily go either way, and there are always late-season injuries to consider. Banged up players have less time to rest and may not play as well as they would late in a five or seven game series.
Critics of the current wild card system are not hard to find. They argue that the wild card team that performed better in the regular season deserves to be in the playoffs, and that better teams could fall victim to an unlucky day. It would be tragic for a campaign that started in April, or better yet, Spring Training, to end prematurely because of one lucky play.
But that’s what baseball is all about. The playoffs are meant to be nerve-wracking and unpredictable. At the end of the day, every pitch, every swing, and every catch matters. Nobody can spare one second of concentration, not on a diving catch, and not on a routine ground ball. This is baseball in its purest form. Each team has one day, one chance to put forth its very best. If they fail to do that, they do not deserve to move on.
The critics argue that the regular season needs to mean something, and they’re absolutely right. Nobody wants to settle for the wild card. This means that teams are fighting day in and day out to win the division. The last few days of the season are no longer often just a formality. Every game is crucial to earning not just a place in the postseason, but also a secure one.
October is a magical month when anything can happen. Amazing moments are born that continue to live in the hearts of baseball fans forever. We should not shy away from the “wild” nature of the playoffs. It’s what we wait for all year.
Photo: Beck Diefenbach