Throughout the years, Major League Baseball’s playoff system has undergone numerous tweaks.
Beginning in 1903, the teams that finished atop the American League and National League standings played each other in the World Series without any other postseason series. The single-tier playoff format survived expansion in 1961-62 and remained intact until 1969, when the championship series between east and west division champions in respective leagues was introduced.
When Major League Baseball realigned and expanded to three divisions in 1994, a three-round playoff system featuring the division series, championship series and World Series was introduced. This system satisfied the masses until 2011, when the league decided to add a second wild card spot to each league.
The addition of a second wild card spot was met with criticism almost immediately. Many questioned if the move was necessary and if a wild card play-in game just to advance to the division series was needed. After a while, people warmed up to the wild card play-in game, but some still disliked the new postseason format for one reason or another.
The second wild card spot has added intrigue to the playoff race deeper into the regular season and has kept teams in the mix longer than they would’ve been with only one wild card spot for the taking. If any evidence of this is needed, look no further than the fights for the second wild card spot in the National league this season.
Entering Wednesday night’s action, four teams are within five games of the Chicago Cubs, who currently hold the second wild card spot, with nearly a whole month left to play. The Washington Nationals sit atop the wild card standings with a 78-59 record and are 3.5 games up on Chicago. If it weren’t for the second wild card spot, not only would the Cubs be hard-pressed to make a run at the postseason this late in the game, but so would four other clubs.
Instead of being within five games of a postseason berth, the Philadelphia Phillies would be six games back of Washington in the loss column and on the outside looking in. The Arizona Diamondbacks, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets’ postseason hopes would be even grimmer, as all three teams would be at least eight games behind the Nationals.
Without the second wild card spot, the National League would be without a fiery postseason race. The Cubs would have fighter’s chance at overtaking the Nationals, but given the team’s sluggish start to the season, it would likely be too little, too late when it comes to winning enough games to make the playoffs. The east and west divisions have also been wrapped up for a while now, as both the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers have sizeable leads atop the east and west divisions, respectively.
This would leave the MLB without much intrigue in the last month of the season, which is downright bad for business. Without a much of a reason to watch meaningless games, ratings will drop, fans will stop coming to the ballpark and revenue will drop. Take the Mets for example, as Citi Field has been dormant in August and September the last couple of years. That has not been the case this year with the team firmly in the race thanks to the second wild card spot. With the Mets in the postseason hunt, the team is selling loads of tickets and the league is making money from it.
There are certainly fair criticisms regarding the second wild card spot. Should a team that is only two games over .500 be in the playoff mix this late in the season? Is it fair for a team to be inserted into the division series after burning their ace starting pitcher in the wild card game just to advance into the postseason? Both of those are certainly up for debate.
Regardless, the second wild card spot brings more positives than negatives. The wild card race in the National League this season is a prime example of the excitement it can bring to the table.
Tyler Calvaruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tyler_calvaruso.