Baseball’s GM meetings wrapped up today, and at the end MLB announced a few things that we knew were coming down the pike. First, they approved the Astros’ sale to Jim Crane. That comes with a game-altering change: the Astros will move to the American League West division in 2013, thereby creating two 15-team leagues. Second, MLB announced the addition of one Wild Card team from each league, expanding the total playoff pool to 10 of 30 teams. Both of these announcements will have far-reaching effects on the future of the sport.
Given baseball’s current arrangement, having unbalanced leagues makes sense. It might create an odd-looking arrangement, with the AL West housing four teams while the NL Central has six, but it makes life much easier. With 14 teams in the AL and 16 teams in the NL, baseball was able to continue its tradition of keeping the leagues separate, or at least mostly separate, until they finally meet in the World Series. But with 15 teams in each league, having an interleague game every day becomes necessary.
More frequent interleague creates a greater urgency for a uniform set of rules. It’s unfair to ask AL teams to regularly play without their DH, just as it’s unfair to ask an NL team to find a DH among its string of bench players. But at the same time, changing the DH rule in either league would come under much heavier fire than any of the recently announced changes. The DH rule, as Hardball Talk’s Craig Calcaterra has said, is akin to religion. We all have our beliefs, and no amount of argument, no matter how vehement and logical, will sway the other side.
Thankfully, it appears that the rules need not change. The Daily News’ Mark Feinsand notes that the number of interleague games will not change. That means they will essentially take those two weeks of interleague in June, plus the stale rivalry weekend, and spread them throughout the season. That does appear to be the best compromise for the time being. It means both leagues can retain their DH identities, and it keeps minimal contact between the leagues during the season. If MLB did feel the need to balance the leagues, they at least got this part right.
Added Wild Card
While moving the Astros to the AL creates little controversy, minus the DH discussion, adding a Wild Card team to each league inspires heavy opinions from all angles. From the few details we know, each league will now have two Wild Card teams, and they will meet each other for a one-game playoff. That will determine who plays the No. 1 seed in the LDS (or the No. 2 seed, depending on the standard divisional issues). As with most changes, this has both upsides and downsides.
On the upside is an incentive to win the division. In years past we’ve heard loud criticism that some teams have been able to go into cruise control in September, because they had such a big lead on a playoff spot. The Yankees were in such a situation the last three seasons. They could afford to ease up in September, because even if they lost the division they still had a comfortable cushion in the Wild Card race. The new system forces them to keep a foot on the accelerator, lest they get forced into that all-or-nothing playoff game. The other, obvious, upside is that more teams get a chance to make the big dance.
Still, this seems like an odd way to approach adding a second Wild Card team. One-game playoffs in baseball exist out of necessity, for the rare instance where two teams finish with the same record and there is a playoff spot on the line. That is, Game 163 just creates a situation where one team must have a better regular season record than the other. The new system turns that into an actual playoff game. The participants needn’t have equal records; in fact, in most years they will not. Instead they’ll face each other for a single game, with the entire season on the line, no matter how much better one team played than the other during a whole 162-game season.
That, to me, marginalizes the marathon that is the April through September baseball season. It penalizes a team that played better in 162 games, just to squeeze in another playoff team. And it all occurs in a single game, where all sorts of randomness can damn an otherwise deserving team. You can say that the Wild Card in general creates the same effect, and I’d agree. But this new system makes the situation that much worse.
When the time comes, there will be few complaints about the system. There might be a cry of foul here and there, especially when a team with a superior record loses the Wild Card game. But it almost certainly won’t turn interest away from baseball. In fact, keeping the added team in the playoff hunt, and putting a greater emphasis on the division (to the chagrin of the 4th-best team) could create a higher level of interest. It doesn’t have a universal seal of approval from fans, but these are the new realities of Major League Baseball.