The final game of the 2011 season was one for the ages. Using no starting pitchers or really any Major League relievers, the Yanks blew a big lead to the Tampa Bay Rays while the Red Sox coughed up a ninth-inning lead over the Orioles. The Rays made the playoffs while Boston completed a historic September swoon. In the NL, the eventual World Series winners shut out the Astros as the Phillies downed the Braves, and Atlanta too blew a seemingly insurmountable late-season lead that proved to be anything but that. Next year or the year after, those Game 162 losses would have been meaningless.
As we all know, MLB has decided to expand the playoffs by adding a second Wild Card team. The second-place club with the second best record will square off in a one-game playoff against the second-place club with the best record in a contest that will determine who advances to the ALDS. This year, the Braves and Red Sox would have played the Cardinals and Rays respectively no matter the outcome of Game 162. Some says it cheapens the regular season while allowing competitive teams to take a crack at the crown while others say it adds the excitement two Game 163s to every baseball season. Either way, it changes late-season strategy.
Right now, according to a report in Sports Business Journal, MLB is attempting to decide when to add the extra playoff team. The owners and players would love to see the new format in 2012 because it means more money for all, but timing is tight. The owners meet this week, and if they can’t figure out the TV and scheduling logistics for this season before March 1, the new format will have to wait until 2013.
According to Eric Fisher and John Ourand, two items may hold up the extra game. First, the games must be assigned to a TV network. As Turner holds the rights to all Game 163s and the League Division Series, it appears as though they would be the ones to air the so-called play-in. Next, MLB must fit in another game before the start of the Division Series two days after the regular season ends. Perhaps I’ll finally get my wish of a more condensed playoff schedule. As sticking points go, though, these two are hardly major obstacles, and it’s likely that we’ll see a new playoff format this year.
So how then does this impact the regular season? For one, the second place teams will play simply for one of the top two records. There will be fewer win-or-go-home scenarios. In 2011, for instances, the Angels were four games behind the Red Sox, and the Giants were three games behind the Braves. The Wild Card play-in contests would have been set days earlier, and teams would have been prepared for the new contest.
Next, managers will have to assess their starting rotations. To win a Game 163, would the Wild Card managers try to line up their aces, knowing that another round of the playoffs awaits a day or two later? They have to sacrifice an edge in the next round to simply make it there, thus further rewarding the division winner. It might not be far to the Wild Card team, but it adds more than just one home game to the division winner’s advantage.
That, then, is the new baseball world in which we live. Ten of 30 teams will play more than 162 games, and late-season strategies will shift. Winning the division will become even more important, but Yankee fans wouldn’t have it any other way now, would they?