Wild Card format hardly perfect, but it works
Tempting alternative to one-and-done round presents scheduling flaws
We are only in the second season in which the Wild Card winners will square off in one game to determine who advances to the Division Series, yet it already seems to have spawned an annual tradition:
Complaining about the Wild Card round being one game.
"I hate it," Nationals manager Davey Johnson told USA Today a year ago.
"Hopefully, that's one of the things they'll change," Pirates closer Mark Melancon told the Boston Globe last week.
The sentiment is undoubtedly shared by others inside and outside the baseball industry, people who can't comprehend that a season built around the concept of survival of the fittest over 162 games could come down to a single one-and-done contest.
But what those people also can't comprehend is that their oft-proposed idea of a best-of-three series between the Wild Card winners would be even more troublesome.
Full disclosure: I love the one-game format. I love that, right now, we've got six American League teams scratching and clawing within 3 1/2 games of each other for the right to extend their season by just one more day. I love that the three National League Central clubs grouped together at the top of the division have added incentive to finish the job, because they know how dangerous the win-or-go-home scenario can be in such an unpredictable sport, and I love that the Nats, suddenly just five games back, are doing their part to force the issue.
More than anything, I love that winning your division matters. I love that it buys you a couple days to align your ace for Game 1 of the Division Series, to address any nagging injuries, to mentally prep for what's in store.
And I also love that if a Wild Card club is deep enough, hot enough and resolute enough, it still has a shot at toppling a division king.
Adding even the shortest of series to this postseason picture would complicate things considerably.
We already know the MLB schedule has to account for at least one day of tiebreaking scenarios (and the way things are shaping up in the AL, you're encouraged to familiarize yourself with both the two-team and three-team tiebreaker formats), possibly two. Throw in the Wild Card Game and the travel day before the Division Series round begins, and you've got an absolute minimum of a three-day break between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs for the division winners.
Turn the Wild Card round into a best-of-three series, and now you're adding -- at minimum -- two more days to that break, or three (to account for a travel day) if that best-of-three is played in two cities. (And if those proposing a best-of-three do so out of fairness to both teams involved, certainly they'll want both of those teams to have at least one home game in the series, won't they?)
So now, you'd be asking a division winner to sit around for at least five and possibly as many as six or seven days between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason.
Let's say the best-of-three Wild Card round applied here in 2013. The season ends on Sept. 29, and the best-of-three would begin Oct. 1, at the earliest (depending on tiebreakers). Going off Tuesday's standings, the AL Wild Card Game would pit the Rays against the Rangers for the right to play the Red Sox in the AL Division Series, and the Wild Card round would be scheduled to last until at least Oct. 3, possibly Oct. 4 (if you gave each team at least one home game and accounted for travel). Add another travel day between the Wild Card Game and the Division Series round, and the ALDS wouldn't start until either Oct. 5 or 6 -- six or seven days after the season ended.
Now let's say the Rays advanced out of that initial round by "sweeping" the Rangers in two tidy games. David Price pitched masterfully on Oct. 1, and now the Rays have the option of bringing him back on regular rest on Oct. 6, which would either be Game 1 or 2 of the ALDS, depending on what travel scenario we settled on.
Either way, the Red Sox, in addition to an absurd amount of time between the end of their season and the beginning of their postseason schedule, would now be subjected to their opponents' ace early in the best-of-five series.
That's supposed to be an advantage?
Sure, the Wild Card clubs would have the disadvantage of potentially being worn down by that extra playing time and travel, but you could just as easily counter that thought with the argument that they'd have the advantage of forward momentum, of a sort. Baseball players are groomed to the grind of playing every day. Ask the 2006 Tigers, 2007 Rockies or 2012 Tigers about the rest vs. rust dilemma that can crop up in October. They all won the League Championship Series round handily, waited for at least five and as many as eight days between rounds and then were summarily beaten in the World Series.
The one-game Wild Card round might seem to contrast with everything the 162-game schedule is supposedly about, but any postseason appearance is an opportunity to do something special, and the finality of that one-game scenario is one that resonates with fans.
Really, you'd be foolish to argue the Wild Card system has been anything other than a boon for baseball's entertainment and economic interests. And the postseason expansion adopted last year tweaked the Wild Card situation in a favorable fashion, because it introduced a small but necessary hurdle between the Wild Card clubs and the Division Series. It rewards them for their effort in getting into the postseason picture but properly punishes them for not winning their division by making them burn a starting pitcher of their choice in the effort to advance. And it grants division winners the benefit of rest, but not the detriment of too much rest.
There's no perfect scenario to anything in life. But the people complaining about the one-game Wild Card round ought to really think through the alternative.