For 6½ decades, baseball invited only two teams to its postseason extravaganza. Those were the days. It’s now 2012, and this sport has actually quintupled that number. How will that change October life as we know and love it? Here’s what it all means:
The new postseason calendar
First off, we’ll lay out the basics, as detailed by our sources. Then we’ll do our best to explain how MLB came up with this plan.
Wed., Oct. 3: Last day of regular season.
Thurs., Oct. 4: Off day (left free for tiebreakers, weather makeups, etc.).
Fri., Oct. 5: Wild-card games in each league.
Sat., Oct. 6: One LDS in each league begins — the series matching the No. 2 seed versus the No. 3 seed (i.e., the matchup that doesn’t involve the wild-card teams). The No. 3 seed would play the first two games at home.
Sun., Oct. 7: Game 1 of the other division series — the series involving the No. 1 seeds versus the wild-card survivors — beginning (pay attention now) at the home field of the WILD CARDS. Also on this day: Game 2 of the other two series.
Mon., Oct. 8: Game 2 of the 1-versus-4 division series, again at the home of the wild-card teams.
Tue., Oct. 9: Game 3 of the 2-versus-3 LDS. (The No. 2 seed, the team with “home-field advantage,” will be home for Games 3, 4 and 5, if necessary.)
Wed., Oct. 10: The No. 1 seeds finally go home to host Game 3 of their LDS against the wild cards. (As with the other series, Games 3, 4 and 5 will be played in the ballpark of the higher seed.) Also that day: Game 4 of the other LDS (if necessary).
Thurs., Oct. 11: Game 5 of one set of LDS/Game 4 of the other (if necessary).
Fri., Oct. 12: Game 5 of the 1-versus-4 LDS (if necessary).
Sat., Oct. 13: ALCS begins.
Sun., Oct. 14: NLCS begins.
Wed., Oct. 24: World Series begins.
Why are both wild-card games on the same day?
Let’s start at the beginning. As we’ve chronicled for months, the schedule wizards were assigned basically an impossible job — trying to jam these games into a calendar that wasn’t designed for an extra round of October madness. So
For 2012, they had just about no choice but to play both wild-card showdown games on the same day (Friday), because they had to leave Thursday (Oct. 4) open.
There’s now too strong a likelihood that there could be at least one tiebreaker on that Thursday to settle a division or wild-card race. Under this system, remember, virtually every tie would have to be settled on the field, because the difference between finishing first and being a wild card is too significant to be left to any sort of mathematical formula.
If there is, in fact, a tiebreaker Thursday, it would create a serious mess. Potentially, it could force a team to play its regular-season finale Wednesday in one city, a Thursday tiebreaker in another city and the Friday wild-card showdown in a third city.
You don’t need to be a traveling secretary to know that ain’t good. So the two sides have agreed that they’ll negotiate reasonable game times on the fly to allow for that insane travel scenario.
In other words, it’s possible that not all those games will be played in East Coast prime time. Just don’t tell Hank Steinbrenner.
Why aren’t both leagues on the same LDS schedule?
For 17 years, both NL Division Series started on one day, and both AL Division Series started on another day. As you’ll see from the schedule above, not this year.
So that leads to a logical question: Why not? Why do we have one NLDS and one ALDS starting Saturday this year, while the other two start Sunday? Again, the potential for inhumane travel meant the old schedule just couldn’t work — not this year, anyway.
Remember, there are no longer rules that would prevent a wild card from facing a team in its own division in the LDS. So the matchups in the series pitting the No. 2 versus No. 3 seeds should be set no later than Thursday. That’s why those two series will start first (Saturday).
Then it makes sense to start the two other series — the two matchups involving the wild-card survivors — the next day (Sunday). If there was no travel day in between, the two No. 1 seeds would be forced to go to the park Friday, wait to find out who wins the wild-card duels, then fly to that city to start the LDS the next day. Not a cool way to treat the two teams with the best records in each league.
But those No. 1 seeds aren’t going to be happy anyhow, once October rolls around. And here’s the question they’ll be asking
Why do teams with home-field advantage open on the road?
Uh, have we mentioned that there just wasn’t room for these games on the calendar — not if they’d used the old 2-2-1 format, anyway?
So we’re stuck with the return — just for this year — of the dreaded 2-3 schedule, in which the team with “home-field advantage” has to start the LDS on the road but would have the final three games at home (if necessary). That means the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in each league have to play Games 1 and 2 away from home.
Nearly everybody hated the 2-3 format back when it was used in the original division series (from 1995 to ’97). But both sides signed off on it this year once they became convinced there was no way to work in two travel days during the LDS.
What happens next year, when the regular-season schedule can be reworked to better accommodate the new postseason? Not certain quite yet. But it’s possible, and probably even likely, that the two wild-card showdown games would be held on different days instead of on the same day. And the division series will go back to its previous 2-2-1 design.
But we’re warning you now to get ready for some major complaining from the No. 1 seeds this October. Imagine this potential scenario, and you’ll see why:
Say the Diamondbacks, who finish the season with a one-week homestand, wind up as the NL wild card with the best record. If they were to win the wild-card survivor game Friday in Phoenix, it would mean they wouldn’t have to travel anywhere for nearly two weeks.
Meanwhile, say the Reds win 103 games and take the No. 1 seed. Their “reward” would be to go almost two weeks without a home game. They’d finish the regular season in Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Then they’d be forced to open the postseason with two games in Arizona. And we’re guessing they wouldn’t be real happy about it.
But once the two sides decided the only solution to their battle against the calendar was this 2-3 format, this was the price they had no alternative but to pay. Just one more reason they should have waited a year.
Why is there no travel day before Game 1 of the ALCS?
This is not a recording. There aren’t enough days on the calendar for all these games. So something had to give. This is not a recording.
The national TV contract calls for the ALCS to begin on Saturday, Oct. 13. So it isn’t shocking that the ALCS will begin on Saturday, Oct. 13, just about no matter what. (We advise TBS to begin praying to the weather gods immediately, however.)
But there’s one potential disaster that could ensue. If the AL Division Series involving the wild card goes five games, the winner of that fifth game would find itself hurtling headlong into the ALCS the very next day.
That means: (A) that team would have to play five days in a row, while its opponent wouldn’t. (Uh-oh.) And (B) neither of the two teams involved in the ALCS would know whom — or WHERE — it would play Game 1 until Game 5 of that ALDS was over.
So if the wild-card team wins Game 5, it would have to sprint for a plane right after the game and fly to play the winner of the other ALDS the next day. If the No. 1 seed wins Game 5, it gets to stay home — BUT the team it’s playing would have to watch that game on TV, then stampede toward the airport and fly someplace to play the next day.
We’re not sure which scenario is worse. Would you rather be a team like the Tigers, winning Game 5 in Anaheim, then flying all night to start the ALCS in Yankee Stadium the next day? Or would you rather be, say, the Angels, sitting at home, watching the other Game 5 on TV, not knowing if you’ll start the ALCS at home the next day or, say, in conveniently located Tampa Bay?
Either way, it’s not good. But there’s an agreement that game times will be adjusted on both ends to take this travel nightmare into account. Not that that will keep the critics from screaming about this until their vocal cords burst into flames.
Why we still like the expanded postseason
All these doomsday scenarios aside, we still can’t wait for those wild-card games. You can’t beat the drama of a win-or-go-home game — in any sport. So try to envision how riveting it would be to begin the postseason with a game of that magnitude.
One game — with the entire season riding on it. It’s March Madness with bats and balls.
And if you have two games like that on the same day? We’d vote for that. It virtually guarantees that baseball can duplicate the drama of last season’s final day EVERY year if it chooses.
But what really makes this an inspired idea is that, in this rare case, adding two extra teams to the postseason tournament doesn’t diminish the value of the regular season. If it’s done this way, it actually enhances that value.
No more Septembers in which the Yankees and Red Sox turn potentially classic division races into glorified spring training games because both teams know they’re going to make the playoffs. No team would want to risk having its season come down to a one-game October Madness duel against, say, a David Price, Chris Carpenter or Jered Weaver.
So the value of finishing first goes way up. And the path of the wild-card team to the World Series victory podium gets much tougher.
One more reason it gets so tough is that, if the wild-card team’s whole season is about to ride on one game, wouldn’t that team HAVE to run its best starter out there to pitch that game? Of course — unless the manager really loves living dangerously.
But if that team has to use its ace just to survive, it becomes impossible to bring that pitcher back twice in the division series. So the days of riding one great starter to an LDS upset might be just about over. And if a team doesn’t like it? Hey, win your division.
Why it’s not all good
The one thing we can’t argue is that justice will always be served by this system.
Is it possible that the second-best team in baseball could be a 99-win wild-card team that just plays in the wrong division — then gets knocked out in the wild-card survivor showdown? Of course.
Is it possible a third-place team could now win the World Series? We’re afraid it is.
Is it possible an 86-win wild-card team could upset a 98-win wild-card team in a one-game sudden-exit format? It’s very possible. And not everybody is happy with that.
“I’m not a second-place guy or a third-place guy,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said this week. “For me, personally, you shouldn’t get nothing for [finishing] second or third. But that’s the way it goes. And that’s the process that we live with.”
And this year in particular, that’s not all that guys like him might have to live with.
Say the worst-case scenario actually unfolds. Say we get to Oct. 4 and teams still need to play out weather-makeup games, tiebreakers, the nightmare of three-way tiebreakers and other assorted stuff this schedule doesn’t leave room for. Yikes.
If that happens, could that mean there’s a chance of a team having to play, say, four games in four days in four different cities? Oh, it could happen, all right.
But does the good in this system outweigh the negatives? We’d still vote yes. Absotively.
Would it “cheapen” the postseason?
The glass-half-empty crowd wants you to believe that adding another wild card would let a bunch of crummy, .500-ish teams onto the October dance floor. It just isn’t true. Or at least history suggests it isn’t true.
Let’s take a look back at what would have happened if baseball had started this expanded-postseason format with the first full season of the wild-card era (1996). Since then, 32 additional teams would have made it to the Octoberfest as wild-card team No. 2. We broke down those 32 teams and found:
• A dozen of them would have been teams that won 90 games or more.
• Their average win total would have been 89 — meaning we’re talking about teams as talented as the 2011 Braves.
• And only one of those 32 teams would have been a club that won fewer than 85 games. That was the 1997 Angels, who won 84.
So we’re talking, almost universally, about a bunch of very good-to-excellent baseball teams. What’s the problem then? We don’t see one.
We remind you that in football, the team that just won the Super Bowl was a team that got outscored, over a full regular season, by its opponents. Can’t remember anybody howling about that.
How would this affect the races?
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
If MLB’s new format been in effect since 1996 (the first full season of wild-card era), here are the teams that would have been the wild cards (wins in parenthesis):
If one of the goals of this brainstorm is to give more teams life in September, Bud Selig’s dreams will come true.
Doug Kern, of ESPN’s trusty Stats & Info group, went back and studied this. And, if the cutoff for what constitutes “contention” on Sept. 1 is 10 games (or approximately how far back the Cardinals and Rays were last year), here is what he determined:
• Last season, just in the National League alone, adding a second wild-card team would have meant that 11 teams would have headed into September “alive” instead of six. Big difference. Wouldn’t you say?
• From 2003 to 2011, the average number of teams that would have found themselves “alive” on Sept. 1 was 20. And only once in all that time would that number have dropped below 19 (to 17, in 2008).
• And that drama would continue right down to the final day of the season. From 2003 to ’11, 19 more teams would have found themselves within a game of a playoff spot on the final day under this system than under the old system.
• Finally, if you take in the entire wild-card era (including the strike-shortened 1995 season), only nine times out of 34 races would all five playoff spots in a particular league have been determined going into the final day. Under the current system, all the playoff spots were a done deal 21 times.
Oh, and one more thing. Just the race for the No. 2 wild-card spot alone would have produced many a dramatic finish.
We took a look at this on our own and found that, if we’d had this system in place since 1995, 24 of the 34 races for that spot would have been decided by three games or fewer — and 12 of them would have been decided either by a margin of one game or in a 163rd-game tiebreaker.
So it isn’t only October that’s about to get more interesting. September is, too. And that’s the whole point.
Other ripple effects
• Who would benefit most from this change? Well, if this plan had been in effect since 1995, 20 of the 30 teams would have qualified as the second wild card at least once. So it would have helped teams in all six divisions.
• This seems like great news if you’re an AL East team not named the Yankees or Red Sox. But only four times in the past 17 years would the third-place team in the AL East have made it to the postseason. And just four other times would any third-place team have made it — three from the NL West, once from the AL Central.
• If you can build an 89-win team under this system, you can just about bank on playing in October. Under the old wild-card format, 20 teams have won 89 games or more and still missed the playoffs. If there had been a second wild card, just four teams with that many wins would have had to watch the October action on their flat-screens.
• But this change might not help small-market teams as much as you might think. According to Bob Brookover of the Philadelphia Inquirer, of the 24 teams that would have made it as the second wild card since 2000, 10 of them were teams in the top five payrolls in the game, 14 ranked in the top 10 and 19 were clubs in the top half of the payroll standings.
How will this affect the trade deadline?
There is one final subplot to this change that not many people have contemplated yet: Will the trading deadline ever be the same?
When July 31 rolled around this past summer, only nine teams in the whole sport were more than 10 games out of a playoff spot. If we’d been playing under the new two-wild-card system, that number would have dropped to just six teams.
So think about this. That’s a whole lot of buyers — and almost no sellers to supply their voracious trade-deadline needs.
“I think, just from a sheer volume perspective, this gives more teams hope,” said the Rays’ Andrew Friedman. “It will probably mean more teams in July trying to buy because they think have a chance, or at least deciding to not sell. So it will definitely make it more difficult for teams to retool in the middle of the year. And that will be a positive for a contending team that doesn’t have a lot of resources.”
But before we declare this a total seller’s market, we have to remember one thing, said Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos: The new labor deal makes it much more difficult for a team to get a draft pick for a player it decides NOT to trade at the deadline.
“So if I’m out of the race,” Anthopoulos said, “my options are to trade the player and get whatever I can or keep the player and not get anything at all. So I think it will kind of work both ways. There have been a lot of times where teams have held on to players because you always had the fallback of, ‘I’ll get a draft pick for this guy at the end of the year.’ Now I may want to get something at least, rather than get nothing at all.
“There’s more impetus to sell. And if you’re selling a center fielder, not every contender is going to need a center fielder. So there will definitely be more impetus to sell if you’re out of the race. I don’t see why you wouldn’t.”
Then again, we won’t know how this will play out until it happens — just as we won’t know how October itself will change until it happens. All we know for sure is that it will indeed be happening in 2012, whether the calendar was ready for it or not. Bud Selig had just better pray it isn’t the rainiest October in history.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, “Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies,” was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter @jaysonst.
Stark: The new MLB postseason
ESPN.com – MLB
Latest MLB news from ESPN.com