The importance of wild cards in the MLB

After over six months of Major League Baseball (MLB), the 162-game season will come to a close this Sunday. But before the best-of-five divisional round begins, baseball fans will be treated to the MLB’s newest tradition: the wild card game. This Tuesday and Wednesday, TVs across campus will be tuned in to a single elimination game between the two wild card teams from each league.

The idea of a wild card was introduced in professional baseball in 1994, as the MLB expanded from two divisions per league to three. Because only inviting the divisional winners to the postseason would create an odd number of teams in the playoffs in the American and National Leagues, the “wild card” was awarded to the best remaining team from each league.

After the 2011 season, MLB owners voted to expand the playoff system to allow two wild card teams to play in a one-day playoff, with the winner entering the divisional round. The idea was that this would heighten the excitement towards the end of the regular season by allowing more teams to remain in playoff contention, as well as creating at least one “win or go home” game for each league.

This year’s American League (AL) wild card race has emphasized the impact of the new wild card system. As of last Sunday night, the Yankees have a 4.5 game lead over the first wild card spot with only seven games left to play. In past years, this may have ended the playoff drama with almost a week of baseball left to play. But with a second wild card spot up for grabs, the Astros, Angels and Twins are within two games of each other for a playoff berth, and 10 of the 15 AL teams are still in playoff contention.

But because baseball is a sport known for tradition, this change did not come without controversy. One common criticism is that having an extra wild card team diminishes the value of the regular season. Critics cite the 2012 season as an example, where the Braves had control of the first wild card spot for the last two months of the regular season. Yet the Braves saw their season come to a close after losing their wild card game to the Cardinals, who were six games back in the standings.

However, there is also a compelling argument that success in the regular season is now more important, since there is a stronger emphasis on winning the division. Under the old playoff system, if two teams from the same division both clinched a spot in the playoffs, the only incentive for a team to fight to win the division was for home field advantage.

Now, a team that does not win its division will automatically face a single elimination game, where one bad inning immediately can end a team’s season. Further, if teams use their best pitcher during the wild card game, they will go into the divisional round with a weakened pitching rotation. While this certainly makes it harder for wild card teams to progress through the playoffs, the Giants and Royals showed last season that it is not impossible to make the World Series as a wild card.

The greatest impact this change has is in the excitement during the final weeks of the regular season. Attendance to baseball games often drops throughout September, as the summer comes to a close and as more teams are eliminated from the playoffs. With two-thirds of the AL still able to qualify for the postseason, these teams will have much more engagement from their fans, since they still have something to play for.

But just as importantly, in just one week, millions of viewers across the nation will be eagerly watching as two teams face off in a winner-takes-all duel to keep their championship dreams alive.

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