On Wednesday, the baseball universe took a somewhat substantial shift in its climate, opting to vote in a new playoff system consisting of five teams, rather than the paradigm of three division winners plus only one wild card team that’s been in place since 1994. This is the second time in the last 18 years commissioner Bud Selig has implemented a change to the playoff format. What does this mean for baseball on a macro scale, and what does it mean for the Rangers?
Firstly, instead of just eight teams, MLB will see an entire third (33.3%) of its field competing for the World Series each year. This may not seem like that big of a deal, but it’s what makes baseball such an exclusive sport. After all, the NFL sends 12 of its 32 (37.5%) to the postseason. And the NBA? Over half (16 out of 30).
With the NCAA tournament expanding to four extra teams, and with the college football bowl schedule already lasting about three weeks longer than it probably should, this is the type of trend that’s been expected in sports in recent years.
Based strictly on principal, I don’t like it. It’s another way to take meaning and credibility away from the actual games over the course of the regular season. It’s an extra get out of jail free card for a team that was less deserving when the games were supposed to count. It’s a parent complaining to their child’s coach to get them in for their two innings and one at bat each game.
But I digress.
This is coming from a fan of a team who’s won the American League West back-to-back seasons, who just lost the World Series to a team that snuck into the playoffs as a Wild Card on the last day of the 2011 season.
So, now we’re on the what this means for the Rangers. The way this new playoff format works is such that it’s going to be harsher on teams that don’t win their division. If there’s a silver lining to be found in the change, this is it. To that end, the reward for winning a division is a second day of rest after the last day of the regular season. The penalty for being one of the two Wild Card teams is having to play the other, head-to-head, in a winner-take-all duel to be the True Wild Card playing with the three division champions. This may be a mouthful. But do you see what I’m getting at?
This all of a sudden makes things even more interesting in the American League. With the exception of the Phillies, one could argue the AL holds the six strongest teams in all of baseball. As of today, all that’s known is that one of the Rangers, Angels, Yankees, Red Sox or Rays will not be in the playoffs this October. (I’ll just go ahead and assume the Tigers have a fairly severe stranglehold on the Central and that the division boasts no legitimate Wild Card contenders.)
For the Rangers, it places a much higher priority on starting strong and sustaining that success over the course of the entire season. We saw certain patches last year that the Rangers looked like they were simply going through the motions, picking and choosing their times to go on torrid runs. We especially witnessed this right out of the gates with the Rangers’ 9-1 start, again with their 12-game winning streak at the beginning of July, and finally with their 18-7 September on the way to the World Series.
I’m not anticipating a scenario where the Rangers are a Wild Card rather than a division champion, but if that’s indeed the case, I certainly hope either Yu Darvish or Derek Holland can by then effectively assume the role of Staff Ace.
As emotionally invested as I was in the 9th inning of Game 6 during last year’s World Series, I fully understand that — in baseball — literally anything is possible. To pin the hopes of an entire season on a do-or-die one-game playoff is as close to unbearable as it gets.
And yet, at the end of every journey, you either find that you feel lucky to be in the position you are in, or that you expected to be there all along. Whichever way you choose to look at it, your team is there, existing in the field. However far they take it from there is according to them.