Major League Baseball playoff expansion is here. Most who are reading this have probably heard of these changes, but for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll recap; both the National and American League will add one wild card team to the current system, meaning five teams will make the playoffs in each league. The two wild cards in each league will compete in a single play-in game to decide who will move on to the division series. These changes could go into effect as soon as next year. Why?
The first wild card was essentially added in response to the 1993 playoffs, which saw the 103-59 San Francisco Giants watching from the sidelines because they happened to be in the same division as the 104-58 Atlanta Braves. The Philadelphia Phillies, who finished the regular season six games behind the Giants, got in. The addition of a wild card team did much to fix a broken system. Since then, though, 14 teams have still missed the playoffs despite having a better record than one of the division winners.
This newest change, however, does not seem to be in response to any particular problem with the current system. Rather, in addition to the obvious fact that more games equals more money, it seeks to provide more excitement; who doesn’t like the intensity of a one-game playoff? For starters, I’m positive that the teams who will have to play in one despite earning a better record than their opponent over an 162 game grind don’t appreciate it. In fact, since 1996 (after the institution of the first wild card and two shortened seasons), the team that would have been the second wild card has trailed the first by an average of 4.5 games. If we had the extra wild card in 2001, the Oakland Athletics (the ones that lost to the New York Yankees at the beginning of Moneyball) and their 102-60 record could have been eliminated in a single game at the hands of the Minnesota Twins, who had 17 fewer wins than Oakland in the regular season.
On the other hand, as Justin Verlander, always opinionated, tweeted, it gives a clear advantage to the teams that win their division. Wild card teams will try hard to set up their aces to pitch in the all-important wild card showdown, rendering them potentially unavailable to throw two games in the next series.
What myself and other armchair analysts think aside, this is happening; apparently, general managers agreed to it unanimously. But it got me thinking, if this had happened years ago, how would it have affected the Tigers?
Flash back to 2007. As the year between Detroit’s magical run to the World Series and their first with Miguel Cabrera, some may have forgotten about the ‘07 season. It wasn’t a complete failure, but the team finished second in the division and eight games behind the Cleveland Indians. They also finished six games back of the New York Yankees, who, with their 94-68 record, earned the lone wild card spot in the American League. This is where it gets tricky: the Seattle Mariners finished with an identical record to the Tigers, and therefore tied for second in the chase for the wild card. If there was a second wild card slot that year, the Tigers and Mariners would have had to face each other in a one-game playoff, with the winner facing the Yankees in a second one-game playoff. The tiebreaker between Seattle and Detroit would have taken place at Comerica park, because the Tigers won their season series with the Mariners 6-4. With home field in mind, and assuming a match-up between Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez, I ran a simulation on WhatIfSports.com; the Tigers won in 19 out of 25 simulations or 76% of the time. So the Tigers probably would have advanced to a second playoff game at Yankee Stadium, where New York, with whatever pitcher they liked on the mound, probably would have sent the Tigers home. Anything can happen in a single game, though, and it would definitely have made for a much more interesting year in Detroit.
While 2007 may have been easy to forget, few around here, though no one wants to think about it, can rid the 2009 season from their minds. It, of course, ended tragically in a one-game playoff against the Twins. If there had been a second wild card in play, things may have been drastically different. Though the tiebreaker at the Metrodome was to decide the AL Central champion, both the Twins and Tigers were one game back of the Texas Rangers after 162 games. The Rangers finished second in the wild card standings, eight games behind the Boston Red Sox. Had Texas lost just one more game, three teams, them, the Tigers, and the Twins, would have finished with identical 86-76 records. Detroit and Minnesota still would have played their tiebreaker as they did. The next day, the Tigers would have hosted the Rangers thanks to their winning the season series 7-2. If the Tigers defeated Texas, they would have advanced to yet another play-in game against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, bringing their total to three play-in games in three days.
So, theoretically, if their was a second wild card, the Tigers could have conceivably played a total of five one-game playoffs between 2007 and 2009; five games, including two at Comerica Park, that surely would have produced incredible drama. A situation like the ones I’ve outlined is surely what Major League Baseball is hoping to encounter in the coming years with the addition of two playoff teams.