Imagine you’ve spent an unhealthy (but completely justified) amount of time following your favorite baseball team through the annual 162-game slog. We’re talking watching nearly every-single-one of those 162 games during the six-month period from April until October.
It’s now at game 162, and while your team has the second-best record in all of MLB, they’re half a game behind the first place team in their division. If they don’t manage to move ahead of that team by the end of the day they will sadly be heading home, regardless of their record.
Now let’s say in this hypothetical situation, your favorite team did not make the playoffs (sorry to hear it). The first-place team won their game right before your team won theirs, making your team’s game irrelevant. The Baseball Gods sometimes choose to provide a fate all-too cruel. From the bottom of my heart, I sympathize with you and your hypothetical team. I do.
This was, in fact, the state of baseball from its inception until 1994 (well, technically 1995, seeing as 1994 was a strike-shortened season).
Up until then, only the four division winners from the two leagues would make the playoffs. Take, oh I don’t know, 1986 as an example: that year, only FOUR of the 26 teams in MLB made the playoffs. Seems as though maybe more than roughly 15% of the entire league should make the playoffs, no? Especially when compared to the NBA or NHL, which, in their current incarnations, have a wild 53% of teams making the playoffs. That means that, technically, there’s a better chance your team DOES make the playoffs than it doesn’t. Unless, of course, you root for the 76ers.
Thankfully, in 1995, MLB implemented the wild card system, changing the number of divisions per league from two to three (adding a Central division) and adding in a wild card slot. The wild card would be awarded to the non-division winner with the best record and that team would face the team with the best record in its respective league. Instead of just having the League Championship Series before the World Series, there would now be a Divisional Round as the new first round of the playoffs. From 1995 until 2012, this was how the playoffs would be structured.
The wild card teams wouldn’t have to wait very long to find success. In 1995, the first true year with a wild card system, neither team advanced past the Divisional Round. In 1996, the Baltimore Orioles managed to make it to the ALCS, but would be stopped there. In 1997, the Florida (now Miami) Marlins decided to not only be the first wild card team to make the World Series, but also the first to win it. They decided to put their fans out of their long-held misery and win the franchise’s first World Series after a drought of exactly…. four years. Yes, the Marlins were founded in 1993 and managed to win a championship a mere four years later. Four. That’s it. Sorry, I’m letting my Mets fandom and lack of being alive during one of their two championships leak out. Apologies.
When the 2012 season rolled around, MLB announced a new addition to the playoffs each year going forward: a second wild card spot would be added for each league. Instead of the sole wild card team automatically facing the top team in the league in the Divisional Round, now the two, count ‘em, TWO wild card teams would face off in a wild card game to decide who would go on to face the top division winner in the Divisional Round. The introduction of this second wild card would have a number of ramifications on how teams would be run in-season.
Between 1994 and 2011, there was less of a focus on winning the division with the wild card spot readily available. With a second wild card spot now in play, winning the division – and more importantly, avoiding the wild card game – became a greater accomplishment for which to strive. Teams in the wild card game have to put all of their energies into winning that single game; they cannot worry about what happens afterwards, but rather cross that metaphorical bridge when the time comes.
Teams would now have to treat the trade deadline with utmost caution. Due to the second wild card spot, more teams now have to think a little harder about whether they will be buyers or sellers, given this additional spot. This situation may also put teams that are definitely going to be sellers in a given year a slight advantage. More teams wanting to stay in the playoff hunt means more competition for players who can provide that additional push towards the postseason.
The addition of the wild card spots in each league is a great move not only for the competitiveness it adds, but also for the economic benefit. Adding a round in the playoffs means that much more cash will be coming into the franchises that make the playoffs. Furthermore, with teams now vying for second wild card, this means more people in attendance late in the season for games that would have previously meant nothing.
Think of all the teams that would have benefitted from the inclusion of a first or even second wild card spot back in the day! Like the 1984 New York Mets. Or the 1985 New York Mets. Or even the 1987, 1989 and 1990 New York Mets! Man, just thinking about going back in time and having to live through my Mets missing the playoffs all those years, with the knowledge I now have, is too sad a thought to bear.
As of September 13th, 2016, there are seven teams in the American League within five games of a wild card spot and four teams in the National League within five games of a spot. The addition of these two wild card spots makes September baseball that much more meaningful for fans of teams who would otherwise not have a shot at making the playoffs. As we approach the completion of the marathon that is the MLB season, it’s nice knowing that more teams than ever are still in contention right up to the end.