Last Friday, Major League Baseball announced the first change to its playoff structure since 1994, the introduction in each league of a second wild-card team. At the end of the coming season the playoffs will begin with the two wild cards within each league squaring off for one game, with the winner advancing to the divisional round.
The stated reasons for change are competitive. For one, the commissioner's office would like to remove the temptation for a playoff-bound club to tank late in the season in order to lose its division but ensure a favorable first-round matchup (see: 2010 Yankees). Other imaginable inspirations: the opportunity to add more do-or-die games to the schedule and keep more fans engaged longer.
One potential pitfall of the now 10-team system is that it will likely push further into the past the days when the sport's best team regularly wound up as that season's champion. Even after MLB expanded its playoff field from two teams to four in 1969, the postseason served mostly to confirm that its best club was actually its best club. In the 25 seasons that followed, the team with the best regular-season record won the championship 28% of the time and made it to the World Series 64% of the time.
However, since 1995, when MLB implemented the wild card—expanding the playoffs to three rounds and eight teams—only three clubs with the best regular-season record have won the World Series (18%), and just seven have even reached the Fall Classic (41%). Baseball's champions of late have often been the teams that got hot at the right time (see: 2011 Cardinals), not those that excelled all season.
One battle in baseball has proved predictable, though: When fairness and entertainment value face off, entertainment usually wins.
JOHN BIEVER (CARDINALS)
WILD CARDS Far from the best during the season, St. Louis got hot at the right time and rode its momentum to the World Series title.