Major League Baseball's new playoff format, which has been announced as a go for this season, will have its critics -- those who don't see or agree with the inherent value it places on winning your division and the inherent disadvantage it gives to the second- or third-place teams that "sneak" into the playoffs. But the simple fact is that fans, players, coaching staffs and front offices from many markets will benefit from a system that invites more people to the party that is the September playoff race. And the even simpler fact is that this home stretch, combined with the must-see TV that will be two do-or-die games between the two Wild Cards in each league, will greatly increase interest and attention (read: revenues) for the sport at large.
We knew all of that when the new format was made official in November. What we didn't know then was whether it would be introduced this year. Now that it is definitively in place for the upcoming season, three primary questions arise: 1. Who benefits in the American League? In the history of the Wild Card, dating to 1995, the extra postseason entrant in the AL has come from the East 13 of 17 times. (And I'll let you go ahead and guess which two teams account for the bulk of that total ... yep, it's the Yankees and Red Sox, who have claimed 25 of a possible 34 postseason spots from the East in that time span.) What this second Wild Card conceivably does, then, is expand what has been a limited opportunity for the Central and West divisions. Had there been two Wild Card spots all along, at least 11 of the 17 No. 2 spots would have gone to teams from the Central and West (in 2002, the Red Sox and Mariners would have both qualified with 93 wins, so one assumes they would have had to duke it out in a tiebreaker, and in 1996 there was the potential for a three-way tie between the Mariners, White Sox and Red Sox). So teams in the Central and West should be celebrating right now, right? Well, not so fast. For starters, remember that the Yankees have advanced to the playoffs in all but one year of the Wild Card era. And in 2008, when they missed, they would have claimed the second Wild Card, had it existed, with an 89-73 record. Like it or not, now that the AL will have five postseason spots, you can safely pencil the big-spending Yankees into one of those spots every single year, without much fear of error. The Red Sox, also possessors of deep pockets, aren't far behind. Since 1995, they have been to the playoffs nine of 17 times. With a second Wild Card, they would have advanced at least another two times and possibly as many as four, depending on how the 1996 and 2002 situations would have been resolved. So, like it or not, you can also safely count the Red Sox as an annual threat for one of those five spots. Furthermore, with the emergence of the Rays as a legitimate force in the East in recent years, it gets even more complicated for the Central and West divisions (to say nothing of the Blue Jays and Orioles). In three out of the past four years, the second Wild Card spot also would have come from the East (those '08 Yankees and the Red Sox in '10 and '11), all because of the Little Rays That Could. And those Rays are considered contenders once again in 2012. So, no, the addition of a Wild Card is not a slam-dunk victory for the smaller markets elsewhere in the AL. Dating back to 1996 (we'll dismiss the strike-shortened '95 season for the moment), it would have taken, on average, 88.9 victories to seal the second Wild Card spot in the AL. So if we use that as a baseline, we must ask ourselves: Which teams can reasonably be counted on winning somewhere in the neighborhood of 89 games this season? As a reference point, the AL had six teams last season with 85 wins or more -- the Yankees (97), Rangers (96), Tigers (95), Rays (91), Red Sox (90) and Angels (86). Only two others -- the Blue Jays (81) and Indians (80) -- reached 80. It's impossible to know with certainty which teams can get into the upper 80s this year, but, from my vantage point, you've got six powerhouse teams capable of that total -- the three aforementioned beasts from the East, the Tigers in the Central and the Angels and Rangers in the West. Baseball Prospectus' advanced projections for 2012 agree with me. It has the Yankees (95 wins) on top in the East, the Tigers (86) winning the Central, the Rangers (90) winning the West, and the Red Sox (92) and Angels (88) claiming the two Wild Cards, with the Rays (86) on the outside looking in. In order to climb into that field, teams like the Indians (82) would have to play above current projections, and they are the only other AL team projected by BP to win 80 games or more. Obviously, such projections are guesswork and far from binding. But recent history demonstrates that, even with an added Wild Card spot, it's going to be awfully challenging to advance in the AL. And for 2012, it seems most likely to come down to the second-place team in the West and the third-place team in the East. 2. Who benefits in the National League? Let's again use history as a baseline for discussion. Dating to '96, the average NL win total to advance via the second Wild Card would have been 89.1, just a smidge higher than the average in the AL. Unlike the AL, though, the NL doesn't have one clearly dominant division when it comes to eating up Wild Card spots. In fact, they've been distributed pretty evenly. Going back to '95, five NL Wild Cards have come from the East, six from the Central and six from the West. If we throw the second Wild Card into the mix, the NL West has been best. It would have claimed at least eight of the 17 spots, with three from the Central and at least five from the East. (I say "at least" because the Dodgers and Mets tied with 88 wins in '97.) All told, the NL Wild Card spots have had much less predictability, in terms of which division will claim them. And the same holds true for 2012. The Baseball Prospectus projections have the Phillies (89) winning the East, the Cardinals (88) taking the Central and the Giants (86) atop the West, with the Braves (88) and Marlins (88) tying for the two Wild Card spots. But the projections also have the Brewers (85), Nationals (84) and D-backs (83) in the hunt, and the Rockies (80) are also projected to crack the 80-win club. Again, these are just projections, and they mean nothing. But they are illustrative of the notion that a wider array of clubs from the full spectrum of divisions are in a good position to contend for the second Wild Card in the NL in 2012. It is, in my view, a lot more difficult to make that argument regarding the AL. 3. Who does it hurt? The second Wild Card has its potential pitfalls. What if, say, a 93-win team that claims the first Wild Card spot has its season come down to a single game against an 85-win team that claimed the second spot? Is that fair? Well, not exactly, but that only serves to hammer home the point about the importance of winning your division outright. We'll also hear plenty of griping this year about division winners having to play two road games to open the Division Series -- a byproduct of MLB trying to squeeze in the new format into an already completed 2012 schedule. This is, indeed, a division-winner dilemma, albeit a short-term one, as the Division Series will go back to a 2-2-1 format in 2013, opening in the home of the higher seeds. And even with travel time shaved off by having the division winners travel for Game 1 of the Division Series, there is another potential pitfall this year. Earlier, I mentioned a few scenarios in which there would have been a tie for the second Wild Card. It would have happened at least three times over the 17 years ('02 and '07 in the AL and '97 in the NL). And as previously mentioned, in '96, the White Sox, Red Sox and Mariners all finished with 85 wins. But the Mariners played a 161-game season. Had the M's been forced to make up that 162nd game and lost, there would have been a three-way tie for the second Wild Card spot. These instances all would have resulted in a one-game playoff to decide who advances to another one-game playoff between the two Wild Cards. And the '96 scenario would have been a real-life Rubik's Cube, particularly with the M's and Red Sox playing on opposite coasts. All of this is great fun and excitement for the casual consumers, of course, but when you remember the scheduling and travel logistics involved, it can get quite hairy. In future years, this might not be much of an issue, as the MLB schedule-makers can, hopefully, account for potential tiebreakers by leaving in some wiggle room between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. But with the 2012 schedule already locked in long before the second Wild Cards became reality (and already with the potential for November baseball, if the World Series goes the distance), that's a challenge for the year ahead, especially if a tied division lead (because, remember, those ties will have to be settled on the field, now that winning your division carries such importance) is also tossed into the mix. So while we've pointed out some winners in this whole process, we must also pause to acknowledge those whose lives are going to be a lot more difficult come late September/early October: Traveling secretaries.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.