Posted on March 03, 2012 by Dan Flaherty
Major League Baseball has expanded the postseason to 10 teams, adding an extra wild-card in each league. The new format will require the two wild-card teams in each league to play a one-game playoff for the right to join the three other division winners in the Division Series. I applaud this move wholeheartedly while acknowledging that it might have effects on the Red Sox that are less than ideal.
The American League East has basically owned the wild-card spot since its inception in 1995 (actually the inception was for 1994 but the strike prevented it from coming to fruition). Other than a three-year stretch from 2000-02 when the AL West produced two playoff teams each year and 2006 when the Central grabbed two berths, the wild-card team has come out of the AL East. The Red Sox have gotten into the playoffs via this route in 1998-99, 2003-05 and 2008-09. Only in 1995 and 2007 did Boston enter the postseason as the winners of the AL East—though we have to note that in 2005 they played the Yankees to a co-championship in the AL East and were just seeded lower based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Those seven wild-card berths have proven fruitful for Boston, most notably in 2004 when they won their historic World Series title. The Sox reached also reached the ALCS in 1999, 2003 and 2008. So a majority of their wild-card trips have resulted in advancement. That’s going to be much more difficult to do under the current format.
How might the 1999 Red Sox have fared if Pedro Martinez would have had to pitch a one-game playoff against Oakland? Even if the Sox win, Pedro’s availability is reduced for what was a battle against Cleveland to reach the ALCS? The same goes in 2003 when Pedro would have gotten the ball against Seattle. Again, even if the Sox win, Pedro’s not around to pitch twice in the Division Series against Oakland, one of which was a win in the decisive Game 5. Most alarmingly, what if Curt Schilling has to in a one-game playoff in 2004 against Texas? Here, I don’t think it would have been a problem to recover, because the pitching depth was better…but there’s always that possibility you might actually lose.
Whether it’s losing the one-game playoff outright or simply losing your best pitcher to start the Division Series, there’s no question that being the wild-card won’t be what it used to. But I think that’s a good thing. And who’s to say that the 2004 Red Sox couldn’t have caught the Yankees in the AL East if there would have been these kind of stakes? Or that the veteran experience of the 2008 Sox might not have carried them past the youthful Tampa Bay Rays? Teams manage and play for what’s actually at stake, and what was at stake in what should have been compelling AL East races in 1999, 2003, 2007 & 2008 was absolutely nothing. (In the other years the race wasn’t close or in the case of 2005, you had a third team in the mix making the wild-card less of a sure thing).
If the Boston Red Sox are playing the New York Yankees in early September and the teams are separated by a game or two in the standings, I want to feel like everything’s on the line. I don’t want to be wondering if the teams really care who finishes first—or if even I should care. The new format won’t be everything on the line, but it will sure guarantee teams care, and that’s an undeniably good thing.