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The New MLB Wild Card Format: Chaos or Cutting-edge?

Boardroom convenes the Hardball Roundtable to weigh the merits of the best-of-three MLB Wild Card setup to determine whether it’s a good thing for baseball or a looming disaster.

It is happening again.

It is happening again.

Yes, folks, that emotional Black Lodge of torment and nerves and recriminations and beauty we know as the Major League Baseball Postseason is upon us. But as of this year, gone are the days of each league’s rascally, infernal one-and-done Wild Card Game with the respective final spots in the Division Series on the line. Rather, for the first time ever, the MLB Wild Card round features four three-game series — yes, one division winner per league is relegated right into this boule nouveau setup — with the higher-seeded team getting every game at home.

Like Twin Peaks, the whole thing is deeply conceptual. Experimental. Expressionistic. Perhaps it will even be psychedelic. And as a result, it’s hard to know what’s actually in store for us as these askew-but-intriguing triptychs announce themselves to the world.

With that in mind, we convened our third Hardball Roundtable featuring Sam Dunn, Anthony Puccio, Shlomo Sprung, and Russell Steinberg to answer two big questions:

  1. Is the best-of-three MLB Wild Card series format a net positive or a net negative for baseball?
  2. What’s something unexpected you predict will happen as a direct result of the new format?

And here we go. Let’s shuffle up and deal.

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Is the new Wild Card format good or bad for baseball?

SAM DUNN: For the average fan, the lowest-seeded teams, and the league itself, it’s unquestionably good. More games to get riled up about. More games to bet on. More games to put on television — including smack in the middle of a weekday, which you couldn’t pay me to hate. Don’t overthink it; the business of baseball gets to boom a bit louder this way.

For each league’s lowliest division winner and higher-performing MLB Wild Card clubs like the 2022 New York Mets, however, it’s a legit bummer. Are three home games fairer to the higher-seeded team than that erstwhile one-off Wild Card Game juiced to the gills with entropy? Sure. But if we’re going to keep playing 162-game regular seasons, we shouldn’t take half-measures when attempting to ensure that all those games really do matter.

If reform is the actual goal, here are a few options we could have embraced instead of simply evolving from one Wild Card Game to the current Wild Card series:

  • Get rid of divisions entirely when seeding the playoffs, or perhaps use them solely to determine home field advantage rather than byes
  • At the very least, re-seed each league’s playoff field after the Wild Card round
  • Let the higher-seeded team select their Wild Card opponent (and consider doing the same for the Division Series)
  • Enact a few extra days off for a league-sponsored yacht party so Ozzie Albies and Spencer Strider have more time to recover from injuries

SHLOMO SPRUNG: If Major League Baseball is going to have more than eight teams in the playoffs — which it shouldn’t — this best-of-three format is exciting without boiling down a postseason appearance into a win-or-go-home situation. It allows fans of the Wild Card teams to get invested in their squads for more than just one day, building buzz and excitement in those respective cities. And while we’re at it with adding games, let’s expand the Division Series from best-of-five to best-of-seven, please.

ANTHONY PUCCIO: In my humble opinion, it’s a nice addition and it should help rake in some more money and viewership. I didn’t like how a team’s 162-game season could be derailed with a one-game Wild Card. That said, the season is already so long. Three games won’t hurt too much, but let’s get on with the real postseason already.

RUSSELL STEINBERG: I’m going to call it a net positive. It’s flawed, for sure — I’m not a fan of the two teams with byes having to sit a week, and a three-game series to settle a 162-game season isn’t the best. Still, it does two things that I think outweigh my concerns:

  • It improves on the single-game, manufactured drama Wild Card that we’ve had for the past decade. Forcing two teams that had great seasons (but maybe were stuck in a division with a world-beater) to play one game to decide who advances was never fair. This new format isn’t fair either, but it’s closer.
  • More playoff teams equals more meaningful regular season games. It means more teams in contention, more teams with incentive to win now, and more excitement down the stretch. I don’t buy that it devalues the regular season — the two best teams in the league each still have a massive advantage, and overall you’re still sending only 12 out of 30 teams to the postseason.
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Predict something unexpected that will happen due to the new format.

SS: You’re going to see some teams with byes struggle against Wild Card teams early on after not playing for nearly a week. And when those favorites drop a Game 1 at home, they’re going to blame that extra rest.

A Wild Card round win is going to build momentum for at least one team next week.

RS: I think the winner of every Game 1 in the Division Series is going to go on to win that series.

If the team that played in the previous round wins that game, well then that means they just beat the other team’s ace, on their home field, probably with their No. 3 starter. Next, they have their No. 1 vs. the opponent’s No. 2, then their No. 2 going in Game 3. Not a bad position! It would also indicate the week-long layoff for the teams that received byes may have backfired.

Image via MLB.com

Conversely, if the higher-seeded team wins, then that team gets a Game 2 at home with a chance to put the other guys on the brink of elimination… and their ace will only pitch once. Game 1 has truly never been as important as this in the Division Series.

AP: Not much of a hot take, but there’s gonna be a team that wouldn’t have had this opportunity in years past who squeaks into the postseason, wins their series, then gets trucked in the Division Series.

SD: One of the New York teams is getting bounced in their first series.

Perhaps the Yankees “deserved” to be thrust into a highly volatile three-gamer due to their highly volatile second half only to escape such a fate in the end. Perhaps the Mets “deserve” what they actually did get for squandering the 10.5-game NL East lead they held on June 1. Nobody’s allowed to suggest that those teams don’t equally belong in a Division Series straight away based on how they performed in the 2022 regular season as a whole. One of them is getting upset in the first time of asking.

Folks, any favored home team can still lose a wonky Game 1 at home for any number of reasons, whether best-of-three or best-of-five, instantly derailing hopes of a deep run. If that happens, you’re suddenly only one loss away from an early winter that belies all those damn games you won right up until the Playoffs.

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