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Building Better Baseball: Wild Card Week

by Tim Polko

Today's Fantasy Rx

The day after an unexpectedly active trade deadline, we looked back on a field filled with expected second-tier teams adding oodles of parts while many traditional powers stood pat. With sixteen playoff berths available, only six teams appeared clearly out of the running a month ago, and every one of those at least waved at rebuilding. A couple of other borderline teams acted similarly, since when even the defending champs sat 4 games out of a wild card spot despite a .375 winning percentage, opportunities clearly abounded.

Now, with the regular season finally concluded, at least the subpar Nationals missed the playoffs – even as they remained in contention until the last few days of the season. Unfortunately, we still must observe the indignity of the Brewers, who never broke .500 this year, “earning” a chance to knock out the dynamic Dodgers and their MLB-best .717 winning percentage with two lucky games.

A higher barrier simply must exist between the best and worst “successful” regular season teams.

Even without considering the horrors of this year that so many people continue to experience, this stretch run seemed so empty – almost entirely due to the knowledge that every team, regardless of their play during an incredibly irregular regular season, gets the same schedule this week: a best of 3 to advance to the “Division Series” round.

Though we can’t ignore that this setup gives the eight “best” teams in baseball at least two playoff home games, somehow MLB managed to drain all the joy out of brackets here, wholly whiffing when a vastly superior alternative existed:

Wild Card Week.

Home playoff SERIES are for DIVISION WINNERS. I won’t bemoan wild card teams in general, because I think their inclusion improves the quality of the post-season. However, for any squad that can’t bother to win the division, they deserve at least a notable penalty (or four) - perhaps not the full Harrison Bergeron treatment but definitely some sort of appropriate gauntlet.

Brackets thrive based on SINGLE ELIMINATION, and that’s where MLB should retrench for future seasons, centered on some basic precepts:

1. Division winners deserve rewards.

2. Teams with superior records deserve better rewards.

3. Wild card teams should be grateful for any playoff appearances.

4. Less than 50% of teams should make the playoffs.

How do we bridge the gap between what the MLB owners want (more of that post-season $$$), what traditionalists generally hail (restoring relevance to the regular season), and what casual fans obviously desire (tension, drama, and excitement)?

Wild Card Week.

In 2021, pass the three division champs in each league directly to the Division Series. However, instead of a Wild Card game, featuring only the two teams with the best records, let’s triple the fun.

The 2021 season should conclude on Sunday, October 3. Here’s what should happen next:

Monday, October 4: Scheduled off day (to allow for any tiebreaker games – even a doubleheader if necessary, though preferably with all nine innings).

Tuesday, October 5: AL #7 seed plays the AL #6 seed.

Wednesday: October 6: NL #7 @ NL #6 (AL travel day).

Note: if the AL needs a second day of tiebreaker games, then flip these corresponding days between the two leagues. If either league needs 3+ tiebreaker games, play doubleheaders on Monday and Tuesday. All these franchises should enjoy 162 games over the previous 6 months to win their division. If they failed to do so, they should be happy to play past October 3 under any circumstances at all. Yes, this makes winning the division matter even more.

Thursday, October 7: Winner of AL 7@6 plays @ the AL #5 seed (NL travel day).

Friday, October 8: Winner of NL 7@6 plays @ the NL #5 seed (AL travel day).

Saturday, October 9: AL Wild Card Final: winner of the October 7th game plays @ the AL #4 seed (NL travel day).

Sunday, October 10: NL Wild Card Final: winner of the October 8th game plays @ the NL #4 seed (AL travel day).

When MLB inevitably expands to 32 teams, then four division winners can make it, with three wild card teams and a Wild Card Final to pit the survivor of the first two games against the Division Champ with the worst record. This again rewards the more successful regular season teams. Either way, you limit the playoff field to 7 teams and begin the post-season with the massive excitement of 3-4 winner-take-all games that lead into the regular Division Series > LCS > WS combo, which thankfully rewards depth much more than luck or a single hot pitcher.

If the ALDS games then start on Monday, October 11, you also go back to a World Series beginning on a Saturday night, just like baseball enjoyed for many, many seasons.

Unfortunately, under this scenario, the Series potentially wouldn’t conclude until November 7th, but in most years, the league either can 1) move the season up a week, solving most of the November baseball issue, 2) schedule six regular season double headers (even, if necessary, with the 7-inning ridiculousness) to eliminate that same week, or 3) shift the Series to a neutral, warm weather/domed site. Regardless of the chosen solution – and the first initially seems preferable – I view none of those options as inherently unreasonable or an insurmountable issue.

Do drawbacks exist to this plan? Sure, including some likely complaints about division winners getting “too much rest” due to the week off. However, by the time October arrives, I still suspect most teams would MUCH rather recoup from any stagnant injuries for a week than play the silly best-of-3 series scheduled for this post-season.

Overall, this plan 1) prioritizes division winners, 2) appropriately penalizes Wild Card teams, & 3) adds a jolt of adrenalin at the beginning of the post-season.

Does this fix all of MLB’s issues? Of course not, since among other problems, it doesn’t address the lack of balls in play, dead time during games, the obscene new extra innings rule (hopefully more on that soon), or many other vital issues.

However, for a sport too often divided between obsequiousness toward its rose-colored past and frequently ham-handed grasps toward a hopeful future, this plan should appeal to nearly every key constituency, and the weird 2020 post-season schedule provides the necessary bridge to make this happen.

Today's Fantasy Rx: Please, someone, read this, and then make it happen, so we don't have more ridiculous best-of-3 series any time soon:

Wild Card Week, hopefully coming in Fall 2021 to ballparks near you.

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