Say this for the first season of Major League Baseball’s expanded, triple wild-card playoffs: There will be no embarrassments.
Every postseason participant will win at least 86 games, for this year averting the aesthetic displeasure of a .500 or close-to-it team crashing the party. The Seattle Mariners celebrated a postseason berth for the first time since 2001. More bottles were popped, goggles donned, exultations captured on social media.
Who turns down more cake?
That’s what players and owners alike will enjoy with four best-of-three wild card series supplanting the singular wild card game in each league, providing nearly $100 million in extra revenue. For our money, it got no better than the adrenaline rush of the one-game wild card; a best-of-three will take away that instant gratification and either add a grim inevitability or a building crescendo to a winner-take-all Game 3.
And that pretty much sums up what this format has delivered in Year One: A pretty OK pennant race.
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There was a fear among players that extra wild cards would disincentivize competition, that with easier entry to the playoffs, already tight-fisted owners would only further curtail spending. That hasn’t been the case at all, at least among most teams slated to grab those extra berths.
The San Diego Padres, your No. 2 NL wild card, traded for Juan Soto. The No. 3 (for now) Philadelphia Phillies spent nearly $200 million on Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos before the season. The Mariners signed Robbie Ray for $115 million and traded for Luis Castillo – and signed him to a $108 million extension.
No, it’s not the money that’s bogged down this race. It’s more the mediocrity.
Take the Mariners. They are indeed a fabulous story, breaking a two-decade playoff drought that dates to when it seemed they were building an Ichiro-centric dynasty in the Northwest. When Cal Raleigh’s walk-off homer sent them into the playoffs and the home stadium into delirium, it seemed the capstone to a once-in-a-lifetime season.
Well, sort of.
Yep, it clinched a playoff berth, yet it was the 86th win of the year for the Marlins. That qualifies as relatively average given some of their win totals since 2001:
Ninety wins in 2021, 89 in 2018, 86 in 2016, 87 in 2014, 88 in ’07 and 93 apiece in ’03 and ’02, neither of which got them into the postseason.
On one hand you can say that the Mariners knew the parameters, went out and made the playoffs. On the other, you could say the playoffs came to them.
It’s also hard to argue that the less-accomplished wild cards are battling their way in. The Mariners went 14-12 in September, with series losses to the A’s, Angels and Royals. The Phillies were 11-14, swept by the Cubs and Giants. Milwaukee was 15-13, the Padres 13-12.
It might have been more exciting – and more competitively appropriate – if the clubs were battling for just two wild cards, as it was before this season. The Mets-Braves NL East runner-up should win 100 games, but a three-for-one clash for the final wild card for the right to meet them would have made compelling final-week theater, what with the Padres (87 wins), Phillies (86) and Brewers (84) within shouting distance of one other.
Instead, the Padres are in. The Phillies are near locks. And the Brewers probably have a better shot at all this than they deserve.
While we always favor placing greater import on winning a division, this season might exact too high a toll. The Dodgers, Braves and Mets have been far better than the rest of the league this season. With the Mets likely relegated to the wild card round, having to burn both Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom to escape the first round seems excessively penal for a 98-win (at least) club.
Over in the AL, the chase for just two wild cards might have been even more intense, what with the Blue Jays (89), Mariners (87) and Rays (86) bunched tight for two spots entering Sunday. Instead, all three clinched with five games remaining.
Or as “in” as one can be this season. Two of three wild cards will be sent on the road for all three games, and should the Mariners or Phillies go two-and-out in their wild card series, it may leave fans temporarily giddy over ending playoff droughts asking, “If you don’t play at home, were you even in the playoffs?”
It’s all pretty mid, as the kids say, though we are willing to change our mind if at least two of the wild card series are compelling. Every season has its own DNA, and no playoff format will be perfect for every outcome. In this one, though, it’s about as we expected.
Potentially compelling, but for now, anticlimactic.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's new playoff format delivers tepid stretch run in first season