Major League Baseball debuted its new Wild Card playoff scheme last weekend. The Cardinals beat the Braves 6-3 in the National League game and the Orioles beat the Rangers 3-1 in the junior circuit. TBS carried the games and saw a 61% ratings hike over last year's opening day playoff games. The new system isn't perfect, but it brings an element of instant satisfaction that the sport desperately needs.
There was plenty of controversy in the Cardinals win over Atlanta. The Braves were down three runs in the 8th inning and thought they had the bases loaded after a fly ball dropped in short left field. As it turned out, even though the ball landed 50 feet beyond the infield dirt, left field umpire Sam Holbrook called the batter out under the infield fly rule. The sellout crowd of over 52,000 littered the field with whatever they happened to have in their hands.
Many who dislike the new system pointed to this play as the reason a one game playoff is unfair. The Braves went into the game tied for the third best record in baseball and are now booking tee times after just one loss.
I understand the argument, but don't agree. The Braves were one of the best defensive teams in baseball with the fifth fewest errors in the majors. They committed three costly errors against St. Louis, which resulted in four unearned runs. Atlanta's poor defense played a much larger role in the loss than a poor call by an umpire.
For the first time in years, baseball saw divisional leaders giving their all after clinching a playoff spot. Earning an extra home game as a reward for winning the division under the old system just wasn't enough motivation for most teams. This season, trying to avoid the Wild Card game spurred teams to not just "mail it in".
Without the new rules, the final stretch run between the Yankees and Orioles wouldn't have been as exciting. Sure, it would've been less stressful for Yankee fans under the old system, but this season's suspense kept the casual fan tuned in. That's the goal of every league office. They know the hardcore fans will watch. Everyone is competing for the casual fan.
As for a 93-win team (Atlanta) being out after one game, it's unfortunate. But the new system as a whole has more benefits than not. There has to be a premium put on winning a division. In the NFL, it's the difference between a bye week and a home game, and having to play Wild Card weekend. The NBA guarantees a top 4 seed, and likely an inferior opponent if you win the division.
Baseball's new playoff system isn't perfect. The length of the baseball season makes it difficult for MLB to create the "immediacy factor" that the NFL generates. But with the new playoff system, the league has done its best to generate that buzz and keep itself relevant in September. And let's not forget, there's competition in September from the NFL and college football.
Pundits always give baseball a hard time for hanging on to its traditions and values. Well, now they're trying to take steps to stay ahead of the curve. Over time, I believe most fans will come to appreciate it.