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MLB’s expanded Wild Card format is serving its purpose

Major League Baseball expanded its playoff field in 2022 by adding one wildcard entrant to the American League and one to the National League.

Instead of one-game matchups between the fourth and fifth seeds to determine which teams would go on to the LDS, MLB’s postseason bracket resembled the National Football League’s. The top two seeds in each league received first-round byes, while three vs. six and four vs. five squared off in four best-of-three wildcard series.

I bought into this new format right away and thought it was long overdue. Why should a sport that has 162 regular-season games and revolves around two, three and four-game series have a “win-or-go-home” round in the postseason? This new concept paid dividends right away (if you love parity, anyway) when the Philadelphia Phillies advanced all the way to the 2022 World Series as the sixth seed in the National League.

The expanded wildcard format took things a step further in 2023 when the Texas Rangers, the fifth seed in the American League, made it to the Fall Classic, while the Arizona Diamondbacks became the second-straight franchise to win the National League pennant as a sixth seed. Texas defeated the Diamondbacks in five games to clinch its first World Series title in franchise history.

I love the postseason parity this expanded wildcard field has brought to MLB, but what about the regular season? The Rangers finished 90-72 a year ago, a record often strong enough to win a division title. But Arizona snuck into the playoff field with a mark of 84-78, which would not have been good enough for the fifth seed as recently as 2021, the last season with a 10-team playoff field. The same can be said for the 2022 Phillies, who were 87-75 and would have finished one game behind the Braves in the NL East and three back of St. Louis for the second wildcard spot.

As a Pirates fan, perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate the level of parity adding a third wildcard team immediately brought to each league during the season. It was hard to blame me. After all, Pittsburgh lost 100 games in 2022 and 86 last season. However, maybe I should have been more aware of the parity a year ago since the Buccos didn’t get eliminated from playoff contention until late in the regular season.

That brings me to the first two-plus months of the 2024 regular season.

As of this writing, the Pirates, who have won four of their last five games, are 31-33 and in third place in the National League Central Division. Pittsburgh is seven games behind the first-place Brewers, a deficit that’s still pretty substantial, even in early June. Thankfully, the Pirates’ record places them just one-half game out of the third wildcard spot in the National League. After getting off to a rather hot 9-2 start, the Pirates dropped 21 of their next 30 games. They have leveled off lately and have won 13 of their last 23 contests. That’s not exactly red-hot, but it’s been good enough to stay in the race.

Based on the first two years of this expanded postseason field, if Pittsburgh can just tread water for most of the season and have one or two hot stretches, while avoiding a massive slide, that might be good enough to sneak into the postseason.

You can say the same thing about most of the National League, with eight teams separated by just four games in the fight for that final wildcard spot. Sure, it’s early, but the point is that any of these teams could conceivably get hot and make a postseason push.

The fans stay invested. The players stay invested. How about the general managers, team presidents and owners? They almost have to stay invested, right? For example, how would Pirates general manager Ben Cherrington justify shutting down Jared Jones and/or Paul Skenes late in the season if Pittsburgh had a realistic shot at the playoffs? How could he not go after a veteran bat or two to solidify his struggling lineup?

Baseball may never have a salary cap–the best way to bring parity to the majors–but this expanded postseason field might be the next best thing.


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