What Has Baseball’s One-Game Play-In Changed? Nothing, Really.

CREDIT: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez during 2012's controversial play-in game.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez during 2012’s controversial play-in game.


To baseball purists, it was a bad idea, one rooted in the most cynical of all pursuits: the gobs of money baseball was making weren’t enough, because gobs of money are never enough for people whose job it is to make more. To the people running baseball, it was a brilliant strategy, one that was going to make more money but was also going to increase intrigue around the end of the regular season. Whichever side of the argument you found yourself on, chances are you didn’t see much merit in the other side’s reasoning.

The issue at hand was Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s decision to add a second Wild Card team to each league’s playoffs starting in the 2012 postseason, and the determination that the two Wild Card winners on each side would play a one-game play-in to determine which got the privilege of moving on to the real postseason. The decision rankled baseball purists who were still fuming about the creation of the original Wild Card in 1995 and delighted baseball people who were looking for ways to increase competition near the end of the season. Two years in, though, neither side is really right or wrong, because the cause of all this bickering has had only a minimal effect.

On its face, the play-in game seems to have increased intrigue around the final weeks of the season, as proponents of the expanded postseason argued it would. Only one team with a winning record (Arizona) is totally eliminated from postseason consideration, and six American League teams are battling for just two playoff spots with fewer than 10 games to go. In the National League, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are holding off a furious charge from Washington and look poised to face each other in the play-in, assuming neither catches St. Louis in the Central division race, and before the season ends, they’ll have played six of their final 10 games against each other. More intrigue, right?

Not really. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are tied, so under the old system, they’d be battling for the final playoff spot instead of home field advantage in the play-in, and their six-in-10 stretch would carry even more weight. In the AL, the teams leading the Wild Card race (Tampa and Cleveland) are also tied, so six teams would be chasing one elusive playoff spot under the old system instead of two under this one. In 2012, the play-in did allow St. Louis to make the playoffs when it otherwise wouldn’t have, but the American League’s Wild Card winners, Baltimore and Texas, finished tied and would have had a one-game playoff to make the postseason anyway. Maybe the play-in game has given managers and fans in cities like Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland — all of whom are desperate for any shot at the postseason — more hope, and maybe it’s changed how much some teams have fought for division titles instead of settling into Wild Card races. But I’m not sure it’s done much else.

At the same time, it hasn’t been much of a disaster either. Sure, it can be argued that the NL play-in game last year was a total travesty, a game in which the Atlanta Braves, who won six more games than their play-in counterpart, lost their chance at postseason glory thanks to the unforgiving nature of a one-game playoff and a dubious infield fly call. But to purists, of whom there are still many, who hate the very idea of the Wild Card, the Braves shouldn’t have had a chance at the postseason anyway after finishing second in their division. Other than the evil nature of determining a postseason participant based on a one-game play-in, the main arguments from purists aren’t against the play-in but against the Wild Card itself, and this seems at least a minor improvement over that, since now Wild Card teams at least have to work a little harder and face a little torture to make it to the “real” postseason.

The real winner from the play-in, of course, are TV executives and MLB front office big-wigs who care about the money, because it gives them another postseason game filled with drama, the type where every pitch, at-bat, and ground ball matters more than any other before it. That’s bound to attract fans, both from each participant’s fan base and from people who love exciting baseball, and more eyeballs mean more money. But isn’t that ultimately a win for fans too? For all the hand-wringing from those who hate the games (I used to count myself among them, though now I’m ambivalent), the reality is that it turned out about as well as it could have. Baseball was almost surely going to expand the postseason somehow, and adding two teams and two play-in games was a better option than a huge expansion that devalued the regular season. The 162-game schedule is still significant and relevant under this system, especially since no team wants to be a part of these games if they can help it, and even if all four Wild Card winners count as playoff teams, baseball still has the most exclusive postseason of any of the four major sports. Now it just has two more drama-filled games for fans to enjoy tacked onto the beginning, and that doesn’t seem like a major problem.

That it hasn’t had much effect is a good thing. Baseball gets to make a little extra money and give fans a few extra intriguing match-ups each year without corrupting what purists and many fans enjoy most about the sport: that its regular season carries a huge significance, and that its postseason is an exclusionary affair for only the best teams. Even this system is only pairing another pretty good team with another, and there won’t be any below-.500 teams in the playoffs any time soon like there have been in both the NFL and NBA. In a perfect world, we’d go back to the four-division, four-team playoff system, or maybe to the old days when the NL and AL champs went straight to the World Series. But that’s not realistic because MLB isn’t going to voluntarily give up the money it makes from a bigger postseason, and in a world where the bottom line matters, this system is about as good as it can be.