Playoff races in both the AL and NL took on a new intensity. Teams were struggling hard not just to make the playoffs as in year’s past, but to actually win their division. In the past, there was really no difference between making the playoffs as a wild card or as a divisionwinner. Now, with the wild card teams facing a one-game elimination playoff, that is no longer the case.
The change allows division winners several more benefits besides merely enjoying one extra home game in the opening round series. Now, wild card teams face the risk of having worked hard for 162 games only to see their entire postseason end after just one game. In addition, division winners have an extra two or three days to set their pitching rotation up the way they want it for the ALDS and NLDS while the wild card teams have less rest and less ability to set up their starting pitchers.
The added wild cards in each league also kept the races closer and meant that more teams were in the playoff race deeper into the season. This keeps more fans around the league interested, allows for more meaningful games on the schedule in September and should serve to increase attendance.
Both leagues had great races down the stretch. The battle for the AL East and AL West went down to the final day of the regular season and because of the new wild card format, winning the division was important. Sure, the Athletics and Rangers both qualified for the playoffs, as did the Yankees and Orioles, but Texas and Baltimore now face a one-game elimination while the A’s and Yankees can wait a few days for their series to start and have a best-of-five series with a lot more of a margin for error.
It also helped MLB to have some new teams qualify for the playoff this year. Washington has a postseason representative for the first time since 1933 and the Nationals are in the playoffs for the first time since they relocated from Montreal. The A’s were an unexpected playoff qualifier as well, making a huge late season comeback to upset the Rangers and win the AL West and the Orioles also surprised almost everybody to reach the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
Next year, there will be more changes with the Houston Astros moving from the NL to the AL, giving each team 15 teams and setting up Interleague play throughout the season. It remains to be seen how that change works out, but the new two wild card system got off to a great start in its first season.