It's official: March Madness comes to October every year starting this year. A one-game wild-card round in each league is a done deal. Now baseball is guaranteed at least two win-or-go home playoff games every year, and we will know the date of those knockout games far in advance, allowing for the rare opportunity for baseball to do advance promotion for big-event viewing.
(Think about it: Nothing is better than a Game 7, but you never know it will be played until the night before.)
Some finer details still need to be worked out, but here are the important questions and answers about this huge change to the postseason format:
When will the knockout games be played this year?
It looks like Friday, Oct. 5. The season ends on Oct. 3. You have to leave Oct. 4 open for the possibility of tiebreaker games. Research by MLB calculated that the odds of a tiebreaker game increase by 68 percent with a fifth playoff team added in each league.
Remember, too, that tiebreaker games will be needed if teams tie for the division title. Those ties were not broken on the field in the past. (Formulas, such as head-to-head records, decided which team entered the postseason as a division champion and which team went in as a wild card.) Now, with such a premium placed on winning the division -- you stay out of the knockout game -- those ties must be settled on the field.
Who will televise the knockout games?
This is still unresolved. Turner Sports and MLB Network are especially interested. (Disclosure: I work for both networks.)
What time will the games be played?
Baseball wants to own the night, such as games at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. But the union is concerned about travel if Division Series Game 1 starts the next night, especially if cross-country travel is involved.
With the tight schedule this year, a one-year compromise may be in order to play at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.
There is a possibility that a team could face four games in four cities against four different opponents: in order, Game 162, Game 163 tiebreaker, Wild Card Knockout Game, Division Series Game 1.
Can intra-division rivals play each other in the Division Series?
For the first time, yes. Say the Yankees win the AL East with the best record in the league and the Red Sox win the Wild Card Knockout game. You would get a Yankees-Red Sox best-of-five ALDS.
The bottom line is that the Wild Card Knockout winner will play the team with the best record, no matter the division affiliation. That puts a premium not just on winning your division, but also on posting the best record. The team with the best record -- while getting three days' of rest to line up its rotation -- will draw an opponent that will have traveled overnight and used up its best available pitchers just to get into the LDS. Big advantage.
Isn't it unfair to use a 2-3 format in the Division Series instead of the 2-2-1?
Not really. It sounds odd that the team with the best record has to sit for three days, wait to see who wins the knockout game, then get on a plane to play the first two Division Series games on the road. It's only a one-year issue needed to squeeze an off-day out of the schedule. It will go back to 2-2-1 next year.
And it's not as bad as it sounds, especially with the wild-card knockout winner having to burn a top starting pitcher just to get into the LDS. And besides, this is nothing new. Baseball actually used 2-3 in the LDS in the first three seasons with the wild-card format (1995-97). Teams that had the homefield advantage (i.e., played Games 1 and 2 on the road) went 6-6 in those series.
What about the players and managers who complain that it's not fair to have their season come down to one game?
Ignore them. They're whiners. You get 162 games to stay out of the knockout game. Second-place teams are lucky that they're in the postseason at all. Arguing for first-class status is silly.
But what if a 98-win wild-card team gets knocked out by an 88-win wild-card team?
Hello? Where have you been for about the last half century? The idea that the World Series is for the "best" teams has been dead since 1968, the last time the teams with the best record in each league went straight to the World Series.
Last year alone, the team with fewer wins won four of the seven postseason series, including the Cardinals taking out the Phillies despite 12 fewer regular-season wins.
In a perfect world, yes, the longer the series, the more likely that the "better" team will win. But you can't keep piling series on top of series. And teams with fewer wins have been beating teams with more wins in postseason play for years.
Isn't a best-of-three knockout round better for TV and better for competition?
No. It's worse. The last thing TV networks want is to increase the inventory of non-decisive playoff games. People watch events with finality on the line. The four Division Series openers last year averaged a 2.4 rating; Game 5 of the Phillies-Cardinals series -- the win-or-go-home game -- did a 5.1.
Here's a great recipe for putting your audience to sleep just as the postseason gets underway: Play a best-of-three series between two second-place teams on a college football/NFL weekend, while your six division winners sit around for at least five days. Division winners get penalized under that format with too much rest.
Who benefits the most this year from this format?
The Toronto Blue Jays and Washington Nationals. If you retrofit this format going back to 1996, the first full season with the wild card, the second wild card team would have averaged 89 wins. The Jays and Nats, two clubs that never have qualified for the postseason in the wild-card era, look like young teams on the rise, and now need only to find another eight or nine wins to get into the postseason. Both teams now should consider stretching their budget, because they really are one or two players away from the postseason.
How exciting is this going to be?
That's not just a rhetorical question. Now baseball really has a chance to own the first week of October and to kick start interest in the postseason. On three straight nights, you could get the last game of the regular season, a tiebreaker game and two one-game wild card knockouts. Now that's the kind of urgency to get people's attention.
Vernon Wells looks like a completely different hitter this spring. Now his team, the Los Angeles Angels, has to hope that the results are completely different from last year, when Wells posted the lowest OBP in American League history for any outfielder with 502 plate appearances (.248; his former Blue Jays teammate, Alex Rios, came in at .265, the fifth-worst).
Wells built a batting cage at his home and hired Cubs hitting instructor Rudy Jaramillo to work with him over the winter. "Not cheap," Wells said with a laugh.
Wells described their work as "an overhaul" -- and it shows. Wells hits from a slightly more upright position (his feet are not spread as wide) and swings with a flatter plane, keeping his barrel in the zone longer. In batting practice, he rips pitch after pitch to right field -- an area he seldom visited in past years. It's an approach that will likely sacrifice power for a better batting average.
Wells admitted that playing in Rogers Centre in Toronto, where the ball flies, encourages a pull-centric approach, a style that doesn't play well at Angels Stadium. Over the past five years, Wells has hit one opposite field home run and averaged only nine opposite field hits per year.
At age 33, Wells deserves credit for making a drastic change. Jaramillo is recognized as one of the best in the business. He also worked with Raul Ibanez and others, which, according to one GM, raises an interesting question: Why do major league hitting coaches offer their expertise to players not affiliated with their own club? Said one major league pitcher, "It's just weird. You don't see pitchers working with pitching coaches of other teams."
Only nine men have won the MVP award of a major pro sport in Milwaukee, and three of them were on the field at the same time in Brewers' camp in Maryvale, Ariz., Wednesday: Robin Yount, Ryan Braun and Aaron Rodgers. Great feel-good story, right? Apparently not. The Brewers informed the media that Rodgers would not talk to the media -- this from a guy who was in town for promotional spots for team. No photo op of the Milwaukee MVPs. Seems Braun's "innocence" still is too radioactive for such fun. By the way, the six other Milwaukee MVPs: Hank Aaron, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor, Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.... The price of the Dodgers keeps escalating. According to one owner, one of the prospective groups that didn't make the cut was at $1.2 billion with its bid. Question: How can you spend $1.5 billion or more and not get the parking lots? Turns out Dodgers owner Frank McCourt borrowed from the playbook of former Texas owner Tom Hicks, who lost his team through bankruptcy proceedings but held on to the parking lots -- and its cash business -- by setting up a separate holding company.... Some scouts who watched Yu Darvish pitch in Japan thought his fastball, while having plus velocity, lacked movement. Time to throw out those scouting reports. After signing with Texas, and realizing nobody throws 140 pitches a game in the majors the way he did in Japan, Darvish took it upon himself to start throwing a two-seamer in his workouts in order to get quicker outs. The early verdict from Arizona? The movement and command on the pitch are nasty.... The Cubs are desperate for any kind of power pitching in their rotation, and they think they may have found something from within. Jeff Samardzija has impressed the Chicago camp early in camp as an option for the rotation.... The 2011 Brewers essentially had no left-handed relief pitching for the second half of the season. The 1998 Padres had almost no lefty relief all year. Now the 2012 Texas Rangers might go into the season with no left-handed relievers. Unless Texas trades Koji Uehara or Mark Lowe -- teams calling the Rangers like Scott Feldman -- the Rangers' bullpen might have no room for a lefty. In the case of a trade, Texas is looking at lefty veterans Mitch Stetter and Joe Beimel and 21-year-old prospect Martin Perez, a future starter who could break into the big leagues as a reliever.... Before you begin dreaming about the power Manny Ramirez and Yoenis Cespedes will bring to Oakland, just remember the ballpark there. From 2007-2011, an A's player has hit 30 home runs just one time (Jack Cust). According to home runs hit at home, since 2007 the Athletics have ranked 11, 11, 12, 13 and 13.