And now there are 10. Major League Baseball expanded its playoffs for the third time, this time with the addition of two more Wild Card teams and a single elimination game in each league. That new format will begin this year. An agreement between MLB and the Players Association, finalized on Friday, adds a second Wild Card to both the American and National Leagues, increasing the postseason field to 10, the largest in Major League history and the first such expansion since 1994.
The three division winners in each league will await the survivor of a one-game playoff between the Wild Card teams in each league. Both games are slated for Friday, Oct. 5, two days after the end of the regular season. Barring weather disruptions, the Division Series field of four teams in each league will begin the following Saturday and Sunday. "I greatly appreciate the MLBPA's cooperation in putting the new postseason format in place this year," Commissioner Bud Selig said on Friday. "The enthusiasm for the 10-team structure among our clubs, fans and partners has been overwhelming. "This change increases the rewards of a division championship and allows two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year, all while maintaining the most exclusive postseason in professional sports." The League Championship Series and World Series formats will remain the same, but in 2012 only, the five-game Division Series will begin with two home games for lower seeds, followed by up to three home games for higher seeds. This one-year change will eliminate a travel day prior to a decisive Game 5 of a Division Series and was necessary because the 2012 regular-season schedule -- announced before the agreement on the new postseason was reached -- had no wiggle room. There will still be a travel day between Games 2 and 3. From 2013 onward, there will be space set into the schedule for the one-game Wild Card playoffs. Next year, the Division Series will return to the 2-2-1 format used from 1998 through this past postseason. Details on the scheduling of the new playoff games between each league's Wild Cards will be announced in the near future as will be the television partner who will carry the games. Reverting to the old 2-3 format that was used from 1995-97 will allow the one-game Wild Card playoff winners to remain home and host the first two games of their Division Series, which will begin on Sunday, Oct. 7. The other two Division Series that pits division winners will begin on Saturday, Oct. 6. Division titles and Wild Card berths will now all be decided by a 163rd game play-in if necessary. In the past, if two teams were tied for a division lead after 162 games and the other had already clinched the Wild Card, the division winner would be determined by head-to-head records. This year, any play-in games will be staged the day after the regular season ends. In another interesting wrinkle to the new long-term playoff rule changes, beginning this year a division winner and Wild Card team from the same division will be able to meet in the Division Series, which was not the case in the past. For example, if the Yankees have the best record in the AL and the Red Sox win their one-game Wild Card playoff, they will meet in the Division Series. In the past, the Red Sox would have played the division winner with the league's second-best record and the Yankees would've played the division winner with the third-best mark. That happened last year when the Rays won the Wild Card and played the Rangers while the Yankees, who won the AL East, played the Tigers in the first round. Both AL East teams lost their respective Division Series. Under the new format, the Yankees would've played the Rays. Michael Weiner, union's executive director, lauded both sides for their cooperation on a very complicated issue during a conference call on Friday. "A bunch of players and a bunch of people on the owners' side put their heads together to try and solve the problem," he said. "There was an agreement to try and move to an expanded playoffs this year. We didn't have a schedule that was designed to accommodate it. It took a lot of hard work by both sides to try and figure out a way to make it happen." Adding Wild Card teams this year created a logistical issue: The regular season is scheduled to end on Wednesday, Oct. 3, leaving two days for travel, weather problems, possible season-ending tiebreakers to decide division titles and Wild Card berths and the Wild Card elimination games prior to the start of the Division Series. Because of television commitments, the World Series is fixed to begin on Wednesday, Oct. 24. The additional Wild Cards also place a premium on winning a division title. Division winners will get at least two days of rest before the start of the Division Series, while the Wild Card teams will possibly have to use their best pitchers to win an elimination game. "If you get in [early] you can plan out your rotation a little better," D-backs manager Kirk Gibson said on Thursday. "You don't have to play the extra game. If you're in the one-game playoff, do you use your top starter, Ian Kennedy, or do use somebody else? It's a different strategy." The new format was agreed upon last year in the new five-year Basic Agreement between the owners and the players, to start by 2013 at the latest. The two sides then had two months to negotiate the logistics of beginning it a year early. They went a day past their stated deadline. MLB had been studying how to expand the playoffs for at least two years, and it became a topic of heated discussion among Selig's 14-member committee that has been studying on-field improvements of the sport. "I'm excited, because it leans more heavily on the integrity of a season than the other system and I think everybody felt the same way," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a member of Selig's select committee. "Hopefully, it leans on that integrity a little more heavily and I think that's a good thing." Last season, the eventual World Series-champion Cardinals made the playoffs by winning the NL Wild Card berth over the Braves on the final day of the regular season, as did the Rays over the Red Sox in the AL. Had there been the additional Wild Card berths, the four teams would've secured all of them much earlier, thus eliminating the last-minute dramatics. Under the new scenario, the Rays would've have had to play the Red Sox and the Cardinals would have had to play the Braves in a one-game Wild Card playoff to gain entry into the Division Series. "Everybody remembers day 162 last year and how exciting that was," said St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, a coach in the Cardinals system last season. "We all see the benefit of how the Wild Card played out. There were a lot of people against it at the time and it proved to make some very meaningful games for some teams who otherwise wouldn't have had anything going on. It will be fun to watch how it all plays out." The previous format, featuring three division winners and a Wild Card from each league, was adopted in 1994 but wasn't actually used until the following year because a players' strike led to the cancellation of the '94 postseason. From 1969-93, there were two divisions in each league and a League Championship Series between the first-place teams as a prelude to the World Series. Prior to 1969, only the pennant winners, the first-place teams in each league, met in the World Series. Under the new format, MLB, with 10 of 30 teams, will have the lowest amount of playoff qualifiers among the major North American sports leagues. The NFL has 12 of 32, while the NHL and the NBA each have 16 of 30.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.