Baseball's playoff format has undergone many changes since Pirates' last visit in '92
September 25, 2013 12:00 PM
Sid Bream of the Atlanta Braves scores the winning run in the 1992 National League Championship series, sliding in ahead of Pirates catcher Mike LeValliere's tag.
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
Home plate umpire Mike DiMuro calls Chicago Cubs outfielder Nate Schierholtz out at home to end the game as Pirates catcher Russell Martin shows DiMuro the ball in the ninth inning Monday in Chicago.
By Paul Zeise Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The pop of champagne corks in the visitor's clubhouse Monday night at Wrigley Field might have sounded the same as 21 years ago, but much else has changed in baseball's postseason since the Pirates' most recent playoff game.
The celebration marked the clinching of a playoff berth for the first time since 1992, the year of the infamous Sid Bream slide, when he scored the winning run for the Atlanta Braves in the National League Championship Series.
Then, there were no wild-card playoffs games -- likely the next step for this Pirates team -- or even the NL division series.
The format in 1992 was simple -- the two division winners in each league met in a best-of-7 championship series, and the winners of those two series met in the World Series.
That year, the Pirates won the National League East -- by nine games over the no-longer-in-existence Montreal Expos -- and played the West champion Braves in the NLCS.
No frills, pretty simple.
Of course, if that format were still in existence today, the Pirates would not have a reason to celebrate, at least not yet, because they would still be trailing the Cardinals for the NL East title and would still be in danger of not making the playoffs.
Likewise, the Reds, who also clinched a playoff berth Monday, would still be fighting with the Dodgers and Braves, not the Cardinals and Pirates, for the NL West title.
But the addition of the Rockies and the Marlins in 1993 made it necessary for baseball to consider realignment and three divisions in each league.
The problem was that would have left an odd number of division winners in each league. Thus, a wild card was added, despite the protests of many baseball purists who liked that it was the only sport with the "win a division or go home" format.
The new format of three division winners and a wild card was officially adopted in 1995. It not only doubled the number of teams in the playoffs, but it also necessitated another round of playoffs, known as the divisional series.
The divisional series were decided on as a best-of-five format, with straight seeding determining the matchups: The division winner with the best record in each league would play the wild-card team, and the other two division winners would face each other.
The winners of the two divisional series in each league would then face each other in the LCS, with those winners meeting in the World Series. That format -- three division winners and a wild card in each league -- lasted until 2012, when Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced that a second wild-card team would be added to each league, expanding the total number of playoff teams from eight to 10.
Manager Clint Hurdle said that clinching a wild card assures the Pirates of a spot in the postseason, but the goal for them, like every team, is to win their division titles. "I think that our goals haven't changed," he said. "As long as we're engaged and involved and got a chance to win the division, that's what we're going out to do. [Andrew] McCutchen set the tone [Monday] night. He let them all know that we'll party tonight and be ready to play tomorrow."
The two wild-card teams in each league will meet in a one-game playoff and the winner will advance to the next round to face the division winner with the best record in their respective league.
The changes to the format have been significant because they have allowed more teams to make the playoffs and, more important, allowed more teams and their fans to carry hopes of a postseason berth much deeper into the season. That was the goal -- keeping as many teams and their fans engaged in the pennant races as possible -- of adding a second wild-card team, Mr. Selig said in announcing the changes.
"The enthusiasm for the 10-team structure among our clubs, fans and partners has been overwhelming," he said at the time. "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."
A quick look at the American League standings shows how much the addition of a second wild-card team keeps multiple fan bases engaged. Six teams were fighting for the two wild-card spots through this past weekend, and the season ends Sunday.
And even in the National League, where the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates started to pull away from the rest of the wild-card hopefuls a few weeks ago, the Nationals and Diamondbacks were clinging to postseason hopes far longer than they would have under the old format.
Although the postseason changes have added more games and more layers of playoff series, Mr. Hurdle said teams still prepare for them the same way, and they still can get away with using only three starting pitchers.
"You don't need four starters," he said. "That in and of itself gives you some different directions in which to go and how to create based on what the strengths of that club is, how you might want to put your bullpen, what position players you might want to fall into bench duty for that based on leverage situations or matchups."
There have been two other format changes since 1992, and both involve home-field advantage, meaning one team gets an extra home game if the series goes the distance. Home-field advantage for the LCS used to be alternated between divisions year-to-year, but in 1998 the system was scrapped in favor of awarding it to the team with the best record. And if there is a division winner facing a wild-card winner, regardless of record, the division winner gets home-field advantage.
The other change came in 2003, when home-field advantage for the World Series was awarded to the team from the league that won that season's All-Star Game. Before that, home-field advantage for the World Series was alternated each year between the leagues.
This year, that advantage goes to the American League.