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MLB should adopt the KBO “Step-Ladder” Wild Card Series

The Wild Card Game is one of MLB’s best innovations. Now let’s kick it up a notch.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

If the Yankees make the playoffs, they’ll be forced to navigate the one-game Wild Card playoff for the fourth time in franchise history. I actually really like the one-game playoff, and think it’s one of the best additions to the game in the last 20 years, but it does have its flaws. Baseball is a marathon, and boiling down 162 games into just three hours can leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

Entering Friday, the AL Wild Card race is a three-team contest, with half a game separating the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees. All three teams feature an elite, elite starter at the top of the rotation, with Robbie Ray and Gerrit Cole likely to finish the year as Cy Young finalists. The clubs also, in theory, boast deep lineups with the potential for fireworks every game they play.

All of this is to say, I don’t want to see just one game between, for example, the Jays and Yankees. Yes, Ray vs. Cole, win or go home, that would be a lot of fun, but it kind of speaks to that problem in the first paragraph. Reducing a full season’s worth of ups and down to “whose great starter has the better start?” doesn’t do it for me.

So, we need to increase the Wild Card Game to a Wild Card Series, but we need to ensure there are still real advantages to winning the division outright, and that there are advantages to claiming the first runner up slot, that go beyond having home field advantage. So, let’s look to our friends in the KBO.

Korean baseball features a “step-ladder” system, where the top three teams automatically qualify for the postseason, and the two Wild Card teams face off in a best-of-three series, where the first Wild Card team has a perpetual 1-0 lead, and the second must win both the remaining two games on the road. Make sense?

So that hypothetical Blue Jays vs. Yankees game, we’d get Ray vs. Cole, at the Rogers Center, and if the Jays win, they automatically advance to the ALDS, with someone else starting that first game, on the road. If the Yankees win, they’ve got to run it back the very next night, playing a second win-or-go-home game.

You’re never going to build a perfect playoff system for a sport that needs 150+ games before we get a real idea of a team’s true talent. But the Wild Card Game wasn’t really about evaluating talent, it was about injecting a more entertaining, high-stakes element into the sport. The “step-ladder” series, forgive the pun, takes that a step further, incentivizing a real chase for the first Wild Card slot — and instilling a real penalty for the team that finishes second in the race.

But it’s not just about who you penalize, it’s what kind of a team you’re trying to reward. A club with an inconsistent offense and one great starter (sound familiar to anyone?) can set their sights on a one-game playoff, line up that great starter, and since the playoffs are a crapshoot, go from there. Adding the potential for a second do-or-die game rewards a deeper, more consistent roster, and in my view, that’s the kind of team MLB should be incentivizing.

The Wild Card Game is one of the most memorable events on MLB’s calendar. But it can’t be enough to just ride one arm in one game and hope you get a big hit. Adding the very real risk of having to win back-to-back games notches up the entertainment value AND the competitive instinct to produce a better team.