The Really Wild Card

It’s been rumored for a while, but Bud Selig makes it official:

Major League Baseball will officially expand the playoffs to 10 teams starting this season…The new format will add another wild card team, with the two wild cards to play each other in one game with the winner moving on to face a division winner.

I strongly approve of this; it’s how the wild card should have been all along, if we must have it (which I still dislike). Forcing the wild card teams into a one-game, high-stakes playoff gives a definite advantage to being a division winner over a wild card. That is likely to have the largest impact in the American League East, where the Yankees and Red Sox have often seemed to treat the regular season as a formality; now, especially if they’re facing another wild card team with one really good starting pitcher, they are going to want to fight like mad to get the division flag and not have to run the gauntlet of a one-game playoff. Yet, expanding to two wild cards also accomplishes what the owners wanted, which is to have more teams at least theoretically alive in September.
Yes, a part of me shares David Wright’s reaction (“That would have been nice five years ago“). Of course, that’s de facto what we have had a few times already when teams tied for the Wild Card, and it will get wilder still if we have those ties now, putting teams in the position of playing consecutive single-elimination games.
Bottom line: more thrilling September and October baseball, but in a way that makes early-season baseball more rather than less significant. For once, win-win all around.

22 thoughts on “The Really Wild Card”

  1. This is, literally, the second most stupid thing of the Selig Era which is saying a lot (the All-Star game determining home field advantage in the World Series continues to take the cake in that department).
    So, let’s say the fifth place team is comfortably slotted into 5th place a few games ahead of the 6th place team but several games behind the 3rd and 4th place teams. They happen to be in the same division. So, over the last week the 5th place team sets up its rotation, rests guys, etc. The 3rd and 4th place team kill each other over the last 7 games to avoid being in a 1 game playoff. On the 162nd game of the year it is determined and they get to go play one game with their #4 starter pitching and a bullpen in disarray against some team that finished 5 games behind them that is rested and has, say, Chris Carpenter on the mound. This is what you get for winning 101 games, coming in 2nd in your division?
    This is so gimmicky and ridiculous it is nauseating. Why don’t they just put a baseball on the warning track and whatever team’s starting pitcher can push it to home plate with their nose first wins? It’s about the same level of sanity.

  2. Win your division, or prepare for the world of Life Is Not Fair. I think that’s an eminently reasonable choice to put teams to.

  3. So, presumably the team that wins whatever crappy division that is out there, say the NL West, with 87 wins is rewarded but some team in the NL East (certainly not the Mets) that wins 98 games and missed out on the division title on the last day of the year gets hosed into a completely meaningless contest (in terms of who is better) against, perhaps, a lesser but far more rested and prepard team. This is a joke. Why not have the 2 teams go on the Jerry Springer show, do a show about marital infidelity, bring out assorted hookers and Baseball Annies, have the teams have a maylay and then let the audience vote one of the teams into the next round? It makes exactly as much sense.

  4. I like it for the same reasons. You are right – the rest of the teams in the AL East will love it, and some of those teams deserved to be there in recent years.

  5. “Why not have the 2 teams go on the Jerry Springer show, do a show about marital infidelity, bring out assorted hookers and Baseball Annies, have the teams have a maylay and then let the audience vote one of the teams into the next round? ”
    No, that would make it too much like politics.

  6. It really is an inspired idea. Win-win. Whoever thought of it ought to get a raise.
    Not that it will help the Mets any time soon, though.

  7. I just think it’s a bad baseball idea. It’s totally rinky-dink. Hell, if they had this last year the Red Sox would have gone to the playoffs when they obviously earned the right not to go to them. That 162nd game never would have happened. I just think it affects the dynamics of the season too greatly and potentially rewards a team for being above average over a team that is excellent to great.

  8. Crank,
    Your argument seems to come down to this — a one game playoff series is so bizarre that teams will try really hard to avoid being subjected to it.
    A one game playoff made sense when teams are tied after 162 games (or 154). The series was waiting and an extended playoff was impractical. It makes no sense to set up a one game series for advancement in the playoffs. Team A is the 2d best team in the league winning 99 games. They play a one game playoff against a team that won 87 for the right to move on? Sounds like a great way to minimize the importance of the regular season and make a weak regular season team more likely to get to the series.
    Why make it more likely that a weak team becomes champ?

  9. Also, because baseball is so supremely disorganized and did this at the last second with no forethought, have you seen the ridiculous schedule this brings about this year? #1 seed starting on the road and playing the loathed and discarded 2-3 format, games jammed up together so badly that any rain will be calamitous, the possibility that a team could play 4 games in 4 days in 4 different cities. The list goes on from there. This doesn’t make things more exciting, it’s makes them laughable and pathetic. Because baseball won’t fix the things wrong with its infrastructure it has to go to this tricked up hoakum. It’s embarrassing.

  10. Additionally, MLB is going to have to come up with a tie-breaking system (head to head record, divisional record, League record, runs scored, etc), if they want just a one-game wildcard playoff (rather than adding a 163rd game between potential one-game wild card playoff teams). Statistically, you’re subject to a higher probability of teams having identical records as you move down the standings towards the mean.

  11. “Also, because baseball is so supremely disorganized and did this at the last second with no forethought . .”
    The idea of the one-game playoff has been kicked around by various sportswriters for at least the last few years. Even I was aware of the idea, and I don’t follow baseball all that closely except for watching the Yanks. I don’t know if lack of forethought is the issue.

  12. Also, so long as you have divisions and two different leagues, there will be an element of unfairness in just about any playoff scheme. Even without the wild card, you have the possibility of a division winner entering playoffs with a worse record than a second-place team in another division.
    If you wanted to maximize fairness in terms of regular season records, you’d have one huge baseball division with the top 4 teams making it (or the top six teams if you wanted a wildcard), which is what the English Premier League does for qualification for the European soccer tournaments.
    That’s never going to happen with American baseball, but I often wondered what it would look like, particularly if you added the English system of relegation to the minor leagues. The thought of the Yanks being relegated after an off-year would be every Red Sox fan’s dream.

  13. Just because the idea was bantied about doesn’t mean they were planning to go forward with it. The lack of planning is obvious when you consider they already set the regular season schedule prior to enacting this mess. Of course there is unfairness in any sport but legislating it in doesn’t make a lick of sense. There is a chance a team would have to play 3 straight one game, do-or-die games in 3 days in 3 different cities. That’s not unfair, it’s craziness. Baseball is fraught with problems that lead to teams being out of the hunt half way through the season. Adding in a 1 game play in to drag some more teams into the race may “solve” this problem but it does nothing to address the underlying issues that create this scenario. Can you imagine the NFL, during the exhibition season, changing their playoff format? While the NFL is far more willing to tinker with the nature of their sport to address multitudes of issues they do it in ways that make sense. Baseball does it in a haphazard manner that is almost guaranteed to make the game somewhat of a sideshow. They’re willing to enact this silly stunt but they will barely incorporate modern technology that is readily available. It’s sad and depressing to see the sport run in this silly manner.

  14. Oh, I totally agree with Jim about the clusterfark of how they scheduled and rolled this out. No reason this could not have been decided months ago.

  15. My bad – I thought the forethought point was separate from your scheduling argument. I agree; I would have waited until next year if they weren’t going to do it before the scheduling.

  16. Assuming that you’re going to have a wild card at all, it’s better–I’d rather just add two teams to the AL, blow up the divisions, and let the top four teams in each league into the postseason, with the team with the best regular season record in each league getting to choose their first round opponent. Simple. Three rounds of playoffs is already excessive for a sport with a 162 game regular season–we don’t need four.

  17. I am all for change and making things more interesting. Baseball is so far behind the curve on doing things to draw new eyes to their game it’s ridiculous. But the problems they have that anyone on this board knows full well (games take way too long, start too late, there are too many teams, teams are allowed to spend whatever they want and that can be too much or too little, technology is shrugged off, etc, etc.) are completely ignored. This is a Flintstone’s band-aid on a broken leg with gangrene. It’s hard not to root for the worst case scenario to come about in October.

  18. So how long before we have the bottom two teams in baseball in the “world” series?

  19. In my mind the key difference between baseball and other US professional sports, is that the regular season is (or should be) the primary determinant of success. Compare it to the other long-season sports, where the regular season is basically an extended exhibition to determine seeding. This is particularly important to baseball because so much of the sport’s overall revenue is tied to the regular season, particularly the regular season gate.
    My main objection to the wild card has always been that it devalues the regular season in several ways. First, and most obviously, because a short baseball series is such an obvious crapshoot, and adding an extra playoff round introduces another layer of randomness to the process. And, as Selig has discovered, the wild card in particular, while it does improve the post-season overall by giving a potentially strong team trapped in a division beyond an event better team a way in, does this at the cost of ever seeing a truly great penant race – again trying to improve the post-season at the expense of the regular season.
    But beyond that, expanding the playoffs make it possible for good teams to deliberately trade off regular season wins for better post-season performance by trading roster depth (key in a long season) for concentrated top-roster value (which is key in the playoffs). The longer the post-season, particular the recent trend of extra days off, the more IP/AB end up in the hands of the top 15-16 players on the roster, and the less the playoff games actually resemble true (i.e. regular-season) baseball.
    With that in mind, I think this particular expansion does help to fix the worst of the problems with the wild card. Adding a Russian-roulette round will drive the strong teams to shift back to favoring roster depth and a strong regular season record as a means of maximizing playoff success. It will also bring back the occassional great playoff race. In short, it will simultaneously expand the pennant race both at the top and the bottom, which is quite an improvement over Selig’s earlier changes.

  20. Another in a long serires of changes made that are killing my appreciation of mlb (not the sport, but mlb). While I understood the 1993 expansion (even the leagues, add revenue lost due to collusion case), everything after that has made the league worse. Three divisions, wildcard teams, interleague play, all-star game ridiculousness, odd number of teams per league, and now this. None of these thngs has made baseball better. Why play 162 games if the end result is you don’t have to be the best team of your area (divsion or league) to move on. Let’s go back to 2 leagues, 2 divisions per league, no interleague play. Win your division and get in. You like 3 divisions, then the first round of the playoffs can be between seeds 2 and 3, with seed 1 getting a bye into the LCS.
    162 games is alot of baseball. Let it mean something.

  21. This is an improvement. Better still would have been to keep the 1 wild card, but eliminate home games for the WC; best of 5 road series against the team with the league’s best record (get rid of the inter-division exemption). If WC wins that, they can host playoff games from then on. Best yet would have been to eliminate divisions, balance the schedule and put the top 4 teams from each league into the playoffs, with the league’s best record getting all home games in the first round.

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