Expanding the postseason with a second wild-card team?

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig says he is open to a proposal to expand the playoffs by adding a second wild card team, in addition to the three division winners. The idea, advanced by ESPN’s Jayson Stark, is to make the division races matter more, by putting a wild card winner through an extra hoop: instead of immediately advancing to the Division Series, these now two wild card teams would play each other to decide who goes farther. Various proposals suggest either a one-game wild-card playoff or, more likely, a best of three. During these few days the division winners would rest while the wild cards beat up on each other.

I am all for having two wild card teams, but not for expanding the postseason.

I would offer a simpler solution than Stark’s to the problem–assuming it is one–that teams like this year’s Yankees and Rays may not have enough of an incentive to work for the division title rather than the wild card. It has been evident for some time that both teams were going to the postseason regardless of which one finished first.

Go back to two divisions, and have two wild cards. The wild card teams could come from the same division, if the two best teams aside from division winners were in the same division.

I have never liked three divisions and one wild card, anyway. The risk is too great that one of the division winners is inferior to the wild card winner. So why penalize the wild card team that, in some years, has the league’s second best record? With a division of five–or even four, as with the AL West–what it takes to beat out your intra-division opponents is often far less than it takes to finish second in a tough division–or even third.

Consider this year’s AL, which has been the talking point for advocates of introducing a wild card series. The Yankees, and Rays would still have been assured, for much of the season as it developed, of a postseason berth under either the status quo or the two-division, two wild cards (2D2W) proposal. So would the Twins, who would be in the West Division, and leading it by four games as of today. But the Rangers, who have had a fairly easy time of it in the actual West, thanks to the other three teams never really getting a title chase going, would be in a fight to the finish under 2D2W.

The Ranges are currently 88-70, with a ten game lead over the second place Angels. They clinched early this week in what has been a runaway. Yet they have not played so great for the past two months. Under 2D2W they would be in a good race for the second wild card with the Red Sox (87-70), assuming they did not make up their current four-game deficit against the Twins. The White Sox (84-73) also would still be alive.

So if the objective of having wild card titles, whether one or more, is to generate more interest, the 2D2W proposal does so better than the Stark proposal. The Stark proposal would force the Yankees or Rays (whichever one finishes second in the East) into the shortest of short series (or even one game!) against a team that they may have beaten by a wide margin, while a team with an inferior record, the Rangers, gets to set up its rotation and gain the advantages that accrue in the postseason to a division winner.

The 2D2W would guard against travesties like the 2005 National League West, which was won by the Padres with a barely .500 record. Given that year’s standings, the NL postseason teams were the Cardinals, Braves, and Padres as division winners, while the Astros won the wild card. The Padres were a division winner in spite of having the seventh best record in the league. Yes, seventh. Under 2D2W, the Phillies, with a record of 88-74, would have replaced the Padres (82-80) in the postseason. The other three teams would have been the same.

(Naturally, with unbalanced schedules, the records under 2D2W would not have been precisely the same, because each team would play a slightly different schedule, but the above scenarios give a general picture.)

There are many years when one division winner has, at best, a fifth place finish in the overall league standings. Under 2D2W, the playoff teams would almost always be the top four.

One could still introduce a first-round playoff structure that rewards division winners over wild card winners, if one wanted to do so. For instance, the first round could be a best of seven with the division winner having the first three games at home, instead of only the first two–while still having the last two if it went that far. Or under a best of five, one could similarly ensure the division winner four home games if the series went the distance. Another thought is an asymmetric series: the division winner advances after winning two games, but the wild card has to win three. I will not consider any of these integral to 2D2W; they are additional considerations.

The two divisions, two wild card format would make division races more meaningful, in that it is harder to beat out five (AL) or seven (NL) intra-division competitors than three or four (in all but the current NL Central). It would force the leader of an inferior division into a wild card race (if it could contend at all under this realignment) rather than crown it a division winner. It would avoid the gimmicky wild card one-game or best-of-three playoff idea.

I wonder if Bud would like to consider this as an alternative.

13 thoughts on “Expanding the postseason with a second wild-card team?

  1. Is there a clause in the US constitution requiring American reporters to use the adjective “complicated” every time they mention the rules of baseball, the same as they have to whenever mentioning a proportional representation system?

    (And no, I’m not going to explain cricket. Except that it proves games must be played with two teams and only two teams. Mathematically impossible to have three or more).

  2. What about adding two teams and having eight divisions of four teams and no wild cards? I don’t see this scenario of adding two teams until the A’s and Rays stadium situations are resolved and that could be as far in the future as 2027, when the Rays lease is up. The A’s are on a year to year basis, I believe, so I expect their situation to be resolved within the next few years.

  3. This is a topic on which I could bore people for hours.

    For non-Americans, this is about the major league baseball playoff tournament format. Most sports just take some proportion of the teams with the best record, often more than half the teams in the league, and put them in playoff brackets. Until 1994, baseball just had first the two League winners, and then the four divisional winners after expansion, play each other and only added two non-divisional winners (wild cards) in 1994.

    Up until 1994, to get into the playoffs in baseball, a team had to win more of the 154 or 162 regular season games than the other teams in a division, meaning that you would often get situations where each game a team won or lost in the last month of the regular season would make or break them in terms of getting into the playoffs. Many people remember these races, the last good one occurred in 1993, which are not really a feature of other sports.

    The wild card team is the best team in each league that has not won a divisional championship, and usually it has a better record than one or two of the teams that did win a division. The wild card does not mean that there are no more divisional races. It means that by definition the divisional races will take place in the four weaker divisions. Each year, two teams from each of the two best divisions get in, so we get extra playoff games in return for eliminating the two best potential divisional races each year.

    The question come down to how many teams you want to see in the playoffs. This is the percentage of teams that made the playoffs in baseball under each playoff system:

    1901 – 1960 12.5%

    1961/2 – 1968 10%

    1969 – 1993 16.7%, later 15.4%

    1994 – 28.6%, later 26.7%

    The significance of the 1994-5 changes was not so much the wild card, but expanding the playoffs to include 8 teams, and ensuring that each team had a 1 in 4 chance of making the playoffs. This means more postseason games and more fans interested in the postseason, and more revenue. However, it dilutes the quality of the “product” by putting more marginal teams in the playoffs. You now have teams that barely have a wining record get in every few years, instead of rarely as before. And this is purely a function of the high percentage of teams that make it.

    I think the right percentage of teams in the playoffs is 20%, or six out of thirty. This is still a high percentage by historical standards. And then I would have the two division winners with the best cumulative records against the other divisions a bye in the first round (not the two teams with the best records, the winners of the two divisions with the best records). Or better still, create three leagues with ten teams and two divisions each, the division winners play each other for the pennant, and then the pennant winners of the teams with the weaker interleague play records play each other to face the stronger of the three leagues.

    You could go to four eight team divisions, after all baseball did fine for sixty years with eight team divisions (leagues), one team from each making the playoffs, but then there was historically a big drop off of interest for fans of the four teams that wound up in the bottom half of the division. Since 1969, MLB has tried to avoid that.

    Once you provide for wildcards, you eliminate the interest in the regular season races in the stronger divisions. There is no mathematical way to avoid that. You have to pick between the extra post-season games or the more meaningful games at the end of the regular season.

    If you want more than a quarter of the teams to make the playoffs, you have to come up with some funky system and tolerate some marginal teams in the playoffs. Cut the percentage down to a fifth, still historically high, and many of these problems almost fix themselves.

  4. I wonder if Bud would like to consider this as an alternative.

    Bud strikes me as the least innovative, least proactive of the major sports commissioners, so my guess is no.

  5. Ed,

    Why do you think that scrapping wild cards is the key to eliminating marginal playoff teams? The marginal teams are almost always the leaders of weak divisions, like the 2005 Padres that MSS pointed out. The wild cards often have better records than the division leaders in both other divisions—does anybody really believe the 2004 playoffs would have been better without the Red Sox?

    I do think exciting pennant races are fun, but wild cards don’t absolutely have to exclude them. The problem with the current system is that there aren’t very significant advantages to entering the playoffs as division leader rather than as wild card. Home team advantage is nice, and you’re matched against the theoretically weaker team in the first round, but that’s not a huge incentive. On the other hand, the proposed 3-division, 2-wild-card system would make it pretty important for a team to finish first, so they could avoid the preliminary round and reset their pitching order. Other systems could be devised with further advantages, see MSS’s suggestions above.

    To be honest though, I don’t understand why baseball has such a limited playoff system. I’d just let a whole pile of teams in, add some advantages for finishing higher, and enjoy a longer postseason. Sure, the first round might not be as high a caliber of play—but it could still be fun to follow, and you’d still have the other rounds.

  6. Vasi,

    I wasn’t clear. Marginal playoff teams have NOT occurred more frequently due to the wildcard. They occur more frequently due to increasing the number of teams in the playoffs. The key decision in 1994-5 was to increase the number of playoff teams from 4 to 8, and the percentage of teams in the playoffs from 15% to 28%. Providing another path to the playoffs other than winning the division is irrelevant.

    The negative effect of the wildcard is on the pennant races. You still get divisional races with the wildcard. However, they are always in the weaker of the two divisions of the league. With the wildcard, if the two best teams in the league are in the same division, they will never be in a divisional race -they both qualify for the playoffs. Mathematically, you can not have a wild card and a divisional race in the best division.

    I care more about reducing the number of teams in the playoffs than removing the wildcard, though if you reduce the number of teams in the playoffs, even to six out of thirty, the wildcard becomes somewhat pointless.

    OK, I get that you want a NBA or NHL style playoffs where pretty much all the teams with a winning record get in, and fans view the regular season as a warmup to the playoffs. Historically, MLB has not gone that route, preferring to emphasize the regular season and the World Series. Expanding the percentage of teams in the playoffs is a step away from that philosophy. To go further in that direction would involve cutting the number of regular season games. It would also remove something distinctive about the professional sport.

  7. Thanks for the discussion. I started with the premise that four teams per league was about “right.” I definitely do not want to see more, as in Stark’s proposal. There might be advantages of fewer, but I don’t see any chance of going back to two per league. And I do not think an odd number works unless there is a very short (less than 3 games) series for the odd-numbered seeded team. A “bye” of five-seven days is not an advantage in baseball.

    I would not like 4 divisions per league, even with expansion that got both leagues to 16 teams. Part of the problem I am proposing to fix is precisely that smaller divisions increase the risk that one of the division winners is a marginal team. So I favor bigger, fewer divisions–8-team is a nice size (harking back to the old 8-team leagues), and 7 teams is OK, even though on balance an even number is preferable (allowing only intra-divisional play at the final stage of the season, as in the old 6-team divisions between 1969 and 1993).

  8. By the way, I am not a huge Bud Selig fan, but to say he is not innovative is not fair, I think. He introduced the wild card and inter-league play, after all. He also has introduced limited instant replay, and it is almost inevitable that the use of replay will be expanded in the near future.

    It might be more fair to say that the game of baseball is rather inherently conservative (for whatever reasons), and Selig has been the innovator against rather steep odds.

    The game of baseball has built-in super-majority provisions–I have no idea whether other major professional sports have similar institutions–and these really constrain the Commissioner. That has been more the case in recent decades since the “Best Interests of Baseball” clause has been circumscribed.

  9. Mathematically, you can not have a wild card and a divisional race in the best division.

    As I tried to explain before, this is only the case if the sole relevant states for a team after the regular season are “in the playoffs” and “out of the playoffs”. But suppose we adopted a 2D2W system where the first series is six games: the division leader needs just three wins to advance, and the wild card needs four. Now there are three states: “in the playoffs with an advantage”, “in the playoffs with a disadvantage” and “out of the layoffs”. Even if a second-place team would still win a wildcard spot, the race for divisional leader would retain quite a bit of importance.

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