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.