We are now less than a week away from the end of the regular season of Major League Baseball. ((How can that be?)) Unless something dramatic happens in the final week ((And sometimes something does!)) the standings will showcase the folly of the new format that was introduced for this season.
This year marks the debut of the second wild-card team, promoted by Commissioner Bud Selig and others. Instead of four playoff teams, there are now five. However, two of them–the wild cards–square off in a single game to determine which one goes on to play one of the division winners. The ostensible purpose is to be to make winning the division a greater imperative in cases where two teams are neck-and-neck down the wire, but both would advance anyway.
The basic goal is laudable, but stands on a flimsy premise: that division winners are necessarily more deserving than wild card winners. A secondary premise, though one I have not seen stated, is also flimsy: that both of the now two wild cards are about equally (un)deserving. So let’s throw as many teams as we can into “exciting” end-of-season races, and then have an “exciting” one-game playoff to eliminate one of them and then get on with games involving the more “deserving” teams.
Each league shows the flaws in one these premises. The AL shows the worst case. If the season ended today, a team with the seventh best record in the entire league (Detroit Tigers, leading the Central by two games) would enter the postseason with the advantages of a division winner, while the teams with the fifth and sixth best records (Los Angels Angles and Tampa Bay Rays, currently tied at two games out of the wild card) would miss the playoffs entirely. The two most surprising teams of the season–the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, with the third and fourth best records, would play a single elimination game. This season’s AL is not a rare case. Many past wild cards over the previous sixteen years had their league’s fourth or better–sometimes second–best record. And several division winners have been fifth or worse. The new format makes this worse, by vastly increasing the penalty against a superior team for being a superior division, while rewarding the winner of a mediocre division.
It actually gets worse still, because this season the Division Series will deviate from its usual 2-2-1 format, whereby the higher-seeded team–never the wild card, even when its record is better–gets to open at home and also gets the decisive fifth game at home if the series goes the distance. Instead, this year, it is 2-3, with the higher-seeded team getting (up to) three home games, but only after the lower-seeded team has had two guaranteed home games. In other words, the Tigers, with the seventh best record, open at home, after an extra off day, on which the A’s and O’s have decided which of two better teams will travel to Detroit to play the relatively more rested Tigers.
In the NL, we see how flawed is the second (implicit) premise: that both wild card teams are equally (un)deserving. At the moment, there is a seven-game gap between the first wild card team, the Atlanta Braves, and the second wild card, the St. Louis Cardinals. A seven-game gap is currently larger than the gap between any two teams that will play each other in a Division Series. ((The gap between Detroit and the team it would play based on today’s standings (the Yankees) is six games.)) And, in fact, the top wild card team now is tied with the West-winning San Francisco Giants for the league’s third best record. Yet all this earns them is one home game in which a team with the fifth best record gets a shot at knocking them off. Of all sports, baseball is the one that least should use a single elimination game instead of a series of 3-to-7 games. ((I think a single game is fine for breaking a season-long tie to enter the postseason, although even here I much prefer the old NL pre-division-era format of a best-of-3.))
It does not seem that this new format is well thought-out. Moreover, introducing the format this year too late to adjust the dates of the various series, which is the ostensible reason for a one-year use of the 2-3 Division Series format, really was inexcusable.
I would still prefer my alternative proposal of Two Divisions, Two Wild Cards (2D2W). The AL would be featuring a good wild card race for two slots between the A’s, Orioles, Angels, and Rays. The Tigers and White Sox would only recently have faded from the race (rather than one of them being ensured a Division Series slot). The Rangers and Yankees would be leading their respective divisions, just as they are under the actual format. The NL would actually not have races involving in vs. out of the postseason, because the top four are so well separated from the rest of the pack. However, in the actual format we have hardly had any division races for at least the last two months. ((This is especially true of the Central and East; the West saw the Dodgers get briefly close in August.)) Under 2D2W we would have a good contest in the East division between Washington and Cincinnati, with Atlanta now four games out. ((San Francisco would lead the West easily, as in the actual format.)) We would not have a race like the one we have had, at least until about a week ago, among the Dodgers and the surging Brewers ((and, on the fringes, the late-coming Phillies and floundering Pirates)) for a wild card slot. But really, why is a race for fifth place among teams barely above .500 something to cheer? ((For those in the affected cities, and for marketing, I get it. But those are not my important criteria.)) In articulating my proposal for the 2D2W alternative in September, 2010, I suggested some ways in which winning the division could be made more valuable than a wild card than was the case in the rules in place through 2011. These mechanisms could still yield significant battles to secure a division rather than wild card slot in the final week.
Bud’s format is a dud. It should be revisited, to maximize the chances that the four best teams advance to the Division Series, under whatever seeding mechanism, and that races do not involve fringe teams, or set up single elimination games between teams that were widely separated in the regular-season standings.