The double wild card era, year 2

As I type this, the Reds vs. Pirates wild card playoff is underway.

I lost count of the number of times over the past week that I heard some dutiful announcer say how the excitement of the final stretch is exactly what MLB intended in its brilliant decision to add a second wild card. Count me unimpressed.

The final weekend of the regular season featured, in the National League, a series between the Reds and Pirates. Yes, the same two teams that are playing in today’s first postseason game. The Pirates dominated, winning all three. As a result, they finished the season four games ahead of the Reds. For that, they earn… a chance to lose, in just one game, their spot in the Division Series to the Reds. That is what MLB has created: a second chance for the just-defeated.

By finishing even one game ahead of the Reds, the Pirates earned home-field for the single game. But that is not enough. Single-elimination is just not fair in baseball, and it is especially not fair when it is a game between two teams that finished games apart during the regular season. We saw this happen last year, too: the Cardinals were six games worse than the Braves during the regular season, but the Cardinals advanced by beating the Braves in the single wild-card game.

As for the excitement of that final weekend, it seems to me that a do-or-die series between the contenders for one wild card would have been pretty exciting! Maybe at least as exciting as a battle for home-field in their next match-up!

The AL, for the second year in a row, has a better experience with the two wild cards. The final weekend was indeed exciting, with three teams competing for the two spots, and two of them tying for the second one. (I have no problem with single-elimination when two teams tied through the regular season schedule.) The two teams now set for the AL wild card playoff were just a game apart in the standings. I’d still prefer that the Indians go right to the Division Series and not have a second chance for a team that finished behind them, but at least there was not a four or six game gap. Still, a final weekend involving three teams competing for one slot would have been pretty exciting, too! And the three-way tie that came very close to happening might have resulted in a more compelling tiebreaker had only one of them been able to emerge as a playoff team, rather than two of them playing each other again.

Now that one league has had two cases of multi-game gaps between its two wild card teams in two tries, it should be seen as a major indictment of the new system. But instead, it seems that MLB and the media are patting themselves on the collective back about what a great new system they have given us.

And, yes, I still prefer the various formatting ideas I proposed over three years ago.

8 thoughts on “The double wild card era, year 2

  1. I am personally torn on the idea of the Wild Card and the Wild Card game. On the one hand, I am a traditionalist. I don’t like the DH. I want the high strike zone; and incidentally I want umpires burned at the stake for inventing their own strike zones. I’m not even a big fan of teams wearing shirts that aren’t predominantly white or grey. So naturally I would prefer that only division winners make the playoffs and divisional schedules be meaningful constructs to validate finishing first as a championship. No, I am not so conservative that I want just the World Series with no LCS.

    On the other hand, if Bud & Company want extra playoffs, at least a part of me prefers two wild cards to one. Winning a division should mean something and under the one wild card format, it didn’t. As there is no practical difference between having and not having home field in baseball, all four teams are effectively equal in my eyes once the LDS start. As the Wild Card teams are already losers in my eyes, since they failed to finish first, I don’t really fail bad if the “best loser” can be knocked out by the second best loser in a winner take all game.

    But on the gripping hand, schedules, even within divisions, are too unbalanced for my tastes. That sours division titles and Wild Cards for me. Every team competing for a playoff berth should be playing the same teams the same number of times. Teams within divisions can’t match that. Teams competing for Wild Cards in different divisions certainly can’t match that.

    My favorite proposed plan was to move to 15 team leagues without divisions. Everyone would play a balanced schedule and the first five teams would make the playoffs. That was unpopular, but probably better than the utterly bizarre constructs I would bring in if I got to play in the scheduling sandbox.


  2. As I argued in the item in the 2010 post proposing two divisions and two wild cards (linked above), there are ways to make winning a division more valuable than winning a wild card without the abomination of two wild cards with single elimination regardless of the relative winning percentages of the wild cards and division winners.

    Last year showed both flaws in the current system starkly (even if hardly anyone noticed): In the NL, the six-game gap between the two wild cards (noted above). In the AL, a team rewarded for being a division winner despite a significantly worse winning percentage (seventh overall!) than either of the two wild card teams, who of course had to be punished for the sin of finishing second in the strong divisions they played in. These results, inherent in this format, bother me even more than the near-demise of the stadium organ. (Yes, overall, I am pretty much a traditionalist, too.)


  3. I agree with your points about gaps between the first and second wild card, which fortunately did not exist this year. As teams play such different schedules, a one game difference between wild cards strikes me as insignificant and irrelevant to me.

    On the other hand, I disagree with you about divisions. Schedules are based on divisions and, I believe, this year everyone played 19 games against all four divisional rivals. While schedules even amongst teams in the same division aren’t balanced, look at the four game “natural rival” series for starters, they are much more easily compared than schedules of teams in another division. If a team is good enough to be the best team playing a relatively similar schedule, they deserve to be in the playoffs, at least to me, more than a team with more wins from a different schedule. If the game had balanced schedules, however, I would agree with your point.


  4. Every year, I look at what the standings would be if the MLB had simply stuck with the two league/ four division/ division winners in the playoffs system in use between 1969 and 1993.

    It would still be feasible to do things this way, since two of the divisions would have had eight teams each, and two seven teams each. These are the same number of teams each league had prior to 1961, when there was only one tier of playoffs and the teams with the best record in each team went straight to face each other in the World Series. Only once you take the position that no team should finish lower than fifth or sixth in their division (or if you just want more playoff games) do you have to do things like create more divisions and/ or introduce wild card schemes.

    Anyway, using the 1969 scheme, the Red Sox, with the best record in baseball, would have won the American League East by four games over the Tigers. The Athletics would have won the American League West by five game over the Rangers. The Cardinals would have won the National League East by three games over the Pirates, and the Braves would have won the National League West by five games over the Dodgers.

    The gaps are somewhat misleading since the four top teams seemed to all go on winning streaks in the second half of September. In fact, all but the AL West “pennant race” would have gone down to the last few games of the season.

    I don’t care too much about one or two wildcards, but I miss the old pennant races between the best teams in each league. And I always agreed with Kennesaw Landis’ opposition to more tiers of playoffs/ more teams in the playoffs and interleague play on the grounds that such inflation would weaken the World Series and decrease interest in the post-season overall. The history since 1995 has indicated that this line of reasoning was correct.


  5. I’d love to go back to the four division setup myself. I think having the U.S. suddenly decide to adopt the Westminster system and the Israeli electoral law is probably more likely though.

    Personally I always laugh at the idea that a team’s place in the standings has anything to with anything. If you loose a 100 games, you’ve lost a 100 games. It doesn’t matter if you finish 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 10th, or even 2nd. You’re just a bad team.


  6. To be clear, I do not want to go back to two divisions per league, and no wild cards. There were many times under the old two-divisions format that one of the division winners had only the third or worse (occasionally far worse) records in its league. The wild cards correct for that.

    I have always thought it deeply appropriate that the last two-division race gave us a fantastic winner-take-all race (NL West) but as a side effect, an inferior but hot-at-the-right-time World Series winner. Then the first three-division race was maybe going to give us the first sub-.500 playoff team (but the strike ended the season).


  7. @6, I will concede that the current format is probably fairer than the nonsense of the balanced schedule of the 14 team era, including the ’93 race between the Giants and the Braves. But I wouldn’t have shed a tear if that same race had played out under the 6 team division format (18 games against divisional rivals, 12 against the other division) because that format created two distinct champions from two distinct groups playing two distinct sets of schedules.


  8. Pingback: The three divisions, two wild cards, format (2015 edition of a recurring rant) | Fruits and Votes

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