The three divisions, two wild cards, format (2015 edition of a recurring rant)

Regular readers will know how much I dislike the current major-league baseball format of three divisions (which we have had for a while now) and (more recently) two wild card teams who face each other in a single game to decide which one goes on to the Division Series. Just last night I again heard an announcer praise how wonderful this format is; I think they must be under some sort of directive from on high to repeat that mantra.

I am still not sold, despite the fact that my team’s* only shot at the playoffs this year will be if it can win the second wild card. For supporters of the format, the AL is turning out this year the way they like it: three mediocre teams (Angels, Twins, and the team they currently are chasing, the Astros) are all in contention here in the last week. Also good for their cause, the Astros were only recently supplanted for the AL West division lead by the Rangers; a similar reversal took place just a while ago in the AL East (Blue Jays overtaking Yankees). That there is one race in the final week–really the only one still realistically alive in either league–and that teams recently dumped to second place in their divisions can look forward to, at best, winning a single game to advance, are points in favor of the current format. That is, if you do not object to mediocre teams fighting it out to potentially win just one game against a team that was their better by potentially 4+ games during the regular season. (As of today, the Yankees hold the first wild card, and thus the home field, by a 4.5 game lead over the second wild-card Astros.)

The NL is, however, a very different story. And not for the first time. The two wild card teams (Pirates, then Cubs) are currently separated by 5.5 games. Mets fans have to really love the current alignment of the divisions. Their team gets to be the first to clinch a division title… despite having the FIFTH best record in their league. (When the Dodgers lost a little later on Saturday, the Mets backed into fourth place by half a game.) It makes no sense that a team that–barring a significant closing of the gap in the final week–has finished so far behind the other wild card gets a single shot to knock out a superior team.

On the plus side, however, the second wild card may prevent the “injustice” of the league’s third place team (Cubs) having no playoff games while the fourth and fifth likely get crowned as division titlists. Even so, the way it is set up, one of the (current) top three teams would be eliminated in a single game, and either the fourth or fifth best (Dodgers, Mets) is guaranteed to be in the NLCS. I call this an institutional design fail!!

Although I still prefer my old two-divisions, two wild cards proposed format, with (or without) asymmetric series to privilege the division winners, I recognize that two wild cards are here to stay.** One small tweak I would like to see, however, is having the team with best record play in the first round the team among those still standing that had the worst record. Instead, it automatically plays the wild card, regardless of regular-season record. The principle ought to be to maximize the chance that the LCS pits the league’s two best, and in this year’s NL that is evidently going to be two teams from the Central, while one of the inferior teams is guaranteed to advance to the Division Series simply because it beat out weaker competition in its own division.

Whatever the outcome, October ball is almost here, and even dumb institutional design can’t ruin that!

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*The Angels, for those who are not regular readers. Regulars, of course, know this well.


** Besides, I have to admit that this format gave us last year one of the best games in years. The two-divisions, two wild-cards, also is not very workable with the realignment to 15 teams in each league, which took place at the same time as the second wild card was implemented. Given that this is a blog that is largely about institutional design, I invite readers to come up with a format that involves 15 total teams per league, five of which advance, but without a single-game playoff or the other anomalies I have identified. (An obvious solution of a wild-card playoff that goes longer gets little traction because giving the division winners a few days off is not generally considered to their advantage.)