So they announced last offseason that MLB would be adding a second wild card team in each league to this postseason, with the two not-quite-winners playing each other in a one-game playoff to determine which moves on to play a real series. I think the reactions generally ranged from extreme displeasure (that was me, for one) to…a kind of extremely cautious optimism, I suppose? The change was so obviously and unabashedly profit-driven that it was hard for anyone to get terribly excited about it, but let me know if someone did and I missed it. Anyway, we said our things, and we kind of forgot about it for six or seven months.
Now, though, there’s about a quarter of the season left, around the time that people really start paying attention to the wild card race. Understand, now, that we’re not really going to know much about how the new system is working for at least a few years now, since the way the races break down next year could be drastically different from this one and so on. It’s way too early to make judgments about that sort of thing.
Still, though: how’s the new system working?
Well, for one thing, anything could still technically happen (the Astros will be mathematically eliminated from the NL Central race soonish, but it hasn’t happened yet), but only two of the six division races are really still in play. Entering Sunday, Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds report gave the Yankees a 93.6% chance of winning the AL East, the Rangers a 97.9% chance of winning the AL West, the Nationals an 84.1% chance of winning the NL East, and the Reds an 85.8% chance in the NL Central — and all four of those teams won on Sunday, so those odds will likely be up a touch by the time you’re reading this. The AL Central was essentially a 50/50 proposition, the White Sox with a slight edge over the Tigers (both lost Sunday), while the Giants have about a two-in-three shot to take the NL West, the Dodgers (29%) and Rockies (6%) taking the rest.
Here’s how the wild card races currently break down:
In the AL, the fact that two teams (three, really) are in a virtual tie for the top non-leader really diminishes the impact of the new rule, for now. Under the old system, the standings would look exactly the same as they look above — the Rays and Orioles tied for the WC spot, with the A’s right behind them, and the Tigers still easily within range (the Angels somewhat less easily). The only difference is that each of the Orioles, Rays and A’s needs to outpace only one of the two others in that list (while staying ahead of the others) rather than both.
The NL is a different story. By 1995-2011 rules, the Braves would be three games out in front for the lone wild card spot. That’s hardly a “commanding” or “comfortable” lead, but it’s a lead, and this late in the season, they’d be a pretty good bet to hold on. The Giants and Cardinals, at four and five games back and with two teams besides each other to climb past, wouldn’t quite be totally out of the running, but they’d be in trouble. As is, BPro has the Braves as 93% likely to get to the postseason (77% to win one of the WCs, and the remaining 16% chance to win the East that’s not the Nationals’). The Cards are the most likely to end up with the other slot, followed by the Pirates.
So the shortest possible version is: the new format has changed the face of things quite a bit in the NL, and not so much in the AL. Yet. Some more searching and, I hope, meaningful observations:
1. Under this system, it’d be a really, really good idea to win your division. But that would’ve been true under the old system, too. One defense of the new system is that it makes it more important to win the division rather than settling for the wildcard, because all a wild card guarantees you is one more game — essentially a coin flip — whereas before it gave you the same three-to-five that everybody else got (albeit with a home-field disadvantage).
And that much is certainly true. It’s good to go from out of the playoffs to the wild card, because a 50/50 shot at the real postseason is still better than 0, but the real gain comes in moving out of that slot and into one of the guaranteed, division winner spots. So the White Sox, Tigers, Giants, and Dodgers, and for that matter the Rays, Orioles, Braves, Pirates, and Diamondbacks (all within 6.5 games, even if BPro doesn’t like their chances), should spend the next six weeks or so fighting like hell to take control of their respective divisions and avoid the coin flip.
I don’t see where not fighting to win the division was ever that much of a problem, though. Sure, it happened sometimes, in some divisions (usually the AL East), that whichever of two teams didn’t win the division would win the wild card, which took a lot of the excitement out of that one race. But that necessarily meant the other two division races in that league were vitally important, and that didn’t happen that often anyway. For the most part, leagues tended to break down the way the AL, and to a lesser extent the NL, are doing this year, with a whole lot of teams bunched up together. Had the old system remain in place, teams (especially the AL ones) would still have particularly strong incentives to win their division rather than depending on the wild card, purely as a probabilistic matter; your odds of beating one or two contending teams in your own division are better than your odds of beating all four or five similarly situated teams across the whole league.
So I’m not sure it’s that big of a change. It was always a really good idea to win your division rather than settle for the wild card; now, it’s a really, really good idea.
2. It sucks to be the Braves. My biggest criticism of the system is that it seems to me that the single most important thing it does is unfairly punish a team that does run away with the #1 wild card. The clearest example of this system being horribly unfair is the 2001 American League. The 2001 Athletics finished the season 102-60, the second-best team in the American League, seven games better than the third-best Yankees. They just happened to play in the same division as the 116-win Mariners, though, which left them with the wild card. Had this system been in place, they would have had to play a single game for their playoff lives against the 85-77 Twins. The A’s were seventeen games better than the Twins over the course of the season, yet the two teams would get basically identical chances to move on.
These Braves aren’t those A’s, but it’s set up to be a similarly rotten deal. BPro’s simulations have the Braves averaging out to 93.5 wins, four and a half behind the Nationals, but just 2.2 behind the Central-winning Reds for the second-best record in the NL, and more than four better than the fourth-best (a tie between the Cardinals and Dodgers). They could easily emerge as the second-best team in the league, right behind the Nats. It doesn’t matter, though; they’ll still have to play just one game against the plainly inferior Dodgers or Cardinals or Pirates or Giants, just because the #1 team happens to play in the same division. The system (even more than the old wild card system, with which I had that and other problems) arbitrarily doles out rewards and punishments based on nothing but geography. That struck me as really dumb back in November, and apparently it still does.
3. There’s a possible nightmare scenario for the Pirates here. So imagine the Pirates hold their position (something BP gives them just a one-in-three chance to do) and claim the #2 wild card slot. Then they travel to Atlanta for that one game, and they give up seven runs in the first inning and lose 13-5 and their season is over.
Is that better than if they had done all the same things and simply fallen short? If they were to win 90 games and finish a relatively close second to the Braves for that one wild card slot, Pirates fans would have a lot to feel good about. After twenty years of mostly terrible, hopeless baseball, they’ve had a really good season, came really close, and would have a lot to look forward to in 2013. If instead, though, all that awfulness and futility culminated in one road playoff game, then home for the winter? I don’t know. Most Pirates fans would probably take that one extra game, even knowing it would be a loss. I don’t think I would. Any team that loses that game is going to head into the offseason with a sour taste in its mouth, but to the Pirates (or to a lesser degree, I suppose, the Orioles), it would seem to me like a slap in the face. I’d think that that one game, at least in those two cities, could have a really substantial effect on fan interest heading into 2013.
So, I don’t know. It’s way too early to know anything about how this is going to work out. (This is the point where most people say “people used to hate the first wild card, too,” but I still do, so I have to skip that bit.) I still don’t like it, for the same reasons I didn’t before the season, and I think some of those reasons are starting to present themselves in reality this season. But I’ve been wrong before, and I do like this game quite a lot, so I’ll hope I’m wrong again.