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:

American League

Team W L Pct. GB
Rays 67 54 .554
Orioles 66 55 .545
A’s 65 55 .542 0.5
Tigers 64 57 .529 2.0
Angels 62 60 .508 4.5

National League

Team W L Pct. GB
Braves 70 51 .579
Pirates 67 54 .554
Giants 66 55 .545 1.0
Cardinals 65 56 .537 2.0
Arizona 62 59 .512 5.0

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.

Comments (11)

  1. Play a balanced schedule and let the top four teams in each league into the playoffs or continue to play an unbalanced schedule and let the top eight teams in.
    Under the present format the unbalanced schedule is unfair to too many teams.

  2. Not to be really negative but I was mostly with you up until Point 3, which is entirely built on a 50/50 situation addressing only half of the possible scenarios for the Pirates, a hypothetical 7-run 1st leading to a blowout, and then goes on to make assumptions about how an entire fanbase might feel about their team in the following season, without really addressing with any proof that losing in a playoff would result in a negative reaction by fans. It would have been much more interesting to go and look back at the 3 examples from ’07-’09 of fan support after losing a tie-breaker by looking at attendance figures in the early parts of the following season (before a team’s record probably matters). Hell, maybe you would have been right and fans do get so bitter about the loss that they don’t show up in the following season. Just seems like you needed a third point and conveniently made this one fit.

  3. Mac (MLB Owners): We’re not gonna make the division, but we are gonna park the bus since we are way and above the best non-divisional team and will play a weak divisional team in the playoffs. Dee, park the bus.
    Dee (MLB Managers): I can’t, the brakes aren’t working. Something’s wrong!
    Charlie (Selig): They don’t work because there’s a 2nd team that can beat you in a one game playoff and go on to play your weak divisional team in the playoffs! WILDCARD!

  4. I like the extra wild card, I think it adds some extra teams to the mix, and some extra excitement. The one game playoff could look incredibly stupid if a scenario like 2001 happened.

    That said I would like to see divisions eliminated. Everyone plays a balanced schedule and the 4 best teams get in period.

    • Amen! I feel very similarly. I do like it a lot better than I thought I would, but I would hate it in an instant if 2001 happens where a really good team, obviously better has to miss out on the playoffs because they lose one game to vastly inferior opposition.

    • There’s no ‘fair’ system, as any playoff system amounts to giving the runners up a second chance to beat better teams. Fairness went out when baseball stopped just sending whoever had the best records to the World Series. In other sports in other countries (EPL for instance) the winner is just the team that wins most.

      All systems are therefore about fixing the results so that weaker teams feel they have chance, and the fans don’t stay at home. It’s a fine arrangement, but I tend to think the religious zealotry with which people prefer ‘traditional’ match fixing to ‘new’ match fixing is a bit silly.

      But. a nod towards giving the ‘non-winners’ a far inferior reward for an inferior performance always seemed to me to make the new wild card format a great advance over the old one.

      The fact that the ‘non-winners’ may have a better record than a winner – yeah, that’s still stupid, but we have to remember the system has no intention of being fair.

  5. The extra wildcard does two things… Extra revenue and gives disadvantage to wild card team…

    Why not – a 3 game series for wildcard played on 3 straight days (lower record 1 home, then higher record 2 – no travel day), then on next day (no travel day), the winner plays #1 seed.

    This gives huge advantage to #1 seed for next round as wildcard team should be tired for game 1 of LDS & adds revenue of 2 or 3 games ….Plus every team will at least get one home playoff game (what a thrill for Pirate fans even if it was a 2 game sweep)

  6. Shorten the regular season and make the wildcard playoff multi game with proper rest. I will feel terrible for baltimore or pitsburg fans if they don’t get a home playoff game.

  7. Re: your third point…You’re asking a bunch of Jays fans whether they’d take a one-game measly playoff loss over a feel-good season falling short. As a Jays’ fan, I’d take that in an instant, just for the hope it would offer. That sounds sad, but it’s kind of the way things are after 20 years.

    Overall, the second WC is growing fast on me. I think I’ll be pretty excited to see the Pirates or Orioles or whoever it is competing to get into the play-in game. The only thing that really irritates me about the system is that there’s no way a baseball season should rest on anything less than a three-game series. and 1-5-7-7 just doesn’t seem right. There need to be at least two extra games somewhere, and probably 4.

  8. Pretty inconsistent arguments. In point 1, you say teams settling for a wild card didn’t happen “that often anyway” (without any real data to back that up). Then in point 2, you use an example from 2001 to back up your argument. Something that happened more than a decade ago? Well since that 2001 season, there have been at least seven different seasons where a team was indifferent between playing hard to win the division, or easing off and still getting the wild card. The fact is, this happens almost every year.
    And then in point 3 you try to make the argument that losing a one game playoff would be worse than missing the playoffs altogether.
    I’m all for debating playoff formats (there are endless ideas!), but this whole article is pretty weak.

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