The Case Against the Second Wild Card

One hundred and sixty two games separate spring training from the postseason. A six month endurance test of resolve, endurance, and strength divide a field of thirty by three. Injuries, hot streaks, slumps, and grueling road trips create the harsh environment of Major League Baseball. Only the strong survive. The journey through the dog days of summer determines the finalists for October. Recent years saw the addition of two extra Wild Card teams in both the American and National Leagues. The advent of a four tiered playoff system has not met unanimous endorsement. Controversy surrounds the one game playoff round between wild card winners with contentions of compromised integrity of the regular season.

Evolution in innovation typically meets considerable dissension in the game of baseball. Preservation of the past and fear of the unknown in the face of perception tug at the emotions of the game’s purists. The gamete of sentiments within a pennant race provide some of baseball’s most storied memories. The 1978 New York Yankees trailing by as many as 14.5 games to the Boston Red Sox in mid-July, slowly gained ground and drew even by early October. The grainy color images of Bucky Dent and Carl Yastrzemski, and Mike Torrez provided the images of victory, agony, and defeat. The Yankees proceeded to win the 1978 World Series, while Boston was left pondering the sudden turn of events. The 1967 Red Sox clinched the pennant on the season’s last day, finishing one game ahead of both the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers. The drama and tension of the pennant chase, coupled with the devastating injury to talented young outfielder Tony Conigliaro in August created “The Impossible Dream.”

Pennant races such as these were the remnants of childhood memories for many fans. By 1994, expansion, new ballparks, and television contracts altered the structure of October, leaving some fans yearning for the glory days of youth after the advent of three divisions and a Wild Card. Modifications to the playoff format were overdue in the mind of former commissioner Bud Selig. A 103-win San Francisco Giants team failed to qualify for the postseason a year earlier, finishing a single game behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League Western Division. Selig surmised with a new television deal and a larger pool of contenders that an extra tier of playoffs would benefit the game. The addition of second place teams in the postseason led to intense criticism initially. Bob Costas of NBC Sports believed an expanded playoff bracket was an inane concept and that, “The Wild Card was antithetical to baseball.” To the surprise of many including Costas, the wild card revived baseball in cities such as Colorado, Miami, and Anaheim. The format change ultimately broke “The Curse of the Bambino” for the Red Sox in 2004, while four other teams won the World Series as a Wild Card.

The success of the Wild Card unintentionally brought forth a competitive loophole. Teams had little incentive to win the division since no penalty existed against the Wild Card winner in the postseason. Franchises who were well behind the division winner would settle for the Wild Card, causing imbalance and uninspired play. Eighteen years after the introduction of the Wild Card, two more teams were added to the postseason as another Wild Card to alleviate previous concerns. Both Wild Card teams in each league would play a one game playoff with the winner advancing to the Division Series. The fourth playoff round hoped to enable teams which had yet to qualify for the postseason a faint opportunity at October glory. Extra incentive would be placed on winning a division due to the randomness of a single game.

The number of teams competing for the World Series currently sits at ten. Though baseball’s postseason still contains fewer qualifiers than the NFL (12 teams) and the NBA and NHL (16 teams), its format loses the unique subtlety and influence it once possessed. The regular season as stated earlier amassed the bulk of interest in the game of baseball. The dearth of teams in the postseason gave more meaning to the season itself. Teams such as the Cleveland Indians would wait nearly four decades to compete in a Fall Classic, while others would perpetually wait until next year. As time passed the playoff structure would result in a dilution of competition. Today a team with less than ninety wins can qualify for October due to the second Wild Card. A team with a record seven games greater than its competitor cannot play in the Division Series without a victory in the Wild Card game despite a superior head-to-head and division record. This factor results in a devaluation of the regular season. The efforts of the 162-game season become futile. Division winners see their momentum diminish with extra time off as they await the results of the one game playoff.

To generate added interest in the Wild Card round, each game is played on separate days, mirroring the play-in games of the NCAA Tournament in the facade of a playoff. Essentially, the Wild Card round of the postseason yields as much importance as a First Four matchup between UNC Wilmington and Florida Gulf Coast as 163rd game of the regular season becomes a faded anachronism. In 2014 the San Francisco Giants and the Pittsburgh Pirates found themselves tied with identical 88-74 records, but both advanced to the postseason through a one game playoff instead of a 163rd regular season game with expanded rosters. A complete game shutout by Madison Bumgarner and subsequent World Series championship by the Giants negated any possible disadvantage for a Wild Card team and defeated the intended purpose of the new format. This season, the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the second best record in baseball will likely find themselves hosting the National League Wild Card game for a third consecutive year facing the Chicago Cubs and the prospect of facing elimination against Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta despite a three game advantage in the standings. Though their Windy City counterparts hold an 11-8 edge in the season series, the Pirates hold the second best run differential in the game behind the NL Central leading St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates are essentially penalized for the sin of playing in the same division as the team with the best record in baseball, marginalizing the integrity of the 162-game season. The added Wild Card also creates cushion for teams who collapse down the stretch. While the 2014 Oakland Athletics benefited from the rules changes despite a sub-par 10-16 September record to qualify for the Wild Card, the 1995 California Angels the 2007 and 2008 New York Mets, and the 2009 Detroit Tigers all reside in the annals of the greatest collapses in baseball history without having a safety net to fall back upon.

The flaws of the one game Wild Card playoff are glaring but could be mitigated with simple expansion. A best of three Wild Card in a 1-2 format would preserve the integrity of the regular season and the tradition of a playoff series. At least one home game would be guaranteed to each club with the opportunity for added revenue and higher television ratings. The top three starting pitchers for the respective clubs would battle in a pivotal three game series where meritocracy would be rewarded and the regular season and the pennant race regain a semblance of its significance. Unfortunately, concerns regarding a lengthy postseason bye for division clinchers supersedes the importance of maintaining a format which provides both substance and credence to the preceding 162 games and the three rounds of playoffs which follow in succession. The Major League Baseball postseason aside from its flaws provides the drama and memories of Octobers past. Elimination breeds captivation as unlikely heroes emerge victorious and the term “goat” takes on an infamous connotation. The images of the walk-off home run, bases loaded strikeout, and the run saving catch become immortalized as new memories conjure reflections of the past where the game once stood at the forefront of relevance.

3 Responses

  1. Timoteo Perdomo

    From this article it looks like the cubs are not a playoff worthy team, when in reality the cubs have the third best record in baseball above any other division winner in either league making them a much more deserving team to be in the playoffs than any other division winner. I think you are missing the point here. The wild card is not the problem. Teams winning weak divisions are the problem. If you want the best teams in the playoffs get rid of the divisions, or have only two divisions or seed the teams according to regular season record and make sure that the best teams get to play a 5 game series at least. The latter option would not completely solve the problem ( a team like the mets with losing record against the central gets the luxury to pad their records by playing the 3 worse team in baseball in their division) but at least will be fairer. A 3 game wild card could work as a temporary fix but the problem will still be there. You need to make sure that the best teams get to the division series.
    Other sports have done the same when they realized (like the NBA) that some division winners were not title contenders and seeding them 3rd was an unfair advantage). Do the same in baseball. It is not fair that the 3 best teams in baseball are going to eliminate each other while the 4th and 5th record (mets and dodgers) will have a much easier path.

    • SteveO

      The 2000 New York Yankees were the only division winner to not win 90 games or more that season. Both wild card winners (Mariners/Mets) also had 90+ wins that season. Did the Yankees, who won the World Series that year, not deserve to be in the playoffs? Winning your division is winning your division no matter how strong or weak it is.

  2. LuckySTLfan

    So penalizing the Pirates for being in the same division as the Cardinals isn’t fair, but penalizing the Cubs for being in the same division as both Cardinals and Pirates is fair?

    You also state it breaks the momentum of division winners waiting for the play in game, then suggest two more games before the DS? How does that not make it worse for division winners waiting. It also takes away the greatest handicap of the play in game, burning your ace pitcher to start the divisional series.

    It’s a joke like Timoteo said that the 3 best teams in all of baseball (Toronto run differential not withstanding) have to all eliminate each other before the NLCS. How does that make any sense?


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