The Case for A Three Game Wild Card Playoff Series

On the morning after the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs in the NL Wild Card game, and on the heels of the New York Yankees 3-0 loss to the Houston Astros in the AL Wild Card game the day before, the NLDS and ALDS match-ups are all set and the postseason rolls on. However, for the New York Yankees, and the Pittsburgh Pirates in particular, an early start to the offseason following losses in the Wild Card games is a bitter pill to swallow. The conversation on the fairness of the one game Wild Card play in game has been ongoing, and the debate will rage on with the 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates headed home early.

While the Wild Card playoff has been a welcomed addition to the playoffs over its first four years of existence (this being the fourth year), 2015 has come with the first big taste of real controversy for the new format. While there have been 90-win teams in the Wild Card games in both the American League and National League over the first three years of its implementation, 2015 marks just the second time two teams from the same division played each other (Pittsburgh vs. Cincinnati in 2013) and the first time that both of the Wild Card teams had better records than not only two out of the three teams in the same league as them, but also better records than every team in the other league as well.

As an example the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, who both had worse records than either the Pirates or Cubs, got to automatically play in the NLDS because they play in easier divisions, while the Pirates and Cubs were relegated to the Wild Card game because they just so happen to play in the same division as the best team in all of baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals. The Pirates now find themselves out of the postseason despite having the second best record of all eight teams remaining.

Some would argue that the Wild Card is inherently fair, because if a team is disadvantaged one year by the Wild Card play-in, the inequalities in the divisions will correct themselves on a year-to-year basis. By this logic a team being forced to play in a one-off game because they are in a strong division one year will experience a weaker division the next year and another team will experience that disadvantage. This, however, oversimplifies the problem.

While by this logic you would expect a team to not be continually “screwed” by the Wild Card game, the real world results tell a completely different story. For three consecutive years the Pirates have had to play in the single elimination round, losing two out of their three contests. For the Pirates organization and Pirates fans alike, the Wild Card game is becoming a tired concept.

Despite some arguing that the Wild Card is fair, others argue that the playoff seeding format is already in need of an overhaul, just four years after the creation of the new play-in format. For many, the best format is one similar to what is used by the NBA, where divisions do not truly matter and seeding is done from best record to worst record. If this was done for the 2015 MLB postseason, the Pirates and Cubs would have both avoided the Wild Card, and the Dodgers and Mets would have been forced into the one game format.

This format may sound good to many, but it still does not avoid the problem of a team having to put their whole season on a singular game. Baseball is a fickle game at its core, and any team having to rely on the bounces going there way over the course of one game is at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the teams who get a three game series at minimum and a five game series at the maximum for the first round.

If the Wild Card play-in game is truly unfair from its conception, one way to truly remedy the situation is the possibility of having a three game Wild Card series, where the first team to win two games out of three gets to move on to the division series. This is more fair by design, but could also bring up some problems with fatigue and could also place the winning team at a disadvantage going into the division series.

A possibility for remedying this situation is having a format like the NFL playoffs, in which there are six postseason teams in each league (the MLB would have to add ANOTHER Wild Card) and the top two teams get byes in the first round while the other four must all play three game Wild Card series to decide which four teams in each league get to play in the division series. This rewards the teams with the two best records with some time off but allows more fair three game series rather than forcing teams to rely on one game. This also adds more games to the postseason schedule and would thus force Major League Baseball to consider shortening the length of the regular season or allowing more off days either during the season or the postseason. The postseason should never be considered a finished product and the MLB should always be open to any tweaks that could better the current format. Changing the Wild Card in this way could be a good start.

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