Why I (Still) Hate the Second Wildcard

Look, the games on Friday were exciting. Good TV. Generally bad baseball, but entertaining. And I hate the fact that they happened at all.

When the new system was announced about eleven months ago, I wrote about why I didn’t like it, and why I was unconvinced by the arguments in favor of it. There are a lot of reasons, and I continue to stand by all of them, but the main point is that after a grueling 162-game season, making four teams’ fates depend on just one game in which almost literally anything can happen is lunacy. Part of the beauty of baseball, as I’m sure I’ve written before (and I know many others have), is how incredibly long the season is. Six months, with a game almost every day. There’s still a lot of room for weird, hard-to-explain stuff to happen (Ex. A), but there’s much less room for it in a 162-game season than there is in one that’s only, say, 82 or 16 games. After 162 games, generally speaking, you’ve got a pretty good idea of who the best teams are. In one game, though, even the worst team — let alone the second wildcard team — would have a pretty substantial chance of beating even the best team. It’s not much different than a coin flip.

I didn’t (and, really, still don’t) think we’d understand exactly what this system is doing for years now, but my fears and pessimistic expectations were almost perfectly illustrated on Friday. The Atlanta Braves, over the course of the preceding six months, proved pretty conclusively that they were one of the four best teams in the league. They tied for the third-best record in the NL, but did it in what was probably the best division in the league, so you could argue they were second-best to the Nationals. And they were certainly better than the Cardinals, who finished with just 88 wins to Atlanta’s 94. You might argue that by pointing out that the Cardinals and Braves had similar run differentials, finishing with identical 93-69 pythagorean expected records; but, again, you’ve got the massive difference in the divisions, and the unbalanced schedules; the Cardinals got to play the MLB-worst Cubs and Astros 32 times, and went 21-11 in those games. (The Braves had similar success against the bottom of their own division, New York and Miami, but those teams just weren’t nearly as bad as the Central’s worst.) 

The Braves were a considerably better team than the Cardinals, and deserved more than a single game to prove it. It’s a bit harder to stick up for the Rangers, since they didn’t look like they had any interest in doing much of anything over the second half or so, but I still think they were the most talented team in baseball, and having qualified for the playoffs, they deserved more than nine innings to show it. After six months and 162 largely successful games, with one bad day — and one extremely questionable call, to say the least — the Braves were done. That makes no sense to me. It’s intuitively, plainly foolish. It might fabricate some extra excitement, but that’s not the only goal here — it completely discards any sense that the postseason is much more than a kind of lottery. For at least those four teams, the regular season — that long, wonderful six-month trudge — suddenly means much less than it ever has before.

The response I’ve gotten most often to this goes something like: “it’s a disadvantage, but wildcard teams deserve a disadvantage. If you want to be treated fairly, win your division!” And I’m on board with this if we make “winning your division” a thing that means more or less the same thing to every team in the league. Want to ditch the divisions and playoffs entirely, and go back to the system where the best record in each league advances straight to the Series? Baseball’s obviously never headed back to that, but it’d be fine with me. Want to reorder the “divisions” each year to make three groups of roughly equal strength based on last year’s record? That’s kind of weird, and travel would be a nightmare, but at least it’d give us roughly equal divisions. I can’t think of any other ways to do it. 

For now, though, it makes no sense to me to put weight on a thing — winning one’s division — whose meaning drastically changes depending on where you are in the country. The Rangers won 93 games, five more than any team in the AL Central, and it’s safe to assume they’d have won even more games had they gotten to play in the Central (which makes geographic sense, just incidentally) and had the opportunity to feast on Cleveland, Kansas City and Minnesota a total of 54 times. The Tigers won their division with 88 wins; the Rangers did not win theirs, with 93. To pretend that the Tigers were able to accomplish something that the Rangers were not is, quite simply, to make stuff up for convenience’s sake. Both teams doubtless did everything they could; the Rangers were better; the Tigers were blessed with tremendously easier competition. In a lot of cases, “if you want to be treated fairly, win your division” translates to “if you want to be treated fairly, get MLB to find you a more favorable division!” You’re rewarding and punishing teams based on little more than geographic location, and I can’t think of a reason we should want to do that.

So given that we’re not going to go back to the two-league, straight-to-the-Series format (and I’ll admit, on balance, we probably shouldn’t), or the two-division, no-wildcard format, or even the most recent one-wildcard format, what do we do to make this not terrible? I think the answer is pretty obvious: you need more games. The excitement of a one-game playoff is great and everything, but I think you need to retain some of the transparently false pretense that the goal of the whole thing is to find out who the best team is. A best of three would still be kind of ridiculous — the Astros won three-game series against the Reds, White Sox and Cardinals this year, among others — but three is better than one. Five is better than three. Seven games in all rounds would probably as close to ideal as we’d get (balancing the competing interests of a short, exciting series and favoring sill over luck).

Of course, you’ve only got four of the ten playoff teams active in this initial Wildcard round, so even three games mean the division-winning teams sit idle for probably four or five days, which some people view as a disadvantage, and a five- or seven-game series would probably be completely impossible. To which I say: not my problem. I had no interest in adding another wildcard team. I’m just here to tell you that the one-game play-in is profoundly silly and completely unworkable: make it better, somehow, and soon.

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