The Good/Bad behind the Second Wild Card
With the first season with second Wild Cards in effect, an exciting race is shaping up in the National League. Whereas in years past, the four NL playoff teams would have been decided by the start of the month, this year’s race features the Cardinals, Dodgers, Brewers, Pirates, Phillies, and Diamondbacks all within 5 games with two weeks to play.
With the new races shaping up, has the second wild card hurt or helped baseball?
On the one hand, you can say baseball is worse and just point your fingers at the team’s remaining in the race. These are not elite teams. The Brewers have one of the very worst bullpens in Major League history. The Phillies have a negative run differential and a losing record. The Dodgers are run by Ned Colleti, a man who locked up Juan Uribe through 2013. A couple of these teams punted the season at the trade deadline. And now they’re back in it!
Clearly, this will result in lower quality teams making the playoffs, and inevitably a couple 85-win teams in the World Series. Hardly a desirable situation, right?
On the other hand, these races are exciting for baseball. At least 20% of fanbases in Major League baseball are in a situation where they have something to cheer about when they otherwise wouldn’t have. Maintaining interest in the game and the standings is integral to maintaining baseball’s popularity.
More significantly, however, the second wild card makes winning the division a priority, where it had fallen by the wayside in the divisional era. In 17 years, 5 of the World Series winners were wild cards, as well as 5 of the losing pennant winners. This goes to show what those of us who understand the principal of small samples have said all along: any team that makes it to the post-season has roughly as much of a shot as any other team, given the small sample of those series.
No more with the second wildcard. Wildcard teams are at an inherent disadvantage now, having to play an extra play-in game as well as burn one of their starters before the division series. Winning the division matters again, and that’s great.
Still, good teams are going to be punished. Can you imagine if this system had existed in 2001? The 102-win Oakland A’s would have had to play the 85-win Twins for the wildcard, where they probably would’ve lost because spreadsheets don’t play baseball (or something). Seriously? Did that team not earn an outright playoff berth, just because the Mariners won 116? Did the Twins actually earn a shot?
And what’ve the races last year? Last year’s final day of the season was some of the most exciting baseball that any of us have gotten to witness, as it culminated with the Rays and Cardinals surpassing the Red Sox and Braves respectively. With today’s system, all of those teams would have made it.
So – call me torn. But one thing to remember is that even with the extra team added, baseball remains the most exclusive of the major professional American sports when it comes to the post-season. What do you think? Has Bud Selig found a good balance between excitement and exclusivity? Did he have it right before? Or should we just have the Yankees and Dodgers play each other every year, like the good old days?