On the Second Wild Card

So, we’re a week into September, and there’s not a ton of drama left in the 2013 season. I’ll acknowledge right off the bat that what little drama we do have comes largely from the second wild card.

First, let’s define exactly how the second Wild Card works. Right now, the playoffs in each league include three division winners, all of which go straight to the best-of-five Division Series (ALDS or NLDS). Before that kicks off, the two best non-division winners in each league play each other in a one-game playoff, the Wild Card game, with the winner joining the division winners in the Division Series. Under the old rules, there was just one Wild Card team that advanced straight to the LDS; the one-game playoff was only used to break ties.

Because there are now two Wild Card spots, quite a few American League teams are still in contention. If there were just the one spot, as we had before the 2012 season, only the Rangers, A’s and Rays would really still be in the race (the Tigers and Red Sox have more or less won their races), and even the A’s would be more or less assured of a playoff spot by division title or Wild Card. Sure, the second Wild Card has made things more interesting.

In the National League, we’d still have the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds slugging it out, but it would be a fight for two guaranteed spots instead of one guaranteed spot and two spots in a play-in game. I suppose one could argue that the current format makes that race marginally more interesting than it would be with just the one Wild Card.

The thing is, I’m not sure we should pick our playoff system in terms of what provides the most drama. I’d rather see the best teams in the postseason, and the second Wild Card does nothing to make that a reality.

Here, as I see it, are the three main issues with the second Wild Card as currently constructed.

A) Lopsided matchups. If the two Wild Card teams have wildly different records (say 95 wins versus 85 wins), it seems unfair that the weaker team has a chance to knock off the stronger team in a one-game playoff. I’m aware that the Division Series often features lopsided matchups as well, but at least it’s a series. In one game, anything can happen. Martin Perez can out-pitch Felix Hernandez. Josh Reddick can belt three home runs (he has just 10 on the year). In a best-of-five, anything can happen, but the more talented team is more likely to rise to the top.

B) Intradivisional matchups. Okay, it’s not exactly fair to compare records across divisions. A team that wins 87 games in the stacked AL East may well be better than a team that wins 90 in the weak AL Central. When both Wild Card teams come from the same division, though, we can unequivocally see which team played better all season long. Why should we have a winner-take-all game when one team has clearly beaten the other already? It’s a bit like that kid who yells “next shot wins!” when he’s down 30-20 in a pickup basketball game.

C) Unfair advantages. The whole purpose of seeding in the playoffs is to give stronger teams a better shot at the title; after all, they’ve earned it! The team with the better record, for instance, usually has home-field advantage. In theory, the second Wild Card helps the stronger teams because, as division winners, they don’t have to play in the one-game playoff. In some scenarios, though, the Wild Card game can actually give a team with a lesser record some significant advantage.

That’s theory, though. In practice, how do these issues shake out?

Let’s take a look at the only season we’ve got in which the second Wild Card was actually used, then retroactively apply it to every other 21st-century pennant race, 2001-2011, and see what would have happened. I’ll note here that we obviously can’t KNOW what would have happened because certain aspects of each season (especially deadline trades) could have gone down quite differently if more teams were in contention. Still, I think it’s a useful exercise.

2012 NL

Division Winners: WSN (98-64), CIN (97-65), SFG (94-68)
Wild Cards: ATL (94-68) and STL (88-74)
Issues: A (Lopsided)

Right off the bat, we see a case in which one Wild Card team had a substantially better record than the other. Despite being outplayed by six games during the regular season, the Cardinals had a shot to knock the Braves out of the playoffs with a single win. That, of course, is exactly what they did.

2012 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-67), DET (88-74) and OAK (94-68)
Wild Cards: BAL (93-69) and TEX (93-69)
Issues: None

On the other hand, the American League gave us a perfectly fair matchup; the two Wild Card teams finished with identical records. The second WC didn’t make a whit of difference here, as Baltimore and Texas would have played a one-game playoff under the old rules, too. The real travesty is that the Tigers had one of three guaranteed spots in the ALDS even though they were, by record, the seventh-best team in the league.

2011 NL

Division Winners: PHI (102-60), MIL (96-66), ARI (94-68)
Wild Cards: STL (90-72), ATL (89-73)
Issues: None

It’s funny that the year before the second wild card was implemented, the NL looked like the Platonic ideal of a season under the new rules. The three best teams in the league would have gone to the NLDS, and the play-in game would have featured two teams with almost identical records from different divisions. So far, the second wild card doesn’t look so bad, but it won’t stay that way for long.

2011 AL

Division Winners: NYY (97-65), DET (95-67), TEX (96-66)
Wild Cards: TBR (91-71), BOS (90-72)
Issues: B (Intradivisional)

I’ll grant that the two Wild Cards in this matchup were only separated by one game, but it still seems a little silly to have a one-game playoff between teams that finished with different records in the same division. Much as it pains me to say it, the Rays beat the Sox out fair and square during the regular season. Why should they have had to beat them one more time in the Wild Card game?

2010 NL

Division Winners: PHI (97-65), CIN (91-71), SFG (92-70)
Wild Cards: ATL (91-71), SDP (90-72)
Issues: None

The 2010 NL looked remarkably similar to the 2011 NL. I’d point out, though, that the Reds would have made the playoffs outright while the Braves, with an identical record in a stronger division, would have been stuck in a one-game playoff.

2010 AL

Division Winners: TBR (96-66), MIN (94-68), TEX (90-72)
Wild Cards: NYY (95-67), BOS (89-73)
Issues: A, B

Well, the current rules would have made a royal mess of things. The Yankees had the second-best overall record in the league. They missed winning their division by a single game. The second WC would have given the Red Sox, who finished well behind New York in the same division, a chance to knock those Yankees off in a one-game playoff.

I hate the Yankees, but even I have to point out that this scenario would have been completely unfair.

2009 NL

Division Winners: PHI (93-69), STL (91-71), LAD (95-67)
Wild Cards: COL (92-70), FLA (87-75)
Issues: A

This isn’t the worst matchup we’ll see, but it’s bad. The Rockies actually had a better record than one of the division winners, yet they would have had to face a clearly inferior Marlins team in a one-game playoff.

2009 AL

Division Winners: NYY (103-59), MIN (87-76), LAA (97-65)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), TEX (87-75)
Issues: A

Here we have our first dual one-game playoff scenario. The Twins and Tigers played an actual one-game playoff to decide the Central, and Boston and Texas would have played a one-game Wild Card playoff. This would have been even more lopsided than the NL matchup; the Red Sox finished eight games ahead of the Rangers.

2008 NL

Division Winners: PHI (92-70), CHC (97-64), LAD (84-78)
Wild Cards: MIL (90-72), NYM (89-73)
Issues: None

Well, this Wild Card game would have been pretty fair. I would be (and was) far more upset about the Dodgers’ sneaking into the postseason with 84 wins.

2008 AL

Division Winners: TBR (97-65), CHW (89-74), LAA (100-62)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), NYY (89-73)
Issues: A, B

This certainly would’ve been a wild one, as the White Sox and Twins played an actual one-game playoff to go with the hypothetical one-game playoff the Sox and Yankees would have played. Again, one of the Wild Cards beat out the other by a substantial margin, yet the Yankees would have had a chance to knock off a clearly superior regular-season team by winning one game.

2007 NL

Division Winners: PHI (89-73), CHC (85-77), ARI (90-72)
Wild Cards: COL (89-73) and SDP (89-73)
Issues: None

Like last year’s AL, the 2007 NL would have proceeded exactly the same way under the new rules as it actually did under the old rules. The Rockies and Padres tied for the single Wild Card and faced each other in a play-in game for a spot in the NLDS. Under today’s rules, one team would have been the “first” Wild Card, the other the “second,” and they would have played a one-game playoff for a spot in the NLDS.

2007 AL

Division Winners: BOS (96-66), CLE (96-66), LAA (94-68)
Wild Cards: NYY (94-68) and either DET (88-74) or SEA (88-74)
Issues: A

With identical records, the Tigers and Mariners would have played a one-game playoff for the second wild card, with the winner facing the Yankees in the actual Wild Card playoff game. Of course, the Yankees were clearly superior to both teams.

2006 NL

Division Winners: NYM (97-65), STL (83-78) and either SDP (88-74) or LAD (88-74)
Wild Cards: Either SDP or LAD and PHI (85-77)
Issues: C (Advantage to Lesser Team)

’06 wasn’t exactly a banner year in the National League, as only one team won more than 90 games. The second wild card, however, would have made things decidedly more interesting.

Under the old rules, the Padres were awarded the division title and the Dodgers the Wild Card based on head-to-head records. It didn’t especially matter, since the Wild Card team went to the NLDS anyway. Under the new rules, though, the Padres and Dodgers would have had to face each other in a one-game playoff, with the winner taking the division and the loser hosting the Phillies in the Wild Card game.

Here’s my biggest issue with the second Wild Card: In a scenario like this, a team with an inferior record gets the upper hand. The Phillies, with their second Wild Card spot already sewn up at the end of September, would have had the opportunity to rest their starters and re-set their rotation in the last few regular-season games. Then they would have had an additional day off while the Padres and Dodgers faced each other, likely burning their best pitchers in the process. The Wild Card game would’ve featured the well-rested Phillies and their ace against a fatigued Dodgers or Padres squad.

Even though the Phillies would have played that last game on the road, it’s easy to see a scenario in which they’d knock off a better team in a single game.

2006 AL

Division Winners: NYY (97-65), MIN (96-66), OAK (93-69)
Wild Cards: DET (95-67) and CHW (90-72)
Issues: A, B

In yet another season, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the actual division winners would have had to face a challenger with a clearly inferior record from the same division.

2005 NL

Division Winners: ATL (90-72), STL (100-62) and SDP (82-80)
Wild Cards: HOU (89-73) and PHI (88-74)
Issues: None

Okay, this Wild Card matchup would have been pretty fair, though both Houston and Philadelphia were much better teams than division-winning San Diego.

2005 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-67) or BOS (95-67), CHW (99-63) and LAA (95-67)
Wild Cards: NYY or BOS and CLE (93-69)
Issues: C

Here we have essentially the same scenario as the 2006 NL. The Yankees and Red Sox would have faced each other in a one-game playoff (with admittedly awesome ratings) for the AL East, with the loser taking on the Indians in a second one-game playoff. The same advantages enjoyed by the Phillies above would have gone to Cleveland here.

2004 NL

Division Winners: ATL (96-66), STL (105-67) and LAD (93-69)
Wild Cards: HOU (92-70) and SFG (91-71)
Issues: None

The NL gives us nothing to be upset about under the new rules. Two strong teams with comparable records from different divisions would have played in the Wild Card game. That’s fair enough.

2004 AL

Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN (92-70) and ANA (92-70)
Wild Cards: BOS (98-64) and OAK (91-71)
Issues: A

On the other hand, this is the sort of Wild Card matchup that I really don’t want to see. The Red Sox were an elite team that year. They had the second-most wins in the entire league, well ahead of the Central and West division winners. The 91-win Athletics were very good, sure, but it’s dumb that they would have had a chance to knock off the Sox in a one-game playoff.

Just in terms of the strength of the two Wild Card teams, I think this is the second-most egregious matchup. It’s a distant second, though, to one that’s coming.

2003 NL

Division Winners: ATL (101-61), CHC (88-74) and SFG (100-64)
Wild Cards: FLA (91-71) and HOU (87-75)
Issues: A

In what’s becoming a familiar refrain by now, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the division winners would have had to play a team with a lesser record from a weak division.

2003 AL

Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN 90-72) and OAK (96-66)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67) and SEA (93-69)
Issues: None

The eighth AL season we’ve retroactively examined is the first in which the Wild Card matchup would have been especially fair. Both teams were likely superior to the AL Central champion Twins.

2002 NL

Division Winners: ATL (101-61), STL (97-65) and ARI (98-64)
Wild Cards: SFG (95-66) and LAD (92-70)
Issues: B

This is another intra-divisional Wild Card matchup, and those are always fraught with issues. The Dodgers were a good team, but the Giants were three and a half games better over a full season. Why should Los Angeles have had a chance to erase that by winning one game?

2002 AL

Division Winners: NYY (103-58), MIN (94-67) and OAK (103-59)
Wild Cards: ANA (99-63) and either BOS (93-69) or SEA (93-69)
Issues: A

Like the 2007 AL, this season would have seen a one-game playoff for the right to participate in a one-game playoff. Both second Wild Card teams were quite a bit worse than the 99-win Angels.

2001 NL

Division Winners: ATL (88-74), HOU (93-69) or STL (93-69), and ARI (92-70)
Wild Card: HOU or STL and SFG (90-72)
Issues: C

The whole point of the second Wild Card is to make winning one’s division meaningful. The downside, as we see here, emerges when we have a tie for the division lead. Despite having tied for the best record in the whole league, Houston and St. Louis would have had to play a one-game playoff. The loser would then have had to play a strong but inferior Giants club in a second one-game playoff.

2001 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-65), CLE (91-71) and SEA (116-46)
Wild Cards: OAK (102-60) and MIN (85-77)
Issues: A

The 2001 Athletics were a fantastic team. They won 102 games, which easily gave them the second-best record in the league (the Yankees were third with 95 wins); it just so happened that an incredible 116-win Seattle squad played in the same division. If anything, the A’s were even more impressive because they won all those games despite facing Seattle 19 times. The Mariners beat the living daylights out of every other team in the American League that year, but they went “only” 10-9 against the Athletics.

Under the rules at the time, Oakland went to the playoffs as the one and only Wild Card. Under current rules, Oakland would have faced 85-win Minnesota in the Wild Card game. The second-best team in the Majors would have faced the 14th-best in a single elimination contest while teams with much weaker records went straight to the Division Series.

That should not be possible in any sport that makes sense.

Over 24 league-seasons, we have:

11 cases of issue A – the Wild Card game would have been an especially lopsided matchup because the first team was at least four wins better than the second. This includes the absurd case of the 2001 AL.

5 cases of issue B – the Wild Card game would have included two teams with different records in the same division.

3 cases of issue C – the Wild Card matchup would have given an advantage to a team with a lesser record.

8 cases in which the Wild Card game introduced none of those issues.

The problems I’ve identified with the second Wild Card, then, aren’t just hypothetical scenarios. They seem to come up more often in the AL than the NL, but they’re common to both leagues. Every single season in the past 12 would have seen at least one of these issues in at least one league.

Moreover, even in the seasons with no issues introduced specifically by the second wild card, there were issues with the playoff system in general. Teams like the ’06 Cardinals, the ’05 Padres and the ’12 Tigers really had no business being in the postseason at all, let alone getting a free pass to the Division Series. An 85-win team in a weak division is not more playoff-worthy than a 95-win team that happens to share a division with an even stronger team.

How can we fix these issues?

My first proposed solution requires no real changes to the current structure. Keep the three divisions in each league, the three division winners and the two Wild Card teams. Put all five of those teams into one bucket and seed them in order of overall record.

The #1, #2 and #3 teams go straight to the Division Series. The #4 and #5 teams face off in a one-game playoff to get the final spot in the divisional round.

If there’s a tie for the #5 spot, play a one-game playoff see who is in and who is out. If there’s a tie at any other point in the seeding, use the following tiebreakers:

  1. Division winner over Wild Card
  2. League record
  3. Head-to-head record

Under these rules, last year’s NL playoffs would have been the same, with the Braves facing the Cardinals in a one-game playoff. The AL, however, would have pitted the Tigers against the Rangers in that one-game playoff, as Baltimore outplayed Texas against other AL teams.

A more extreme version of this same system would be to ignore division winners entirely (except for tiebreakers) and just take the five best records in the league. Under this system, the Tigers would have missed the playoffs entirely, with the Rays taking their place in the play-in game. I actually prefer this option because it eliminates clearly unqualified teams like the ’05 Padres, but I understand that baseball wants to see every division represented. Either option is better than what we have now.

My second proposed solution is more involved, but I think it makes the playoff system almost completely fair. Realign both leagues into two divisions like so:





Of course, the divisions are unequal sizes in this setup, so the league would need to expand* to include two more teams. Right now the open slots are in the East, but it would make geographic sense for the Brewers, Cubs or White Sox to switch to the East and open up slots in the West instead if necessary. (Either way, we’d have more baseball!)

*The alternative, I suppose, would be to contract two teams. I don’t think too many fans would miss the Marlins, but I can’t really see a good contraction candidate in the AL right now.

The new playoffs would just feature the top two teams in each eight-team division. In the first round, we’d have the first-place team in the West play the second-place team in the East and vice versa. With such large divisions, strength of schedule wouldn’t vary as much, so actual records would be more representative of team strength. Sure, it would mean fewer Red Sox-Yankees matchups, but the league would more than make up for its loss by adding 162 games to the season for the two extra teams. (Again, who doesn’t want more baseball?)

This isn’t a system built to produce drama, but that’s OK. MLB is not the NFL, where “any given Sunday” is king. In baseball, there are more than enough games to separate the great squads from the also-rans. Giving lesser teams a chance to sneak into the playoffs anyway undermines the whole purpose of playing the games.

Let’s turn October baseball back into what it’s meant to be: a showcase for the best of the best.


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