Let’s Improve the Wild-Card Round

Since the second Wild Card was introduced in 2012, Major League Baseball has enjoyed most of what the expanded playoff field has done for the game. The extra playoff berth has made division titles significantly more important. Winning a division outright allows a team to bypass the play-in game to advance into the October tournament. The second Wild Card has also created two more playoff races, allowing the majority of clubs to retain some plausible chance of reaching the postseason into the second half.

The Wild Card play-in game has also made for some compelling television, manufacturing two made-for-TV elimination games.

But the new format isn’t without its flaws, the most prominent of which, in the opinion of this author, is this: the No. 1 Wild Card can be a significantly better team than the No. 2 Wild Card but is nevertheless subject to playing in something of a coin-flip game after the grind of a 162-game season. It can be pretty unfair to have, say, a 98-win team lose to an 86-win team in a one-game playoff.

The addition of the second Wild Card pulled off an unlikely feat, increasing the importance of the regular season in some ways (by making division titles more meaningful) but also decreasing it in others (by possibly allowing a mediocre club into the postseason).

Many have proposed alternatives, which uniformly include expanding the Wild Card round. Of course, the calendar is an issue: northern cities can get quite cold by the end of October. There’s also the issue of waiting — that is, the sort of waiting a divisional winner is compelled to endure while the identity of their opponent is determined.

Cubs president Theo Epstein told the Chicago Tribune back in 2015 that he had proposed a best-of-three format which included a doubleheader to reduce the days involved.

Beyond the time involved, another significant problem with going to a best-of-three or best-of-five format is that it doesn’t change the odds all that much of a No. 1 seed avoiding an upset. With all other factors being equal, the home team in baseball has a 54% chance to win any one game. My handy binomial probability calculator suggests, in that case, that the lower Wild Card seed would have a 44.0% chance to emerge from a best-of-three format (if all games were on the road) and a 41.3% chance of emerging from a best-of-seven series. The numbers, in other words, don’t change appreciably.

Of course, these are just generic calculations using evenly matched clubs. Teams aren’t built equally, situations aren’t equal. The point is that, even if baseball extended the Wild Card round to a best-of-three or best-of-five series, there’s only a marginally less likely chance of ending up with an upset. And the games would lose the drama of single-elimination game while extending the postseason calendar.

But what if I told you there was a way to give the No. 1 Wild Card a much greater advantage while keeping the Wild Card round to one day? Would you be interested? I thought so.

The solution already exists in the real world, in practice, in the Korea Baseball Organization. In South Korea, the Wild Card round is a best-of-two affair. The lower seed, the road team in both potential games, must beat the No. 1 seed twice. The top seed must win just once to advance.

This is a rather elegant and simple solution to the problem.

While a best-of-three series reduces the chance of an upset by just a few percentage points, from 46.0% to 44.0%, the KBO format reduces the percentage chance of an upset from 46.0% to 21.1%.

And while this new Wild Card round could be spread out over two days, baseball could also utilize a doubleheader to keep the Wild Card round condensed to one day in each league. That would add further drama, with managers forced to decide which Game 1-employed relievers could possibly pitch again.

It would give the Wild Card round more of an NCAA Tournament feel, it would create more chaos, which is fun for those observing from the outside. It wouldn’t allow one ace pitcher to eliminate a higher-seeded team.

It would create more fairness for those No. 1 Wild Cards that had produced much stronger regular-season resumes than No. 2 Wild Cards. Moreover, close races between No. 1 and No. 2 Wild Cards would offer more meaningful baseball in late September. It would create, essentially, another postseason race.

The second Wild Card has made the game more interesting. It’s not perfect, but it’s close. It just needs a little help.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Regulator Johnson
5 years ago

Funny how these things become important when they hurt the Yankees.

5 years ago

The argument against the current WC system is brought up annually, and it’s a fair one to keep bringing up so long as this system is in place

tramps like us
5 years ago
Reply to  ARodTheGOAT

I agree, ARod, but Bud Selig and his cronies have been so busy patting themselves on the back for this system that it seems most people have bought it. Even most of the pundits and so-called experts love it.

5 years ago

Except for the part where it would benefit the Yankees this year?

5 years ago
Reply to  Neil

LoL what difference does that make? I kind of doubt it will be put in effect for THIS year, so the Yankees’ position THIS year is more than a little irrelevant.

5 years ago
Reply to  Neil

IMO, the appropriate format is the one which benefits the Yankees in any particular year.

5 years ago

Since when is hurting the Yankees a bad thing?

tramps like us
5 years ago

Regulator Johnson-The Yankees are the #1 wild card. The proposed rule change would benefit them, not hurt them. If there’s one thing I hate more than a whiny little bitch crybaby, it’s a STUPID whiny little bitch crybaby.

5 years ago

A friendly reminder to always sort the comments by “Newest.” You’ll avoid the first-mover trolls.