Making The Divisions Count Again

When the Wild Card was introduced, one of the main critiques of the idea is that it would cheapen pennant races, which historically had been fought down to the last week, as teams battled for their division’s only trip to the playoffs. While the benefits have generally outweighed the costs and the four team playoff has become accepted, we saw the downside of the system in full force yesterday. On the final day of the season, the Yankees and Rays had identical records and shared the top spot in the American League East. And no one cared.

Sure, a few Tampa players gave a fist pump when the Yankees loss was shown on their big screen, but a raucous celebration it was not. Both teams knew that they were in the playoffs regardless of the outcome of yesterday’s affairs, and the resulting lack of drama reflected that fact. While I like the current playoff system more than the old one, its hard to watch the final month of baseball in the AL East and not feel like it could be improved. Those games should have meant something. They could have been fantastic theatre, but instead, they were glorified exhibitions. There has to be a better way.

One popular idea, floated by Jayson Stark a few weeks ago and discussed in a community post here recently, is to make the Wild Card a play-in spot. Pick the two best teams that didn’t win their division, and once the regular season ends, make them square off for one playoff spot, with the winner of that moving on to face the best of the division champs. The three division winners would get a legitimate advantage over the Wild Card, which would put some meaning back in those races once again.

It’s a pretty good idea, honestly. It fixes the biggest problem with the current system and would serve to keep more fans interested in the final weeks of the MLB season, even after the NFL returned and started competing for attention. However, it presents a problem best summed by up Matthew Carruth in response to the community post:

Say going into the final day the standings are:

New York 95-66
Tampa 95-66
Minnesota 93-68
Boston 90-71 (2nd Wild Card)
Texas 88-73

Under your proposal,
New York and Tampa: have large incentive to win their final game so as to avoid the one game Wild Card playoff with Boston.
Minnesota, Boston, Texas: no incentive on final day.

So NY and TB play their best available starters to try and win. Say NY wins. The playoff match ups are then:

If seeds are done strictly on reg season record or

NY vs (TB/BOS)
If done where Wild Card = 4th seed.

Here’s the problem. In the first scenario, NY and TB used their best starters in their final game to avoid the WC playoff. That gives an advantage to TEX, MIN and –most importantly– Boston, who had no such incentive and thus rested their best starters. You’ve punished Tampa to the favor of Boston, the worse Wild Card.

In the second scenario the advantage is limited to just BOS, but it’s still present. You’ve put the teams with the better record at a disadvantage by giving them incentives to win until the end of the season while not providing the same motivation to the lower teams.

Matthew’s right. We want the division races to be meaningful, but not at the expense of penalizing a team for trying to win a division. The one game play-in model could hurt a franchise that plays to win on the final Sunday. If MLB was going to add a second Wild Card, they would either have to go to a three game series or take more days off to expand the gap between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the division series, thus allowing division winners that played to the end to have a ready-to-go rotation for the division series.

That drawback makes the plan less appealing to me, and has me looking for alternatives. One idea that I haven’t seen get too much consideration is far simpler, and perhaps is even more of a potential reward for teams to finish with the best record – each division series could be played in just one city.

Home Field Advantage is smaller in baseball than in any other sport, with just a 54/46 split. Giving the team with an advantage just one extra game in their home city, where their odds of winning aren’t that much better than they are on the road, isn’t a huge motivator. But what if they got to host the entire series?

Now you’ve given them a tangible (even if small) advantage in each game, and in a full length series, that can add up. In addition, the home franchise gets a significant revenue boost, so ownership would almost certainly push their teams to try and make sure they were one of the teams hosting in the first round. You’d eliminate the need for travel days, so the first round could either be expanded to seven games or simply be condensed into a shorter time frame, shortening the overall playoff schedule and helping the season end before November.

The goal is to incentivize winning games in the last week of the regular season. By forcing the wild card and the worst division winner to play entirely on the road in the first round, you give teams a real reason to rack up as many wins as possible. Under this system, not only would Tampa Bay and New York have been fighting for a real home field advantage yesterday, the Reds would have had motivation to win out as well.

I think this system would give teams a legitimate reason to play for a division title and not settle for the Wild Card without creating the moral hazard of the play-in game. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one that I’d like to see get a little more notice, at least.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

A three-game play-in series is perfect, as it adds more weight to winning the division. It also serves as a penalty to the wild cards for not actually winning anything at the end of the year.

13 years ago
Reply to  AndrewM

…and let me add-on that I don’t believe that any team who cannot win its own should have a shot at the pennant. The schedules between teams in the same division are close enough that SOS is irrelevant.

But if wild-cards are going to be here, I’d rather have two and penalize them by having them play extra games.

13 years ago
Reply to  AndrewM

The first sentence should read: …and let me add-on that I don’t believe that any team who cannot win its own division should have a shot at the pennant.


13 years ago
Reply to  AndrewM

Just curious: how does your stated principle apply to, say, 2005, when it would have eliminated the ‘Stros (89-73) but allowed the Pads (82-80) to play on? Or the AL East vs. the AL West this year? It just seems that if your goal is allowing the best or most deserving teams to advance to postseason play, eliminating the wild card is not really an answer.

Jason B
13 years ago
Reply to  AndrewM

I agree with Anon21. Just because you restrict the playoffs to teams winning their own divisions does not necessarily mean that you get the “best” teams. I would posit that lately the wild-card team not being the weakest entry into the playoffs has been the rule, rather than the exception, over the last decade or so.

13 years ago
Reply to  AndrewM

That’s certainly the case this year. The Yankees are the Wild Card team, but they are probably the best team in the A.L. If they had to win the division to make the playoffs, the odds are good they would have won the division. They went into a defensive mode about three weeks back, having people like Chad Gaudin pitch at crtical points in games, or starting pitchers like Dustin Mosely start important games, including Sunday when they had a chance to win the division. I’m not saying they were wrong for their approch, but it was a pretty frustrating several weeks watching the A.L. East teams. It appeared Boston, Toronto and Baltimore were the only teams trying to win, but for very different reasons, while NY and Tampa were obviously resting, especially New York.

13 years ago
Reply to  AndrewM

In 2005, the Astros didn’t win their own division, so why should they have a shot at the World Series? It sucks that the Pads made it in that year with an inferior record. But San Diego’s record does not change the fact that Houston didn’t win its own division. Los Padres, at least, proved that they were the best team in their division (at least the final record indicates that) and should have a chance to compete against other divisional champions.

The system has flaws. Those flaws are not as bad, however, as the current system. The Marlins have won two World Series titles without a single divisional championship. That’s terrible.