The Delicious Unfairness of the Wild Card

As we saw last night the Wild Card game can be wildly unfair, like a stand-up contest between Louis CK and your dad, who we both know just isn’t that funny no matter what he claims. The baseball season lasts 162 games and then two teams are plucked essentially at random, and told, “Okay guys, you get one game. Win and you get to play a real playoff series. Lose and you’re a miserable failure. Oh, and your season is over. Have fun!” It doesn’t matter how good (or bad) those teams were or what the difference between them was. One game. Go.

Much has been said about the unfairness of this system and the valid and reasonable concerns it brings up. How can we condense 162 games to one game? How can we pretend the randomness of baseball, a randomness which is often not sorted out in 162 games, can be sorted in one single game? Wouldn’t a three game series be better, or even five games? At least that would require a better accounting of themselves by the two teams involved.

It would, but how much better? I was curious what the difference would be if Major League Baseball changed the format from a one game playoff to a three game series, so I investigated and, with help from the crack team at FanGraphs, I found an excellent article by Steve Staude written for The Hardball Times from May 30, 2014. It contains a calculator that tells us, bizarrely, exactly what we are wondering. This, you understand, never happens.

Let’s get into it! According to Staude’s piece, the home team has a 54% chance of winning the game, irrespective of anything else. For purposes of simplicity, I should also note that I’m not getting into the team’s starting pitchers or lefty-righty matchups or anything like that. Just team-created winning percentages will be used here to ensure that my head does not explode. “Here lies Matthew Kory. He tried hard math. Oops.”

The Cubs went 97-65 which is a winning percentage of .599. The Pirates won one more game, for a 98-64 record and a .605 winning percentage. That one game difference is hardly significant except for that it gives the Pirates home field advantage. In a one game series, the Pirates, playing in Pittsburgh with a very slightly higher winning percentage than the Cubs, have a 54.62% chance of winning. If the series were extended to three games, the Pirates would have a 52.94% chance of winning. But, if the series were extended to five games, the Pirates’ chance of winning would drop precipitously all the way to 52.67%. Okay, it’s about the same. For the record, a seven game series would be essentially the same, with Pittsburgh winning 52.62% of the time, which is also about the same.

In the end, a one game format actually benefits the Pirates, at least in this instance, even though they lost. And, extending the series to three games barely moves the needle in terms of fairness. In fact, it costs Pittsburgh because adding games helps even out their home field advantage.

But that’s only one series. Oddly, the Yankees/Astros series was quite similar, as the Yankees and Astros were only .006 apart in winning percentage. The unfairness of the Wild card is really twofold. It’s unfair because, in one game, just about anything strange can happen that alters the game by chance and affects the outcome, an effect magnified by the one game format. But it’s also unfair because, although the two matchups this season were between teams very close in final record, that doesn’t have to be the case. It’s quite possible that a 97 win team could face an 87 win team.

So what if that happened? What if, in effect, the Cubs wound up playing the Yankees? Assuming the same 54% home field advantage, the Cubs would have a 60.28% chance of winning a one game playoff. A three game series would be even more advantageous to Chicago, as they’d win 61.45% of the time. The numbers keep going up from there. The more games they play, the less chance there is for a fluke result and the better chance there is that the better team wins. If the series were seven games long, the Yankees would have only a 35.1% chance of winning.

But the thing is, the Wild Card isn’t intended to be fair. It’s intended to be final. As long as baseball sticks to their divisional setup, we’ll end up with results like this. We could change it to a multi-game series and that would improve the level of fairness in that it would favor the team with the best record, but to really move the needle we’d have to shoot past a three or five game series to a seven game series, and even then in our hypothetical Cubs/Yankees matchup, we’re only talking about a different result 5% of the time.

Perhaps a way to add fairness, if not outright fix the problem, is to keep the selection of playoff spots the same, but alter who plays where. Instead of having the Wild Cards always be the teams that didn’t win the division, make two playoff teams with the worst records the Wild Card teams. For example, in the National League this year, the Cardinals (100 wins), the Dodgers (92), and the Mets (90) won their divisions, leading the Pirates (98) and the Cubs (97) to battle it out for the Wild Card. Instead, imagine that all those same teams were admitted to the playoffs, but the Wild Card matchup was between the two teams with the worst record, in this case the Dodgers and Mets. That would solve the problem of having two upper-90s winning teams facing off in a one game pre-playoff elimination game while two lesser teams are exported to the next round due solely to the division they played in.

In the end, though, changing the number of games or which teams play them might only be better around the edges. The playoffs are going to be unfair because baseball in small samples is unfair. So then we have to decide what we actually want. Do we want the best team to win almost every time? Maybe we do, in which case maybe six or seven games or something similar should be played at the home park of the team with the better record. Do we want the worst team to have a 50% shot at winning? Maybe off-site playoff games (the Pirates and Cubs playing a one game elimination game in Seattle or Montreal, for example) should be considered.

When commissioner Bud “Bud!” Selig introduced the current Wild Card format, I, along with many others, hated it. I thought it was unfair, dumb, the NFL-ification of the baseball season. And surprise, it is all those things. It is wildly unfair, painfully dumb, and a carbon copy of what the NFL has done right up to and including stealing their uninspired diction. But after watching the last two Wild Card games, I actually kind of love it. I love it in the way that you would love dumb reality TV shows, the way you love the finality of football referees measuring off inches when the ball gets placed haphazardly after every play, and the way that we love other one-and-done sporting events like the NFL, like March Madness, like the Olympics. In the words of a person, you get one shot. Good luck with that.

It’s sad in a way that the Pirates terrific 97-win season came down, yet again, to one game, but making it three games wouldn’t have changed things much, at least in terms of their win expectancy. Sometimes you run into Jake Arrieta. Sometimes your 109 mph ground ball starts a double play. Sometimes baseball is unfair. We can tinker with the numbers here and there, but that basic unfairness will always remain in some form or another. I think, if we search ourselves, we’ll find that actually, it’s one of the things we love about the sport.

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6 years ago

Yeah don’t care. Over the wild card games at this point.

Jason B
6 years ago
Reply to  Schide

*Scorching* hot take!

Tramps Like Us
6 years ago
Reply to  Schide

Sorry, Schide…for a second while I was enjoying the wild card scenario, I forgot that it’s all about you.

6 years ago
Reply to  Tramps Like Us

What “reading between the lines” app do you use? Mine didn’t pick up any hints of telling you what to do in that comment.