The Wild Card Round Requires a Particular Fix

This contributor is not a supporter of baseball’s Wild Card game format.

While efforts to make a division title more meaningful are sensible and logical and while the addition of another team to the playoff field keeps more teams involved and fan bases invested during the regular season, the issue for me and many others is its one-game format. While a single play-in contest artificially creates drama and is a fun made-for-TV, web-streaming event, the notion that a team can compile a 100 wins over a season-long marathon only to fall in a single game borders on the absurd.

While the postseason is in many ways a different game from the regular season, one defined by small samples, the Wild Card raises legitimate questions about fairness (a point recently addressed by Craig Edwards) and the purpose of October baseball.

Had the Yankees lost in the AL Wild Card game last year, I suspect we would have heard much more said about revamping the system. Well, we might hear about it this next offseason. After being swept by the Red Sox over the weekend, the Yankees are almost assuredly headed to the Wild Card game again despite being projected to win 100 games. The Red Sox are on pace to win 108.

The Red Sox opened play Monday with a 91.4% chance of winning the divisions, with the Yankees at 8.6%. Entering the weekend? Those figures were at 76.6% and 23.4%, respectively. It was a devastating weekend for New York. While the Yankees could still conceivably win the division, it’s unlikely. The Yankees, the No. 3 team in baseball and the American League in run differential and 19 runs better than the No. 4 team (the Indians), are likely destined for a play-in game.

While not all fans of the sport will feel much sympathy for a club situated in baseball’s largest market, with the most flags currently flying forever, winning 100 games only to end up in a winner-take-all game doesn’t exactly seem to be in line with the most meritocratic of practices.

MLB has released its postseason schedule, and while all three AL division leaders have at least 91.4% playoff odds, the Yankees are in competition with the Mariners and Athletics for the two Wild Card berths. So the Yankees aren’t quite a lock for a playoff berth at all, though this website gives the club 99.8% odds of a playoff berth followed by the Athletics (63.1%) and Mariners (36.9%).

Still, whoever ends up as the No. 1 Wild Card, particularly if they hold more than a game advantage over the second team, deserves a better fate.

Many have proposed expanding the play-in round to a best-of-three series, but expanding the postseason seems to be a non-starter for baseball, as its playoff calendar already pushes into November or close to it. This season will extend to Oct. 31 if the World Series goes to seven games. Some, including Cubs president Theo Epstein, have advocated for a best-of-three series that would include a doubleheader to reduce a day. That would be great entertainment, complete with an NCAA elimination-bracket vibe. But some decision-makers would likely balk at what a doubleheader would do to stretch a pitching staff at the opening of the playoffs. If you do like double-elimination, NCAA-style play, Wes Jenkins published an even more radical MLB postseason proposal at The Hardball Times earlier this summer.

I think there’s a simple, elegant solution that could be implemented easily. Last September, I suggested baseball adopt the best-of-two Wild Card format employed by the KBO. The lower seed needs to win both games, both on the road at the higher seed, while the top Wild Card just needs to win once to advance.

There is a dual beauty to the best-of-two Wild Card in that it not only stretches the calendar by just one more day, but it adds merit to the postseason, and regular season, as it increases the odds of the better-seeded team advancing when compared to a best-of-three or best-of-five series.

Here’s what I wrote about the KBO-style format last September after employing a binomial probability calculator:

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%*.

*That’s assuming both teams are equal, with the home team winning 54% of the time.

If the Yankees advance and lose in the AL Wild Card game, there will be plenty of angst about the format, and rightfully so. Baseball has to address the format — particularly if it does arrive, ultimately, at a future of 32 teams and a potentially (likely) expanded playoff field. If there are more Wild Card teams and more play-in games, it would serve the sport well to ensure its best teams more often survive the play-in round. Generally, better teams make for a better postseason. There ought to be a greater penalty for being a lower-ranked Wild Card.

While there is a debate about what divisions should look like and if there ought to be divisions at all — the Central division has served as a parity mechanism, which one could argue is good for the game, in keeping small-market central teams buffered from the Coastal Elites — any change to the playoff format must first address the way to enter LDS series play. A Yankees’ loss in such a game this October might accelerate the process.

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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4 years ago

The Yankees losing a play-in game would be pretty bad, but what about when the Wild Card teams are on fairly equal footing?

I think about the NL Wild Card in 2015. Under the KBO system, the 98-win Pirates would’ve needed just one win to advance, and the 97-win Cubs would’ve needed two. Did the Pirates deserve that much of an advantage on the merit of a one-game difference in the standings?

Of course, maybe that is the answer. Maybe we like that it further dramatizes jockeying between two close teams while giving a clear advantage to the better one in situations like this year.

4 years ago
Reply to  mikecws91

Ding Ding Ding, we have a winner. No way should in that situation the Pirates have gotten that huge advantage. Or even worse, what about 2016. Why should Toronto have to only win 1 game instead of 2 games for Baltimore just because they have a tiebreaker? Or Mets/Giants same thing.

The Yankees have to prove they’re 8 games better than the A’s. Right now, they’re only 3 up.

4 years ago
Reply to  mikecws91

I was about to post this exact thing. An interesting way to do it from a pure fairness stand-point would be to have two applicable formats, the best of three with a double-header and the KBO style format, and the one that gets used depends on the difference in the standings between the two Wild Card teams. If there’s a difference of, say, five games or more, than it’s the KBO format. If the teams are close enough to suggest relative equality in skill, then the best of three/doubleheader format would be preferable.

I like the idea that teams should be exhausted, though. The teams that won their division played 162 games too. It being a one-game playoff seems ridiculous and too cruel, but having to work that much harder to get into the DS seems entirely reasonable to me.

Da Bear
4 years ago
Reply to  JupiterBrando

Instead of having a hard limit where the structure of the series changes entirely, you could say “Always play best of 2, but if there’s a split, instead of automatically advancing the higher seed, turn to the run differential in the two games. Give WC1 a bonus run for each game that separated them and WC2 in the regular season standings, and if WC2 won their game by a big enough margin to overcome that head start plus the game they lost, they get to advance instead.”

This gradually approaches “best-of-2, higher seed always wins a split” as the margin increases between the teams, but has room to vary from that if they’re neck and neck, and the difference comes about rather organically (other than a loophole involving forfeits that would need special-casing to close off).

Doug Lampertmember
4 years ago
Reply to  Da Bear

If the home team is winning, do you play the bottom of the ninth in the first game?

If run differential is relevant, you’ll need to play it, which would feel very weird to me.

Buhners Rocket Armmember
4 years ago
Reply to  mikecws91

Yes, the Pirates deserved that much of an advantage, just as much as winning the division by 1 game could mean the difference between the playoffs and not playing at all.

4 years ago

And the better seeded WC team has almost always won at least one more game than the other team, or if not that, has at least won the tie breaker, which is the head to head match ups, right? So, why not force the worse WC team to make that at least one game up? The more I think about this KBO system, the more I like it. I think a best of three with a double header would be less jarring from a maintaining the status quo, stand point though.

I wouldn’t be opposed to the DS involving a wild card team to essentially have the same system, just with more games. The DS could be the division winner needs to win 2, while the WC team needs to win 3. As, its pretty common to have the top seeded division winners come from the same division as the WCs, the division winners deserve a bit more advantage then 3 home games…

4 years ago

Then leave it the way it is.

4 years ago
Reply to  mikecws91

I agree with all the objections below, but it seems there is a simple solution – leave it as it is if the difference between 2 WC teams is small, and only employ the ‘best of 2’ when the difference is big. I’m pretty sure someone can figure out where the approx. ‘break even’ point is