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.