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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Why I hate the wildcard in baseball (a biennial reprise)

There is much celebrating this morning (at least outside of Michigan) of last night's amazing one-game playoff game between the Tigers and Minnesota Twins for the AL Central Division title, a 12-inning featuring three comebacks, which the Twins finally won 6-5. So let me play the curmudgeon here.

Two years ago, journalist Robert Weintraub wrote about the 1993 pennant race between the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants and said "The drama of late-season baseball has been transferred from occasional but memorable all-or-nothing contests between great teams, to annual lower-stakes games between the good-to-mediocre." He blamed the wild-card system, adopted in 1995, because any do-or-die, win-or-go-home contests to win a division or wild card occur only among lesser teams, not among the top teams. I wrote in whole-hearted agreement, using the 2007 season as a perfect example.

Well, this year bears my argument out once again. Yes, last night was a great game and it was an exciting race. But it was between two teams that finished the 162-game schedule with 86 wins--fifth-most in the league entering last night's game. None of the top teams in the American League (the 103-win Yankees, 97-win Angels, or 95-win Red Sox) had any pressure at the end of the season--all were play-off bound, just as the top teams will be every year. The only other division "race" was in the National League West, where, entering Saturday's game, the Dodgers (93 wins--most in the NL) lead the Rockies (92 wins, tied at the time for second-most prior to Saturday) by a game and were playing each other, ostensibly for the division title. But the Rockies already had the wild card won and were play-off bound, since they had the second-best record in the whole league, so they had no pressure and no real incentive to catch the Dodgers and win the division.

Two years ago, I criticized the incentive structure this creates:

A wild-card system values having lot of teams in the play-off hunt and more times with post-season hopes later in the season, with a lot of win-or-else games. But it achieves that at the expense of having the best teams playing those win-or-else games. This is sound as a business decision--more fans in more cities will come out or watch in that final weekend, knowing their teams still are alive.

But as a baseball decision, it stinks that there is no chance to showcase the best teams in these high-stakes games, at least as part of a regular season that is long enough (162 games over six months) to create a meaningful competition. So while that was a great game last night, wouldn't it be nice to have a game like that played between two great teams?

Thanks for listening. Odds are, I will be back with a similar post in 2011.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 7, 2009 at 07:43 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink


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To follow on Dave's point, though -- Division I-A college football puts more of a premium on regular season success than any other major American team sport... and continues to get taken to task for it every single year! Personally, I think success over a period of months (indicating actual quality) should generally trump success over a period of weeks or a single game (indicating quality but also luck). But then again, I grew up a Braves fan in the 1990s...

Posted by: MNO | Oct 7, 2009 6:21:14 PM

Here in Denver, the wild-card system is an article of faith at the moment.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Oct 7, 2009 3:30:17 PM

Perhaps the problem lies in the peculiar mixture of regular-season and tournament format in American sports. In baseball, we play 162 games simply to determine who will then compete in a mini-tournament of (at most) 19 games to determine the ultimate champion. With the exception of home-field advantage (which, as Howard's cited numbers indicate, is not much of an advantage at all), those 162 games become irrelevant at the outset of the post-season. Winning teams never complain, but losing sides (like last year's Cubs) seethe over the purported injustice of earning the best record over 162 games, only to be dismissed after a single bad weekend.

It need not be so. European soccer leagues have concurrent (rather than consecutive) regular-season and tournament play. There are two separate honors to compete for; each is prestigious and entertaining in its own right. The regular-season title honors the best overall team, is considered the top honor, and typically goes to one of about four wealthy teams. The tournament competition happens alongside regular season play, and is considered an honor in its own right, though not as prestigious as the regular season title. The knockout competition is often much more entertaining, though, because there are more surprises and upsets (cf. the NCAA tournament), and because there are more teams in competition toward the end (in contrast to the regular season title, which is usually sewed up by one of a handful of teams well before the season concludes).

European sports leagues do not, in other words, have an all or nothing approach to a sports team's success over the course of a season. The cost of this is that there is no one unique champion, but several different competition winners (though on occasion, the same team wins both or several competitions, which is really something rare and special). I'm not sure if this would fly in the U.S., but unless we change the system, we'll keep shortchanging season-long accomplishments at the expense of short, winner take all tournaments.

Posted by: Dave | Oct 7, 2009 2:52:34 PM

I've always thought that the obvious solution if you wanted to keep the regular season interesting but expanded the playoffs is to have the entirety of the first-round series played in the home park of the higher seeded team.

Posted by: Andy Siegel | Oct 7, 2009 1:07:21 PM

1) Note my argument: I am not suggesting that a one-game playoff between lesser teams is bad. Last night was a great, fun game and I am all for tight division races. My complaint is that the *ONLY* time we will get do-or-die playoffs is between weaker teams--either the top two teams in a weak division or two teams playing for the wild card. It is virtually impossible to get a win-or-go-home, one-game playoff between the two best teams in the league because the # 2 team will, by definition, win the wild card. That is how the wild card changes things.

2) Since 1995, a wild card has made the World Series seven times, including five of the last six years--including the Rockies in 2007. I suppose home field is an incentive, but it is a rather weak one.

3) The division structure and scheduling (84/162 games played are intra-division) is designed to make each division its own mini-tournament. So the focus should be within the division only. If it means one division is loaded and the fourth-best team makes the post-season by the luck of playing in a weaker division, so be it. If that means a 95-win Red Sox team does not make the playoffs because it plays in the same division as the Yankees (even though they had a better record than the champions of a different division), so be it. These things even out over time. But the Red Sox only concern in September was staying ahead of the Rangers (a non-division team); they knew they could not catch the Yankees and, again, had no strong incentive to do so. It seems to me this devalues the division race.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Oct 7, 2009 10:26:28 AM

I cannot oppose the wildcard...if only because it enabled my Sox won to win it (and break the Curse) in 2004 and will do the same this year.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Oct 7, 2009 9:27:27 AM

Howard- do you oppose the old division set-up (i.e., NL and AL west and east)? Because it seems to me that even with that you'll get the same result sometimes, with two "lesser" teams in a play-off or division race while a "better" team in the other division sits out. (I put "better" and "lesser" in quotes here because unbalanced schedules, odd bits of luck, etc. can make use doubt whether w/l record fully shows the best teams in any given year.) To pick a year at random, in 1990, the 2nd place team in the AL west, the White Sox, also had the second best record by quite a bit, at 94-68, while the AL East leading Boston was only 88-74, and in the NL East, the 2nd place mets were 91-71, tied with the first place NL west reds. This sort of thing wasn't that unusual even pre-wild-card days. And, if we'd just had three divisions and no wild card (say, w/ a bi for the most winning team), we would have had the same result as last night, but also would have kept a "better" team, the red sox, out of the play offs. So, I don't really think the wild-card is the problem. If you really want to push this line of thought you'll have to go back to opposing the division form, even in the 2-division format. That seems a complete non-starter to me, though, especially with as many teams as we have now.

Posted by: Matt | Oct 7, 2009 8:40:00 AM

Three things:

1. "so [the Rockies] had no pressure and no real incentive to catch the Dodgers and win the division"
Wrong. The Rockies could have secured home field advantage throughout the NLDS and NLCS if they had beaten the Dodgers. That is no small thing in baseball, and surely enough motivation to play hard on the last weekend in baseball. It is still much better to win the division than to "settle" for the wild-card.

2. Minnesota and Detroit was a division race. How does eliminating the wild card affect the quality of that game? Those two teams would have had a one-game playoff regardless of whether there was a wild-card or not.

3. The reason I like the wild-card is that it acts as an equalizer. If there were only division leaders in the playoffs, one division may have three strong contenders, while the other division is full of below-.500 teams. This would make it easier for the team in the weaker division to win it all. The wild card makes it possible for another team from that stacked division to make it to the playoffs.

Posted by: Jim M. | Oct 7, 2009 8:33:24 AM

Yet without the wildcard system neither the Red Sox nor the Rockies are in the playoffs and it seems to me that both deserve to be there (I'm a perfervid Dodgers' fan). Does the fact that sometimes wildcard teams play or win the World Series count in its favor? I don't have strong feelings on this one way or the other but admit if it allows either the Angels or Dodgers into the playoffs (especially the latter, since I'll get to hear the voice of Vin Scully), well, then I'm for it! And I can imagine other fans feeling the same way about their teams.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Oct 7, 2009 8:10:19 AM

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