It’s time to take a little break from the paired-pitching analysis and replacement-level player dissection that is the 2012 Rockies to discuss the second wild card. I’ve hated the idea since before it became a reality, back when Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated first brought it up. To be fair, it wasn’t his idea, but one that he took from Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau and ran with. And boy did he ever run with it. I’m not a big fan of Verducci, but of all the inane things he’s said or written, this year’s second wild card, or Wilder Card, is the worst.
(Note: Kevin Kroh’s recent column “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” named the second wild card “The Wilder Card.” I love this and I’m going to use it whenever possible. It’s much catchier than constantly saying “The second wild card.” Mr. Kroh, you are a genius.)
On September 7, 2010, Verducci published a column called “How to Fix MLB’s Playoff System”. Just by reading the title, you can see how presumptuous Verducci is. Until his column, I couldn’t recall a single person (outside of the hardcore traditionalists who hate the wild card on general principles) complaining about the baseball playoffs or how teams made the playoffs. There simply wasn’t anything to fix. Though he’s never said it outright, read enough of Verducci’s columns and it becomes painfully clear that he hates the wild card and hates it even more when the wild card wins the World Series (something that has only happened 5 times in 17 years). In his head and his words, the wild card teams are inferior to division winners and don’t deserve to win. He says, “Second-place teams face a more difficult road to the World Series than a division winner. That should be obvious, but it’s not the case now.”
The problem with this thinking is that he’s placing an undeserved value on winning a division – an arbitrary grouping of teams based solely on geography. What’s more is that not all of the divisions have the same number of teams, so the odds of making the playoffs vary depending on the division. Now, toss in the fact that the wild card must beat the remainder of its entire league (10 teams in the AL and 12 in the NL) and you can see that Verducci is clearly not doing the math. However, the strongest evidence is in the win-loss records going back to the beginning of the wild card era (1995).
Of the 34 wild card winners since 1995, only 11 of them had the worst record of their league’s playoff entrants. In other words, if you took away divisions and just went by record, less than one third of the wild cards would be last among playoff entrants. What’s more, 10 times did a division winner finish tied with or worse than a team that didn’t even make the playoffs; the worst example being the 2008 Dodgers who finished with the eighth best record in the NL. I repeat, EIGHTH. With this information, it’s obvious that the wild card does not deserve to be handicapped.
Another argument is that adding a second wild card will add excitement to the playoff races. But is that even true? In 2010, Verducci says that four of the eight playoff spots are all but locked up, even though there are still 25 games or so left for each team. For one thing, that means at least eight teams were still in contention – not too shabby. Okay, so has the new system improved this? As of September 20, 2012, with about 14 games left, eight of the ten spots are all but locked up and only one of the six divisions features two playoff bound teams within less than 3 games of the division lead. Barring any epic collapses, Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Texas will win their divisions, Atlanta and Oakland will win wild cards, and Baltimore and the Yankees will split a wild card and division win. That leaves Detroit and the White Sox fighting for their division and St. Louis with a 2.5 game lead for the other wild card. If we look at teams that still have a realistic chance of catching a current playoff team, plus those current teams, we have St. Louis, Milwaukee, and the Dodgers in one race, and Chicago and Detroit in the other – or in other words five teams. Toss in the Baltimore-Yankees battle and we still only get to seven teams. If we get a little more generous, we can include Texas and Oakland’s division race, with Oakland 3.5 games back. With ten spots instead of eight, this is hardly an improvement.
In all fairness, if we look at this season without the Wilder Card there are fewer remaining races, the NL would be completely settled, but the AL would feature a gruesome three-way battle between Oakland, Baltimore, and the Yankees battling for two spots. The Wilder Card has robbed us of that race since all three teams should make the playoffs, while Oakland is all but assured a wild card. And as much as we’ll hear that it worked for the NL, do we really care that much about three slightly-better-than-average teams jockeying for the NL Wilder Card?
So, why do I hate the Wilder Card so much?
- First – it removes importance from the regular season. This is the number one problem with the NHL and NBA, but the one-game playoff is even worse. Baseball is the one sport where not all of the players play in each game, specifically the pitchers. The reason for playing a series of games is to make one team defeat the other team’s entire arsenal, removing the chance that a single pitcher kills your season by having one bad day.
- Second – it forces two teams to play that most likely finished with different records during the season. If this were in place in 2001, the 102-win A’s (the second best record in both leagues) are forced to play the 85-win Twins, a team that finished seventeen games behind the A’s, while the inferior Yankees (95 wins) and Indians (91 wins) enjoy their geographical good luck. Does anyone really believe that’s a fair set up?
- Third – the reason just stated gets repeated more than two-thirds of the time, going forward. If we’re going to handicap so-called undeserving playoff teams, it should be the teams that played the worst, regardless of division standings.
- Fourth – it’s going to happen this year in the AL and potentially in the NL. In the AL, the White Sox are all but guaranteed to finish with a worse record than both wild cards and possibly the Angels, whom they are tied with, a non-playoff team. In the NL, the Braves are just one game behind the Giants for the third best record. Fair, my ass.
- Fifth – what happens if the Yankees end up losing the playoff game? Does anyone really believe Yankees fans, not to mention the franchise, aren’t going to be pissed off when they realize the AL Central winner gets a free pass to the divisional round even though they were worse than the Yankees? Not to mention the money the franchise loses in lost playoff games and ratings baseball loses for the same reason. As much as people love and hate the Yankees, everyone accepts that baseball wants them in the playoffs. The moment they are the victims of this unjust setup, the baseball world is going to explode. And, yes, I’m openly rooting for this to happen just to see the aftermath.
The point of all my rambling is that the Wilder Card will turn out to be just as big a mistake as tying home field advantage in the World Series to the winner of the All-Star game. It takes away the spontaneous and rare nature of the one-game playoff games by forcing two of them every year and people are going to tire quickly of superior teams losing to lesser teams and still finishing with better records. If they really wanted to create a fair system, they would do away with divisions and just take the top four teams from each league for the playoffs. Instead, they created a way for baseball to rake in more money (on top of billions already) while cheapening the season and potentially leading to even more complaining by writers like Verducci when a Wilder Card team inevitably wins a World Series. Let’s all hope it happens this year.