Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Two Wildcards? Too Many

Apparently, the vast conspiracy that determines what national baseball writers should pontificate about has finally tired of steroids, and has moved on to the pressing issue of whether or not there should be two wildcards in each league. Tom Verducci, Buster Olney, and Jayson Stark have all penned articles on this topic.

I normally ignore the musings of that type of baseball writer, but sometimes it's harder to do that for any number of reasons. It might be that the moral outrage is completely off the scales (as with a typical steroids column) or that the idea is unbelievably stupid (as with the calls for Bud Selig to whitewash events from a game so that Armando Galarraga could be a trivia answer). In this case, not only do I consider the idea stupid, but it would seriously dampen my own enthusiasm for the playoffs.

The folly of wasting one's time on this sort of thing is that just because Jayson Stark advocates something doesn't mean it has a snowball's chance in hell of coming to fruition, and I don't think this proposal is any different. However, in the course of responding I have some potentially interesting data for you on the records of playoff teams in the wildcard era.

In the 32-league seasons since the wildcard was implemented (1995-2010), the average W% for the best team in the league is .620. The second-best division winner averages .583, the third-best .556. The wildcard team is .573 on average, while the team that would be the second wildcard averages .548.

Ten times (31%) the wildcard has had the second-best record in the league, better than every team except the one that bested it for the division title. It has happened 6 times in the AL and 4 in the NL. You might expect that this happens disproportionately when an AL East team wins the wildcard, benefiting the Yankees or Red Sox. That is in fact the case. The wildcard has come out of the AL East twelve times, and in five of those seasons (42%) has had the second-best record in the league. That still leaves five seasons out of 20 (20%) in which the wildcard was not an AL East team and had the league's second-best record.

Only eight times has the wildcard had the worst record of the playoff participants (25%), twice in the AL and six times in the NL. This has become the usual circumstance in the NL, as the wildcard has not bested the #3 division winner since 2004. The opposite holds in the AL, where it has not happened since 1999, when West champ Texas edged out wildcard Boston by one game. In fact, the only other time it happened in the AL was in 1996, when West champ Texas had a better record than wildcard Baltimore.

Of course, these W% comparisons don't account for the strength of the team's schedules, which can be significant in the era of the unbalanced schedule. That would involve some more extensive computations, and I'm not sure it would significantly change the results. I have no doubt that the AL East was easily the strongest division in baseball in 2010, and yet it still managed to produce the wildcard and the team that would have been the second wildcard.

Once one accepts that wildcards are going to be part of the playoff format, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to construct additional barriers to them winning, which is what the second wildcard proposal would do. And while its proponents claim that it would emphasize winning the division, they seem to gloss over the fact that it would inevitably at some point allow a third-place team to qualify for the playoffs? Of course, you could limit the second to wildcard to only second-place teams, but that would further reduce the expected W% of that team and increase dependence on the division format.

And why exactly is winning the division important anyway? Does it really make sense to put more emphasis winning divisions when they consist of uneven numbers of teams and when they are often not even close to being competitively balanced (see the 2009-2010 NL Central)? Why should a future team in the mold of the 2010 Rays have to jump through hoops just because they happen to be a member of the same arbitrary five team grouping as New York? It's bad enough that teams in the West only have to defeat three opponents.

It seems to me as if a lot of the proponents of this plan have really never accepted the expanded playoffs. They yearn for the days in which there were only two divisions, and the possibility existed for two teams with great records to slug it out and one to be shut out. Of course, the reality is that this was less common than some would have you believe (how convenient that the classic ATL/SF race of 1993 happened in the last year of the old format and thus is frozen in time), but they have a point. There is something to be said for using the regular season and not a five-game series to cull the field down to four teams, or even two. I would have no objections with a return to that format.

However, if the expanded playoffs are non-negotiable, than any attempt to punish a wildcard team with an outstanding record only serves to further de-emphasize regular season success in every regard other than defeating the teams in one's own division, while simultaneously giving an opportunity to the other teams that have failed in their divisional races. It does emphasize winning a division, but that division is itself a far cry from the six or seven team groupings that existed in the would-be golden age. And in doing so, it does nothing to emphasize regular season success for teams that are fortunate enough to be grouped with three-five weak teams (hello, 2010 Rangers). The two best teams in baseball slug it out while mediocrities lope comfortably home? Sorry, I don't think that's excitement or upholding tradition--I think it's farcical.

15 comments:

  1. I think the solution to all of this is just eliminating divisions and just having the AL and NL. The four best teams from each league make the playoffs. It would work better if baseball had either 28 or 32 teams but what can you do. You didn't account for unlucky teams through the course of the season, meaning if a team, like the Blue Jays this season, get very unlucky they'd still make the playoffs with another wildcard spot.

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  2. I'd have no problem with eliminating divisions. Unfortunately, the trend in all of the major American sports leagues is for smaller and smaller divisions as time marches on.

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  3. Add two teams, have four eight-team divisions, and winners ONLY face off for the ring. Or have eight four-team divisions, with winners only advancing. Either solution would add meaning to the regular season and either, particularly the latter, would eliminate the ridiculous situation at present where one team gets in on a wild card because it plays in an easier division than the others. You could keep the unbalanced schedule but see to it that WITHIN a division everyone plays the same teams the same number of times, and nobody within the division would have an edge.

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  4. I agree that eliminating the divisions entirely seems unlikely but I'd love to see a return to 2 divisions with 2 wild cards awarded. Both division champs get home field and host a wild-card team (so there is some level of importance for winning the division) and this eliminates the weak 3rd-division champion problem.

    Also with a return to larger sized divisions, the inequity of the strength of schedule between divisions is reduced. (Ideally baseball would scrap the unbalanced schedule but this too seems unlikely.) Instead of playing teams in your division 18 times you would likely play them only 15 - teams would not be penalized as badly for being in a division with 2 or 3 powerhouse teams.

    It's an easy change to make since it doesn't really impact the playoff structure. This would greatly increase the chances that the top 4 teams from each league make the playoffs but should also appease the executives and traditionalists that feel that division races are an important part of September baseball.

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  5. I don't see how one looks at recent seasons and concludes that "one team gets in on a wild card because it plays in an easier division than the others". The AL East, which has pretty clearly been the strongest division, has produced the most wildcards. The NL wildcard this year came from the East, which was probably about equal to the West but clearly a superior division to the Central. I'd also argue that the West was the NL's strongest division in 2009 and produced the wildcard.

    The unbalanced schedule certainly does present the possibility that a team could ride a weak division to the wildcard, and you could certainly point out occasions in the last 16 seasons in which that's happened. To characterize it as the norm is unjustified.

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  6. I think that the proposals by Ari and JJM are both reasonable, and illustrate that there are a lot of possible ways to structure the divisions and the playoffs. It shouldn't surprise me that rumor has it MLB is pursuing one of the worst of those options.

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  7. I'm in favor of adding a second wild card team in each league. Having those teams play a three-game play-in series would make for compelling post-season television, and also would mean their 3rd/4th starter faces the #1 team in game one of the division series. I'm fine with that.

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  8. I say realign the league into 2 leagues, 6 divisions, 5 teams per division. Move the Astros and Rangers to the NL West, Move the Rockies and D'Backs to the AL West. 18 games against the division teams (72 games), 6 games against intra-league teams (60 games), 3 games against a division in the opposite league (15 games). 147 game schedule. Season ends in Mid-September. 8 teams from each league advance. 7 game series thru out playoffs..2,3,2. Reduce # of travel days, let local affiliates broadcast first round. Season ends by mid-October.

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  9. I hate having even one wild card (per league). It's a bad idea and having more than one just makes it worse. Look at how the Yankees gamed the system to play the team they wanted to play in the first round (and I'm a Yankee fan) and avoid having to face Cliff Lee in a 5-game series. They actually had a stronger disincentive to win the division than they did to win it. This is not good.

    MLB should scrap this goofy three-division setup and go back to two divisions per league with ONLY the division winners advancing. There was nothing wrong with that format except the lost opportunity to milk more money from the networks for an extra playoff round. The winner-take all pennant races were a valuable feature of baseball that cannot be replaced. Yes, they did not happen every year but the wild card system can only produce a meaningful pennant race between mediocre teams in weak divisions. In the AL, the "wild" card is usually not very wild since it's typically the consolation prize for not winning the AL East and does not produce much drama at all.

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  10. Baseball is fine. Stop trying to change it.

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  11. Steve Russonello said....

    the real key to all of this nonsense is a BALANCED SCHEDULE...the MLB, and NBA etc, all lost the plot when they went division crazy. When do they figure out that rivalries are more interesting the LESS they are played out, not more! That means scrapping the interleague bull.
    Two divisions with two wildcards, or keeping 3/2, but not extra divisional play! It is not a fair or interesting system- and try to finish the season before the snow flies!

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  12. Has anyone ever considered the idea of adding a second wildcard team, but making the one-game playoff between the two team with the worst records, regardless of whether or not they are the wildcard?

    This way, you still get an advantage for winning your division (if, in some capacity, you win your division with the fifth-best (or worse) record in the league. But you only get a slight advantage in that you get a chance at the playoffs.

    Still generates interest in division races (you've always got a shot at winning one game in MLB), doesn't penalize a team for finishing second in a great division, ahead of a worse team in another division. Even generates some races for a wildcard team to pass a division winner to get the first-round bye.

    If there's a tie between a wildcard and a division winner (ATL and CIN this year), division winner gets the "bye".

    This way, we'd get TB vs (TEX/BOS) and NYY vs. MIN in the AL, and PHL vs. (ATL/SD) and CIN vs. SF in the NL. Does anyone think that isn't fair?

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  13. I have two suggestions, either of which I'd be happy with if they accepted it, and under the assumption baseball will never reduce the number of playoff teams.

    1. Have the wildcard only get Game 3 at home in the Divisional Series. That way, it means something to win a division.

    2. Return to two divisions per league, division winners get into the playoffs, then the top two teams after that make the playoffs.

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  14. Trouble is, the divisions are too small. Larger divisions would eliminate the likelihood of 84-win division champions which is apparently the main reason we need a wildcard team. Just get rid of the folly that is 4- and 5-team divisions and the wildcard becomes irrelevant. Playoff TV money is lost but the season as a whole is much more interesting, which is important for the long-term viability of baseball.

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  15. How about no leagues, no divisions, no playoffs. If you have the most wins in 162 games of baseball, you win. How's that for excitement?

    Or how about an NFL-like schedule for baseball? One game a week for 16 weeks. Two rounds of one-game elimination playoffs. One game to determine a champion.

    You could take the NFL route for baseball further. Expand the rosters to 40 players. Have separate offensive and defensive players. Allow substitutions at will.

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