MLB’s Wild Card(s)

Major League Baseball has made some big changes this week as part of its latest CBA.  First and foremost, as you’ve probably heard, in 2013 the Houston Astros will move to the AL West, evenly dividing MLB into six five team divisions.  The move carries with it the consequence of interleague play throughout the season.

The most exciting change to me is the new playoff system.  MLB has added a second wild card team in each league, possibly starting as soon as the 2012 season. It’s not the most controversial move, but it has drawn a few complaints.  One of the more common criticisms that I’ve seen has been that baseball is trying to manufacture drama, to which I say: a) duh, especially in light of the drama of “game 162” this past season.  The circumstances which led to that night were fluky, but the result was so good they should attempt to recreate it; and b) in attempting to manufacture drama, baseball may have stumbled into a better playoff system, and stumbling into  improvements is Bud Selig’s M.O.

The reason I think it’s a better sytem is because the best team in each league finally has a true advantage.  Not as much as they did in the days when they earned a ticket to the World Series or LCS, but more than they have in the current system.  I think there are two reasons for this, the biggest being the assumption that wild card teams will go with their aces in the playoff, plus they’ll have to deal with whatever attrition that results from the all-hands-on-deck nature of an elimination game. Not only is that a real disincentive to be satisfied with a wild card, and should hopefully bring a little drama back to the division races, but playing in that type of game just a day or two before the start of the real playoffs will weaken the wild card team – “fattening frogs for snakes,” as John Thompson would say.

The other reason is that, attrition aside, over time the league winners will face slightly worse teams on average in the first round.  It could be argued that this cheapens the playoffs, as Mark Zuckerman thinks. It might a little, but first and formost it cheapens the wild card, and it’s about time.  Let’s be honest: the wild card is a gimmick, in baseball more than any other sport.  Until now, it’s allowed a non division champion essentially a free chance at the post-season with no real penalty, and they’ve already won it all four times.  Even worse, in the AL’s case, it’s become the AL East’s at-large bid.  The new system might occasionally dillute the quality of the wild card team, but is that enough of a factor to outweigh the pluses of a wild card play-in game?  The amount of dillution should be small, if not negligible.  Zuckerman points out that over the past 16 years (lopping off the results of the truncated 1995 season), the teams that would have won the second wild card have an average win total just shy of 89. The average win total of wild card winners over the same period is 93, and that does represent a big difference (though it is a number clearly driven up by the Red Sox and Yankees).  But remember, only one of the teams will make it to a five game series, and given that the second wild card team can be expected to win the playoff more or less half of the time (probably less, but how much less is yet to be determined), the average win total of the advancing team, using the last 15 years of results, could be expected to be at least 91.  There’s a difference there, but just enough to slightly tip the odds in the league winner’s favor without producing a noticeable drop in quality for fans.

I’ve always thought that 162 games is way too many to take everything and then throw it in a blender, but I’m fine with putting the wild card teams into such unpredictable circumstances (even though I hope the Nationals will be one in the near future), especially if it helps the division winners.

There are also some less promising changes in the CBA.  Particularly stupid is the limitation of draft spending, the as-of-yet unknown details of which will determine the degree of terrible that the move is.  Who spends on the draft? Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Washington, you get the point.  Teams that can’t (or won’t, at least yet, in the case of Washington) compete with the big markets in ML payroll and use the draft as their means of building a competitive franchise.  Tampa has indisputably achieved this, Kansas City looks to be on the verge of doing the same, and there are even significant signs of hope in Pittsburgh.  I don’t know why Bud, who is always giving lip service to parity, would hobble those teams like this, although I suspect it has less to do with competition than it does limiting the power of agents.  At any rate, as innovative as the new playoff system is, I’m not sure it’s as impressive as finding a way to reduce spending in a manner that helps the big market teams.

In the end, the new playoffs will be the most visible change to baseball. I’m sure that all the things I like about it were a pale force™ compared to the increased playoff revenue, but that’s ok.  And as opposed to the previous playoff system, which mirrored formats seen in other sports for years; and interleague play, which was a true money-grab still in search of a real purpose, the second wild card and one game playoff is a true innovation.  It’s new, it’s different, it’s creative.  So regardless of how revenue-driven a change it is, it’s one for which Bud Selig deserves credit.

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~ by Kidman on November 18, 2011.

One Response to “MLB’s Wild Card(s)”

  1. I checked with the Patent and Trademark Office and I found no registered trademark for pale force.

    Yrs. in Pale Force,
    not Chuckles Whitman

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