Baseball Purist Alert: this opinion piece may not entirely please you.
I have to admit; as a life-long baseball fan I find myself constantly being at odds with myself over the “purity” of the game dating to its roots versus the natural progression of modern baseball as it adjusts to the current sports climate. Every change we’ve seen, from divisional play to wild cards to instant replay seems like an attack on the sanctity of the National Pasttime, and the sport which routinely traces its roots to stars from 70 years ago.
The latest Collective Bargaining Agreement added a second Wild Card in each league, and a one-game playoff between the two wild-card teams to advance into the divisional series. Some purists were aghast with the addition of yet another non-divisional champ to the post season party. However, as we’ve seen this season play out the second wild-card inarguably has some side-effects that I think are good for the game. Lets talk about these intended (or unintended) impacts:
1. The additional Wild Card has kept more teams in the Playoff Race. Here’s the standings as of 7/31/12 (a fantastic new feature I found at baseball-reference.com; you can pull standings as of any date in the history of the game). 8 of the 16 teams in the NL and arguably 9 or 10 of the teams in the AL were technically still “in” the race for a playoff spot. More teams in the playoff race means longer sustained fan interest and less tanking or selling off of assets.
2. By virtue of #1, more teams were trying to improve at the Trade Deadline. You can argue that more teams in the playoff hunt meant that fewer teams were sellers, and that lead to gridlock at the trade deadline. But, some surprise selling teams (namely Miami and Philadelphia) injected new life to the trade deadline and had some teams making significant and crucial pickups.
3. An additional Wild Card still leaves Baseball with the lowest percentage of its teams in Post Season Play. Hey; at least we’re not the NBA, where more than half the teams make the playoffs. It still means something to make the playoffs, which is important.
4. The play-in game will be fantastic. Nothing is as amazing as a one-game playoff to advance, and some of baseball’s most historic moments have come during these games. Who would know who Bucky Dent was if not for his amazing home-run in the 1978 playoffs? Both teams will be sending their Aces, both teams will be playing like its Game 7, and the neutral fan will be in heaven.
5. The additional Wild Card will mean that teams will play harder, longer into the season. Why do you think we’re seeing the massive trade-deadline arms race between Western divisional rivals in both leagues? The Angels/Rangers and the Dodgers/Giants were by far the most active teams at the deadline because they all know that the difference this year between winning the division and the wild-card is significant. In years past we’ve seen teams almost not care if they won the division or dropped to the wild card; you were guaranteed not to meet your divisional rival until the LCS and the home field advantage in baseball is so slight that sometimes you could argue that playing away in a short series is more advantageous.
Why? In a short series, its pretty easy to “steal” a game on the road and then hold serve and win 2 straight at home, knowing that the pressure is on the favorite and knowing that the under-dog can drop a game at home but still get a 5th/deciding game on the road. In a 7-game series the same rule of thumb applies; its really difficult to get a 3-game sweep, but its really easy to get a 2-game split. Especially considering that the home-field advantage in baseball is only about 56% but has been as low as 52% in the past decade (see this link at Baseball-Reference.com, which has the home-team winning percentage over the years).
Now we see the immedicate impact; the Angels and Rangers absolutely do not want any part of a coin-flip game with the 2nd wild card for this reason. Primarily because…
6. The one-game play-in will significantly impact the advancing Wild Card Team. You have to think that teams will send their Ace/#1 starter to the hill in the play-in game. Why possibly save him for a series that you may not get to? As a result, the wild card winner advances to play either the #1 seed or the #2 seed (if the #1 team is in their same division) having already spent their big arm.
Why do I see this as a good thing? Because one major beef I’ve always had with Wild Cards is their relatively easy path to advance to the World Series. Up until the last day of last season, the Cardinals were not even set to be a playoff team, and then they run to the World Series title. We’ve already talked about the relatively small home field advantage baseball teams have. Wild Card teams, more often than not, come into the playoffs “hotter” than the divisional champ that they then face. This results in a significant number of Wild Card “upsets” in our history of divisional play and having Wild Cards advance far further than I’d normally like to see them, at the expense of divisional winners losing short series. In the 17 years of divisional play/wild cards we’ve had:
- 5 Wild Card WS champions (including most recent St. Louis Cardinals plus 3-straight from 2002-4)
- Another 5 Wild Card WS runner-ups (including 3 straight from 2005-7)
- Overall, 10 of 34 World Series participants being Wild Cards, a rate of nearly 30%.
- 18 Wild Cards overall who won their Divisional Series out of 68 such series being played, a success rate of more than 25%.
Perhaps this is one last vestige of “baseball purism” in me, but I think the game needs to have more World Series winners who not only won the 8-team (now 10-team) playoff derby, but who also succeeded all year long and won their divisions. Only three times in the divisional era has the team with the best record also won the World Series, 3 times out of 17 (the spreadsheet linked here is also available in the links section to the right-hand side of the blog, called “Best versus Winner.” It needs updating for 2011 and 2012 champions in all sports, but shows just how infrequently the best regular season team wins in any sport. A side effect of expanded playoffs in all sports, true, but a concerning trend for any sport purist).
In any rate, I’m hoping that the diminishing of the Wild Card one-game winner means that fewer Wild Cards run through the playoffs, which will lead to more “deserving” World Series participants.
Do I wish that Baseball would revert to the old, old days where there was one division and two pennant winners? No, of course not. In fact, I think Baseball would be best served by adopting the NFL’s 8 division alignment with 2 wild cards for a very neat post-season tournament where the two best teams got byes (in the link above, I posted some possible alignment possibilities when the whole re-alignment discussions really took hold in July 2011; my two expansion target cities were San Antonio and Portland). But expansion in Baseball seems like such a difficult proposition that it may never happen (for the reasons explained in this post). But the 2nd wild card seems to be setting up baseball fans for an exiting and “fairer” post season in 2012 and beyond.