Nationals Arm Race

"… the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same – pitching.” — Earl Weaver

More and more I’m liking the 2nd Wild Card


Will the Greinke acquisition get the Angels out of the WC game? Photo Jeff Golden/Getty Images

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; 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, 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.

Written by Todd Boss

August 7th, 2012 at 1:47 pm

8 Responses to 'More and more I’m liking the 2nd Wild Card'

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  1. I absolutely HATE both wildcards, let alone the second one. Go back to four divisions and four divisional winners. Otherwise, what is the point of playing a grinding 162-game schedule?

    Before all the wildcard nonsense, a good season that falls just short, say 92 wins, was celebrated as a decent success. Plenty of Senators fans have fond memories of 1969, for example, even though the team missed the playoffs.

    Now, if a team wins 92 and lose that silly one game wildcard playoff, it will leave a horrible taste everyone’s mouth. MLB used to be special because of how hard it was to make the playoffs. Now, it’s just another sellout to the almighty dollar.


    7 Aug 12 at 3:10 pm

  2. … Aaaaaand we have our first purist 🙂 Your point is fair, and could be extended to complain about the playoffs in general. Why play 162 games if you can get knocked out in a 5-game divisional series, or a 7-game league championship series? But I think that ship has long since sailed (since, 1969, when divisional play was introduced).

    But I must say, I disagree with your sentiment. I think as a fan i’d MUCH rather have a 92-win team that won the 2nd wildcard and then lost than have a 92-win team that finished 3rd in the division and that was that. And, Baseball still has the lowest number of teams making the playoffs of any of the major sports (33% in baseball, 37.5% football, 52% in soccer, and 53% in both NHL and NBA).

    Sell-out to the almighty dollar? Perhaps, to the baseball purist. My take on the ever-expanding playoffs is more basic (and perhaps I should have included this missive in the original post): you have to adjust to survive. 75 years ago the most popular sports in this land were Baseball, Boxing and Horse Racing. Look where we are now: Baseball is clearly 3rd in the pecking order behind Football and Basketball, and in many ways fails to out-draw marquee events in Hockey, Soccer and Nascar. Meanwhile Boxing is almost nonexistant in this country any longer and there’s probably only a handful of states that even host Horse Racing any longer. The point is; Baseball has to adjust to survive and keep relevant. And part of that adjustment is cashing in on the post season rise in interest. More wild-cards, more excitement means just that. You have to adapt to survive.

    Todd Boss

    7 Aug 12 at 3:34 pm

  3. As long as we never witness a .500 team in the playoffs, I’m all for wildcards.


    7 Aug 12 at 5:56 pm

  4. I’m no baseball purist, and I’m glad about the additional wildcard spot. My only purist stances are actually very old issues. First, I’d go back to 154 games, because these seasons are way too long. And second, I hate, hate, HATE the DH! If you’re not on the field, you don’t get to bat. The DH strips away so much fascinating on-the-field strategizing by managers, and I hate it. (Did I mention that I hate the DH?)

    However, Todd, your “most popular” sports statistic is off, at least according to the latest Harris poll (as published in USA Today). In fact, baseball is second only to pro football, although by a HUGE margin of nearly 2-1. Behind baseball–in order–are college football, auto racing, the NBA, and the NHL.


    8 Aug 12 at 1:19 pm

  5. I’m ambivalent over 154 vs 162 games, but know that owners will never give up 4 home dates of gate, so I don’t bother arguing for it. DH: you won’t like this but from for several reasons i’m in favor of going full DH in both leagues (this is the subject of a longer post that I have in draft form now, but main reasons would be standardization of leagues, increased offense and increased fan appreciation).

    Found the harris poll you speak of and I stand corrected:

    Great resource. 2011 data shows Pro Football #1 (31%), Baseball (17%), College Football (12%), Auto Racing (7%), NBA (6%), NHL (5%), Soccer (2%) and College Basketball (2%). That leaves 18% for every other conceivable sport, though the poll didn’t find one person who listed WNBA or Womens College Basketball as #1. Thanks for pointing this out.

    Todd Boss

    8 Aug 12 at 1:43 pm

  6. I was very surprised that the NBA is only 1/3 as popular as MLB, and NCAA basketball is tied with soccer(!) for 7th place(!). If that’s accurate, the coverage of both (especially on ESPN) is completely out of proportion with their actual popularity. Men’s golf gets infinitely more coverage than soccer, yet it’s apparently half as popular, according to the poll. Meanwhile, everyday on ESPN I hear another Dwight Howard or Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson story, yet soccer gets so little press that the only American player I can name is Hope Solo (and that has nothing to do with her abilities as a goalkeeper). And wait, women’s tennis is below bowling?! Okay, now I’m starting to doubt the poll…


    8 Aug 12 at 2:24 pm

  7. Yeah I agree. I’m not sure this poll really shows what is going on in today’s sporting culture. The poll is the result fo 1000s of americans being asked simply, “what is your favorite sport.” I wonder if a better poll would be overall TV ratings for sporting events.

    Todd Boss

    8 Aug 12 at 2:30 pm

  8. Good point. Depending on how the question was phrased, some people might have been answering their favorite sport to play, not to watch. Nothing else explains bowling beating women’s tennis to me.

    That said, I think the poll accurately reflects that baseball places as a solid number 2 behind the NFL. I might have guessed college football being closer to a tie with baseball, but that’s probably because I live in Florida. College football rules this part of the country.


    9 Aug 12 at 10:14 am

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