Even the most ardent baseball purist would probably admit that the wild card has positively impacted the sport’s popularity. And yet, because there has been no handicap assigned to the wild card, the system has effectively de-emphasized the importance of winning the division. Although frequently lamented (particular at the Captain’s Blog), this tradeoff has been widely viewed as unfortunate, but necessary. However, now that baseball has decided to add a second wild card, a better balance has been created.
As I have argued before, having two wild cards, and a one game playoff between them, is a purist’s solution to the necessary evil of the current conciliation system. By putting both wild cards at a significant disadvantage, a much greater emphasis is placed on finishing first. As a result, the second wild card allows baseball to preserve the integrity of its 162 game schedule, while providing more fan bases with a reason to remain interested deeper into the season. And, for its efforts, MLB gets to sell two “winner take all” one-game playoffs to the networks, effectively guaranteeing early drama in the month long postseason.
Ironically, most of the pushback regarding baseball’s expanded playoff system has come from those concerned about the unfairness of forcing the first wild card, which in some cases has the second best record in the league, to face a lesser opponent (click here to see the difference between what would have been the first and second wild cards from 1996 to 2010). Considering the wildly different schedules that some teams in the same league often play, this is certainly a valid concern, but if you prescribe to the supremacy of the division, that’s just another reason to emphasize finishing in first place.
Although the second wild card does a great job of restoring credibility to division races, it is far from a perfect solution. In exchange for bolstering the regular season, the second wild card has the potential to further dilute the postseason. Under the new system, a third place team could knock off a division winner in the first round, effectively allowing five games to negate 162. Of course, that possibility exists with one wild card, but there is something pejorative about having a third place team advance in the playoffs.
You shouldn’t get nothing for second or third. Baseball has set it up the way they want, of course, and I have nothing to do with it. I’m not knocking baseball at all, but in my opinion I’d like to see the two . . . best teams in baseball in the World Series.” – Phillies’ Manager Charlie Manuel, March 1, 2012, quoted by philly.com
In order to help ensure that the best teams play in the World Series, MLB should stack the deck against both wild cards (something it should have done from the onset) by forcing the one-game playoff winner to surmount an additional hurdle before it can advance to the LCS: no home games in the first round. Home field advantage is not as important in baseball as other sports (click here for a look at the impact of home field in the playoffs), but it does provide a benefit, none of which should be given to the wild card. In addition to putting the wild card at a competitive disadvantage on the field, this solution would also exact a financial punishment (or, for a more positive outlook, extend a financial reward to the team with the best record). By denying wild cards an opportunity to collect a playoff gate until the second round, you can bet upper management will not abide a “just get in” mentality.
Not only would the added handicap of no home games lessen the chance of a non-division winner advancing to the LCS, it would also provide an added incentive for teams to compile the best record in each league. Having such a tangible reward in place would create another “race within a race” and increase the number of meaningful games late in the season, an outcome that would once again serve the dual ends of fan interest and schedule integrity.
The details of baseball’s expanded playoff format have not yet been revealed, but chances are, aside from the one-game playoff, the format will remain relatively intact (one potential change could be having the lower seed play the first two games in the LDS, which might be an advantage). Then again, that could change if third place teams wind up drinking too much champagne in October. Just as teams settling for the wild card helped to usher in a second one, too many “third place champions” could lead to handicaps like the one described above. In a perfect world, MLB would head off the potential negative ramifications of its new system, but for now, sticking one finger in the dam will have to do. At the very least, with the current changes, teams that decide to lose a battle will have less of a chance to fight the war.