Additional wild cards won't solve problems; they'll compound them
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Maybe the Padres had their run a few years too early. In the wake of the Yankees/Rays non-race in the AL East, in which both teams made it perfectly clear that the division title meant little versus getting ready for the postseason, there's a movement afoot to implement a rule change that would force teams in similar positions to value the division title more than it was valued this year. The most popular of these involves allowing a second wild-card team from each league, and having the two wild-card teams meet in a very short playoff, either one game or a best-of-three, to advance.
I called this idea "unimaginably stupid" on Twitter, and trust me, I was underselling its problems. The idea is to make winning a division more valuable than winning the wild card, so much so that a team will have to try to win its division. What it effectively does, though, is make winning a bad division valuable. To use the 2010 AL season as an example, the Twins and the Rangers, both inferior to the Yankees and Rays, would have been free to rest their regulars and set their rotations, because their divisions couldn't produce a viable challenger. Meanwhile, the Rays and Yankees would be fighting for a division title to stay out of the Coin Flip Game. Despite being objectively better teams -- both of them -- they would both be disadvantaged relative to worse teams. A system that metes out punishment and reward in inverse proportion to quality is a bad system.
Let's play it out, though. The Yankees and Rays bust their humps all month, win a few extra games, maybe 99 for the Rays, 98 for the Yankees. With a "second wild card" to play for, the Red Sox make a couple of small additions, pick up some wins in September and get to 91. One of those extra wins comes at the expense of the White Sox, who fade a bit faster, enabling the Red Sox to lock up their spot in the Coin Flip Game heading into their last series of the year.
Now, the No. 3 seed and the No. 4 seed are preparing for the playoffs, while the two best teams in the league are playing for the right to not be dropped into this unimaginably stupid Coin Flip Game against a team that, because the sixth-best team in the league is far enough behind the fifth-best, is itself resting! Moreover, after proving itself to be eight or so games better than than its divisional partner over a full season of play, the second-place team is now, after losing its run at the division title, forced to beat that inferior team one more time despite being disadvantaged in the run-up to the game.
The second-best team in baseball could go from fighting for a division title and the best record in its league to a one-game playoff against a team it was miles ahead of for six months. It may sound far-fetched, but it is not that far removed from what we would have had in 2010 had the rule been in place. It's pretty much what you would have gotten in the AL in 2005, where the Yankees and Red Sox tied for first place while the "second wild card" would have been the Indians, five games clear of the A's for the No. 5 seed.
This is a really bad idea. It's one thing to throw away September because you're looking for easy cash on the heels of being tagged for $280 million in CBA violations. It's another to set up a system that has the ability to turn your regular-season results into a bad joke because you didn't listen the first time. The scenario that people want to avoid, the September of 2010? It happens when two great teams play in one division together. If you force one of them into a Coin Flip Game, you will always be invalidating a great six-month season in a single afternoon, which is no way -- no way at all -- to run a sports league. The Coin Flip Game isn't "making the playoffs" any more than the play-in game in the NCAA's is "making the tournament." No one confuses Tuesday in Dayton with Friday in Charlotte, and no one will confuse Monday afternoon at Suncoast Dome on MLB Network with Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium on TBS.
The Rays and Yankees both making the playoffs was supposed to be a benefit of the wild card, remember? Its advocates noted that the second-best team in the league would always be guaranteed a playoff berth. On the heels of 1993, when the Giants won 103 games and needed 104, that may have sounded good. What the "second-best team" argument refused to acknowledge was that this new rule would always prevent the best and second-best team from competing balls-out, because both would be assured playoff berths.
Sure enough, in 1996, the Padres and Dodgers played an NL West-deciding game on the last day of the season, loser getting the wild card, as if it were spring training. Late March, to be sure, but they made it clear that winning the game wasn't nearly as important as surviving it with the Division Series Game 1 lineup, starter and bullpen good to go. No one made too big a deal of it at the time, probably because it happened in Weirdoland at 4 p.m. ET and there were football games on, but it was noticed by some. In 1997, when the Marlins advanced as the NL wild card, won the World Series and actually were allowed to keep the honor, any sense that the wild card was "less than" advancing as a division titlist was forever lost. That Marlins victory, to some extent, was a turning point even in terms of the discussions within baseball. We talked about "pennants" for 80 years, a term that was subsequently used in the 1969-93 period along with "divisions" to represent an accomplishment. You finished in first. You had a successful season. You won something significant.
After 1997, teams didn't talk like that anymore. Seasons became about "making the postseason," and success there became valued, relative to regular-season success, more highly than ever before. You can stop me on the street, give me a year between 1903 and 1993, and I can probably tell you who won the pennants and/or divisions. From 1994 on, it's a blur, and it's not just because there are 50% more of them. They just don't mean anything. Winning the division, winning your grouping of teams, which was a primary goal through 1993 and shortly thereafter, has become what it is in the other leagues: merely a better ticket to the tournament. It's no surprise that the Rays and Yankees didn't value the AL East title more than they did in 2010, because we, as fans, don't value it. We don't remember division titles any more, we don't celebrate 100-win seasons, and we don't savor a great pennant race. The intrinsic value that those things had has been lost.
Well, "lost" is probably the wrong word. "Has been lost" is too passive. How about, "was destroyed by the rule changes in 1994"? The introduction of the wild card in '94 disconnected winning a division from success. Now, you could finish second and still be successful. (The phrase "Wild Card Champion", which I have seen, is vomit-inducing.) There was no crying need for it. The 1993 season had been played with four seven-team divisions and gone swimmingly. However, MLB owners were reeling from having been caught conspiring to fix the free-agent markets after the 1984, 1985 and 1986 seasons, to the tune of more than $10 million per team. The 1993 and 1998 expansions, which have been more or less a failure outside of the three championships that those teams have won, were cash grabs to make up for the collusion payments. Playoff expansion was designed similarly, to provide an additional week of prime-time baseball games as a means of extracting cash from networks. However, the Division Series was so soundly rejected by the networks that the first two years of it were shown regionally, as part of a system known as "The Baseball Network" by which MLB bought the airtime and sold ads to make money. Subsequent Division Series games showed up in places such as FX, local Fox Sports Channels, Fox Family Channel, ABC Family, and I think two games even landed on Spice.
The wild card was created so that an extra round of playoffs could be sold. That extra round was a bastard child for the better part of the decade, but is now firmly entrenched, as is the three-division format. Solutions to repair problems tend to assume the status quo, which is why the idea of a second wild-card team is a natural one. There's a meanness to it, a sense that the Yankees and Rays somehow deprived fans of an ending -- Brian Cashman was explicit about his team's reasoning -- so we'll show them! The cure, however, is so much worse than the disease that it would make the situation a bad joke. In the same way that it took 1996 to show the slow people the natural end to the new format, soon enough we'll have a real-world incidence of the example above, where the best teams in baseball are screwed over while their inferiors get to cruise home, and then a truly great team loses a single game -- probably thanks to the human element -- and goes home, while a comfortably third-place one marches on.
Put a pin in all that for a second. Think about the All-Star Game. The popularity of the All-Star Game has been in steady decline for about 40 years, dating to when the starters began taking fewer of the at-bats and innings, turning them over to the backups. Free agency, which chipped away at the mystique of separate leagues, hurt the game; the expansion of baseball on TV, which meant that you could see some of these guys more often, made it less special to see them in mid-July.
Then Bud Selig took over and really started hacking away at it. He eroded the league structures and turned them into "conferences" in the "MLB" league. He introduced interleague play, which did as much as any single factor to diminish the All-Star Game. The embarrassing events of 2002, easily foreseeable in a world in which managers were running the game like church softball, led to a roster expansion that made it more clear that the game wasn't a competitive endeavor. To address this, Selig attached home-field advantage in the World Series to the contest, an idea that became a joke before the press conference was over, and continued to be so as All-Star Games were repeatedly decided by the work of token All-Stars from bad teams.
The All-Star Game isn't less popular today at random. The All-Star Game is less popular today because every single change in the baseball industry has worked against it. Some are net positives -- free agency, baseball on TV -- but Selig's pet initiatives have been the biggest factors, and rather than acknowledge that, he chose to pretend that home-field advantage in the World Series would turn the game into a cage match.
That's where we are now. The Yankees and Rays didn't punt September because they're big meanies who don't like interesting baseball. They punted September because Selig's inventions, the Division Series and the wild card -- and no, he wasn't commissioner in 1992, but he had Fay Vincent's blood on his hands and drove the bus on both ideas -- created this scenario. The fans and the media, by devaluing regular-season success relative to postseason success, incentivized playing for October. No one remembers the 1997 Braves, the 2002 A's, the 2004 Yankees. But you damned well know who won the World Series in those years. The 2010 AL East "race" is the natural outcome of devaluing a division title, just as the fading popularity of the All-Star Game is the natural outcome of taking away all the elements that made it special.
MLB, under Selig, is completely incapable of thinking through the possibilities. Selig's biography -- not the little one that came out a few years ago, but the real one as yet unwritten -- could be titled
The problem, right now, is that a great second-place team isn't incentivized to try to finish first. That's not a bug, that's a feature: The wild card is designed to allow a second-place team into the playoffs. You don't fix that by letting another second-place team, or even a third-place team, into the playoffs. Playoff expansion is the bad idea that got us into this mess in the first place. This is MLB under Selig: My idea can't possibly have a downside, so we'll just double down.
No, you fix the Rays/Yankees problem by addressing the actual issue, by giving back the incentive, not in a way that complete distorts every possible notion of fairness, but by acknowledging that the plan in place has created a structural issue that can only be fixed by its removal: You take away the wild card. The solution to the Rays/Yankees problem, which has been evident since 1992, thanks for noticing, is to restore the value of winning the division by making that the only path to the playoffs. You still get some extra playoff games -- this costs you six to 10 a year -- but you get back September. You get back do-or-die pennant races with clear structures. You get back the potential for a race between great teams, something that is desperately missing in modern baseball. Fans of drinking age have never seen a great pennant race. That's sad.
You even get an added bonus in that the division winner with the best record gets a bye, so all three division leaders will have something to play for, competing with each other, should there be no division race. The immediate objection is that teams won't like having a week off, and you'll cite the 2006 Tigers, the 2007 Rockies and so on. However, you fix that in part by tightening the first-round schedule. More to the point, given how teams behave when they have a postseason berth locked up and given that teams sometimes sit for four days at the All-Star break, I think the rest issue is wildly overblown, something that gets played on both sides depending on the point you want to make. Simply starting on rotation with a fresh bullpen will more than make up for any rust concerns. In reality, teams would play intrasquad games and call up teams from Instructional Leagues during the layoff.
The games TBS loses? You dump all the games in off time slots that aren't bringing in numbers anyway. There's just no way, given how the Division Series has been treated over its 16 years, that I'm going to believe it's some cash cow for anyone involved. Maybe the teams in it make money, but even then we're talking about a handful of dates.
The benefits to the regular season should be clear. You finish first or you go home. Two great teams in one division? Well, don't sign Salomon Torres and good luck to you. September matters again. The wild card isn't bringing people to the ballpark, and it never has. A real pennant race, though, brings not just local interest but national interest. It's a big story. Picture September of 2010, but with the chance that the plucky Tampa Bay Rays could knock off the 100-win New York Yankees. Tell me that doesn't lead
This isn't my first choice. My first choice involves contracting two teams (some combination of Florida, Oakland and Kansas City, usually), moving back to two divisions with seven teams each and keeping an eight-team postseason, with the top two teams in each division advancing. I don't actually like this much better -- well, I love contracting and two divisions, but not the extra playoff teams -- but a format with eight teams seems more realistic than one with six and certainly four. It's almost inconceivable that MLB would cut playoff teams.
When you look at the costs and benefits, though, an MLB in which only division winners go to the postseason is clearly superior to what we have now, and a vastly superior alternative to the abomination than is the Coin Flip Game. The problems with the latter plan are glaringly obvious, and while it seems like a solution in the moment, it wouldn't take more than a couple of years for a situation to crop up that made it clear how big a mistake it was.
Just like it did with the wild card.