In the previous system, the three division winners in each league would all make the postseason, along with a fourth “wild card” team--the division loser with the best record in each league. That set up a simple eight-team, three-round tournament.
In the new format, each league now has two wild card teams. But rather than going straight to the Division Series as the division winners do, the wild card teams play a one-game playoff against each other to determine who continues on to the divisional round of the playoffs.
Any structural change to the baseball playoffs must do at least one of two things: improve the excitement or fairness of September and October baseball. Put simply, excitement is a combination of how many teams are playing meaningful games at the end of the season and how important those games are to the teams involved. Fairness is the extent to which teams are justly rewarded for their performance in the regular season by increasing their chances of winning a postseason championship.
There is inherent unfairness in the postseason, which was famously called a “crapshoot” by Oakland A’s general manager and Moneyball-subject Billy Beane. The playoffs and World Series, by their very nature as short series, make it fairly easy for an inferior team to beat a superior team. As I described when comparing the World Series and the Electoral College, the larger sample size of the regular season is a far better representation of the true quality of a team than the results of any given postseason series. But the playoffs are exciting and a crucial part of baseball’s fan appeal, and a season that ended on October 3 would be pretty boring. Any good postseason model must find a happy medium between excitement and fairness.
The new wild card system is designed to add some extra excitement to September races. By adding an extra wild card, creating a single elimination wild card game, and increasing the incentive for teams to win their divisions, Bud Selig hoped to both involve more teams later in the season and make late-season games more meaningful for the best teams. As the following investigation of all possible late-season scenarios shows, however, the new wild card system makes things less exciting almost as often as it creates more drama. Worse, any excitement benefits the system does provide come at a significant cost in fairness.
As Joe Posnanski recently noted in his evaluation of the double wild card, sports leagues tend to modify their structures to address the perceived problems of the previous year without looking at the bigger picture. In order to avoid this trap, I will attempt to evaluate both the new and old system in terms of excitement and fairness for all of the end-of-season scenarios that have occurred since the introduction of the wild card in 1995.
Postseason Scenarios in the Double Wild Card Era
In this analysis, all teams discussed will be in playoff contention. I’ve set the cutoff for teams being of roughly equal quality and in a "close and exciting race" at a difference of no more than two games at the end of a season. I’m using the old division system as a baseline for fairness, although that system clearly had some unfairness built into it--because division winners often have worse records than second or third place finishers in other divisions, the division system allows teams with worse records to make the playoffs ahead of teams with better records. The effects of the new system on this problem are described in Scenario 4; for the most part, the difference is negligible.
Listed below are the four general types of playoff pictures that occur at the end of baseball seasons (with a few subcategories). Each is examined in terms of how exciting and fair fall baseball would be under both the old and new systems.
Scenario 1—Two Equal Wild Cards: The three division leaders easily win their divisions. There are two teams that do not win their divisions but are clearly better than all other non-winners. (ex. 2011 American League)
Old System: Exciting and fair. The three best teams will likely make the postseason and there will be an exciting race for the wild card between the two other teams. In 2011 this situation led to one of the all-time great finishes to a season, as the Rays came back to beat out the Red Sox for the wild card spot on the last day of the season.
New System: Less exciting, equally fair. All the best teams would still make the postseason. There would be no race for the wild card during the season, as it would be a foregone conclusion that the Rays and Red Sox would play each other in a single wild card game, which would be exciting but not as dramatic as a September-long race.
Scenario 1.1 – More Than Two Equal Wild Cards: Same as Scenario 1, but there are three (or more) non-division winners of equal quality competing for the wild card. In that case, the two systems are similarly exciting—in the old system it would be three teams competing for one spot and in the new system three teams would compete for two spots, the winners of which would then play each other in the play-in game.
Scenario 2 – Unequal Wild Cards: There is a wild card team that is almost at the level of the three division winners and is clearly better than all other non-winners. There might be some competition for the second wild card spot. (ex. 2012 National League)
Old system: Not exciting, but fair. The playoff participants would be decided early in September—this year in the NL, those teams would have been the Nationals, Braves, Reds, and Giants. It wouldn’t have mattered much whether the Braves or Nationals won the NL East.
New system: More exciting, but much less fair. The competition for the second wild card spot could be exciting, though one of the teams competing would be mediocre. A possible competition for a division victory could also be more exciting because of the incentive to escape the wild card game. The wild card play-in game would be more exciting than a playoff slate that was decided early on. However, the new system makes the playoffs much less fair, as it puts the second wild card on equal footing with the first wild card despite the difference in their records. This year, the Cardinals will have a chance to beat the Braves in a one game playoff and potentially win the World Series despite having a significantly worse season than the Braves, trailing them by six games at the end of the season.
Scenario 2.1 – Four Frontrunning Teams, One or More Weak Division Winners: Same as Scenario 2, except one of the divisions is worse than the wild card team and is competitive. In the new system, the added excitement of the play-in is mitigated by the fact that teams in the worse division still have a chance to make the playoffs via the play-in game even if they lose the division. Under the old system, winning that division would have been all-or-nothing for the teams involved. It is also considerably less fair than the old system because it puts the best wild card team on equal footing with the far-inferior loser of the bad division. (ex. 2009 AL)
Scenario 3 – Four Equal Teams in Two Divisions: There are four teams in two divisions (two in each) of roughly equal quality. The teams that don’t win those divisions will compete for the wild card. The winner of the third division is a foregone conclusion, and may be much worse or much better than all the other competing teams. (ex. 2012 AL)
Old System: Exciting and fair. The four teams would be competing for three spots. It wouldn’t matter much who won the divisions—but whoever finished last of the four teams would be eliminated.
New system: Equally exciting, equally fair. The only difference is that the division championships matter more because teams want to avoid the play-in game. However, that is balanced out by the fact that all four teams will be playing at least one game of playoff baseball no matter what, so there’s little danger of in-season elimination. This year, for instance, the Yankees, Orioles, Rangers, and A’s all made the playoffs. The only question was which two of those four teams would participate in the wild card game. The A’s late surge past the Rangers was dramatic because they avoided that statistical coin flip. At the same time, the Orioles and the Rangers did not have to worry about beating each other, since they would both play in the wild card game regardless.
Scenario 3.1 – Three Equal Teams in Two Divisions: The winners of two divisions are foregone conclusions. There are three teams of roughly equal quality, two in the not-yet-decided division and one in another division, battling for the remaining playoff spots. (ex. 2010 NL)
Old system: Exciting and fair. The three teams are fighting for the last two spots. Whoever finishes with the worst record among those teams will not make the playoffs.
New system: Less exciting and equally fair. All three teams are going to make the playoffs in some form. There will be some excitement in determining who wins the one division in contention, but no excitement for the third team until the wild card play-in game.
Scenario 3.2 – Even More Equal Teams: A fifth (or sixth, or more) team is added that is roughly equal in quality to the other four teams. Alternatively, the third division could also have two teams that are equal in quality to those in the other two divisions. Either way, a scenario like this will be very exciting and basically fair under either system.
Scenario 4 – A Particularly Weak Division Winner: There are two or more teams that lose divisions, but have a better record than the winner of another division. This scenario can overlap with any of the above scenarios, and thus is independent of the rest.
Old System: Unfair. With only one wild card, it is easily possible for a team that misses the playoffs to have a better record than a team that makes the playoffs.
New System: Equally unfair. The addition of another wild card makes it less likely that a team with a better record than a division winner will not participate at all in the postseason. However, it also makes it about half as likely that the first wild card will make it to the Division Series—which the division winner is guaranteed to do—since it has to participate in the play-in game. The fairness increase and decrease as a result of the new system roughly balances out.
In none of these scenarios is the new system obviously superior. There is only one case in which the double wild card is either more exciting or fairer: Scenario 2. But even that manufactured excitement comes at the price of a lot of fairness. Though Scenario 2 is common, it does not make up the majority of cases. Below is a chart showing the outcomes of each season in the wild card era, organized by the scenarios listed above.
Scenario 2.1 adds that same unfairness without adding excitement, as the division race in a worse division will be rendered less exciting by the existence of a second wild card.
Meanwhile, Scenarios 1 and 4 are less exciting under the new system because races that would previously have persisted throughout September are now reduced to a single game.
I will now clumsily combine the numbers in the above chart, assuming that all the mentioned increases and decreases in excitement and fairness are about equal, to give a rough idea of the effects of the new system.
Increased excitement: 15 cases (Scenario 2)
Decreased excitement: 13 cases (Scenario 1+4)
Increased fairness: 0 cases
Decreased fairness: 20 cases (Scenario 2 + Scenario 2.1)
A Better Baseball Season
The takeaway is this: there is no obvious overall increase in the chances of an exciting finish to a baseball season under the new double wild card system. There is, however, a clear increase in the likelihood of a less fair result to the baseball season.
The old wild card system was not perfect either, of course. I am personally in favor of scrapping divisions altogether, since they needlessly create unfairness. Not only do they allow teams with worse records to get to the playoffs ahead of better ones, but they give some teams much easier schedules than others because teams play divisional rivals more often.
I would prefer a simple system in which the four teams in each league with the best records always make the playoffs. There would still be plenty of regular season excitement as teams jockeyed for the last playoff positions, or even all four positions, as would have been the case in the AL this year. It would be very fair--the distortion created by playing in a stronger or weaker division would be eliminated, and the concept of a "wild card" would be unnecessary.
Even if the divisions are here to stay, though, the new double wild card system doesn’t have to be. There is no scenario in which it is a definite improvement, and several scenarios in which it is patently worse.
Try again, Bud.