Major League Baseball added a second wild-card team in each league in 2012. The top two teams that didn't win their respective divisions will play a one-game, winner-take-all playoff. The loser goes home and the winner goes on to face the top seeded division winner in the Division Series.
Upon first look, the new system has been a good thing for baseball. In the National League, the Atlanta Braves were second to Washington in the East all year, but several games ahead of any other non-division leader. By the prior, one wild-card rule, they would have run away with it a long time ago. But the inclusion of a second wild-card kept baseball alive in Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Arizona, Philadelphia, and even in Pittsburgh until they collapsed just weeks before the season ended. And it's obviously worked out well for St Louis, who, despite being six games behind Atlanta with one game to go, has a chance to overtake them in the wild-card game and move ahead in the post-season.
In the American League, however, the comparison is intriguing. With one day to go in the regular season, the five playoff contenders have already been determined. Detroit won the Central, NY is a game ahead of Baltimore in the East, and Oakland and Texas are tied atop the West. Under the single wild-card rule, the Yankees, Orioles, A's, and Rangers would be playing for their lives. But to say there's no incentive to win tomorrow anyway would be silly. They may all have clinched post-season play, but the danger of elimination in an uncertain, single-game playoff gives them all great incentive to win their respective divisions.
That being said, going to the wild-card game is, obviously, less a threat than outright elimination. By that note, the old rule would have been a little better as it would have added even more heat to tomorrow's action. But the second opportunity at a wild-card may have kept hope alive a little longer for the LA Angels and the Rays, so we'll call it a wash.
Ironically, if Baltimore loses tomorrow, the new rule will end up completely irrelevant in the American League. The Orioles would end the season at 93-69, same as the loser of tomorrow's Oakland-Texas game. They would face each other in a one-game playoff, loser goes home, winner goes to the Division Series. The only difference? This year, it's called a Wild-Card Game.
So it appears that adding a second wild-card in each league has been, overall, a good change for baseball.
Not so fast.
Let's return to the National League. Depending on tomorrow's outcomes, the Atlanta Braves will finish five to seven games ahead of the Cardinals, but will have to beat them in a one-game playoff to continue in the post-season. There are two points to address here.
First of all, FIVE to SEVEN games. In baseball, that is a HUGE gap. Four of the six divisions will be decided by five games or less. To end the regular season five games ahead of another team, you weren't "a little better", you were a LOT better.
Secondly, a single game in baseball is the equivalent of a coin flip. This isn't football, where each game is usually won by the truly better team. It's baseball, where anything can happen in a single game. The best teams in baseball lose more than 60 times a season. The Yankees lost to the Royals three times this year. The Astros beat the Reds five times. The Tigers split ten games with the hapless Red Sox. You've all heard the baseball cliche. "Anyone can beat anyone on any given day." One hanging slider turned into a 3-run blast could do it. And everyone hangs a slider now and then. It's a coin flip.
You've probably also heard that an MLB season is a marathon. And one of the reasons they play 162 games is because that's how long it takes to accurately separate the good from the bad. It's the field of statistics, this is called the "sample size". If you flip a coin ten times, it will probably come out around 50-50, but you might get heads six times ...or seven ...or maybe even eight. But if you flip it a million times, there's virtually no chance the results will vary more than one or two percentage points from 50%. The more flips, the truer the test.
But what if you flip it only once? What do you want, heads or tails? Choose carefully. Your whole season is riding on it. You played 162 games over a five-month stretch. Thousands of pitches throw, thousands of miles traveled. And now that you've survived this grueling quest, I'm gonna ask you to win a single game in order to continue. If this were truly a marathon, it would be like asking a runner to stop 10' short of the finish line, wait five minutes for the next runner to catch up, and then hopscotch backwards to see who wins. Ludicrous.
I've felt for years that baseball was making a mistake by limiting the Divisional Series to a best-of-five. If the greater the number of games equates to a truer test of the better team, they should play best-of-seven ...and only because best-of-nine, eleven, and so forth just aren't feasible. Why best-of-five, anyway? Because of scheduling issues? Then where did we find the time to squeeze in this wild-card nonsense?
If Atlanta loses that wild-card game, MLB should be ashamed of itself. Ignoring tradition, sensibility, and statistics simply to draw out fan support for mediocre teams is an insult to the integrity of the game. When my beloved Giants lost an NLDS to the wild-card Mets in the 90's, Mike Krukow soothed SF fans by reminding us that the Mets were still a very good team. "Wild card or not, they had to win to get here." This wasn't the equivalent to losing an NBA series to a 7-seed that won 47% of its regular season games. "Baseball has integrity and limits its post-season to the teams that are truly good."
If St Louis moves on and the Braves go home, all because of what happens in a single game, Major League Baseball will have taken a step backward. And the same goes for any future team that is forced to win a coin flip against a team that they dominated in the standings in order to advance in the playoffs. It will happen, and it's a shame.
Jeff Lafranchi is a Giants fan living in San Luis Obispo, California.