Thursday, March 1, 2012

Good or bad? The wildcard play-in game

Today, Major League Baseball is expected to announce that they will be adding a play-in game as part of the playoff setup.  Notice I don’t say they’ve added 2 extra wildcard teams.  From my point of view, this is a play-in for the two teams with the best records that didn’t win a division in each league to determine which one actually gets to go to the playoffs. 

I’ve been saying since the plan came out that I thought this was a good thing for baseball, as it actually puts more of a premium on winning a division.

But, is this actually true?  Arguments from people against this plan say that this is more likely to cause division races to last longer and could have a negative impact on teams with better records as they are not able to “set their rotations” and rest some of their players before the playoffs start. 

It’s a completely valid argument.  Currently a wild card team that was only a game or two back of the division leader could rest a bit easier knowing that they are likely secure set in the playoffs instead of making a run at winning the division, where the only advantage would be the possibility of home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.  Now they have something to play for, and the division leaders have something to defend.

I admit that this is a potential problem with the system…but how big of a problem is it? 

With a single wild card team in each league over the last 10 years, a close division race between a wild card team and a division leader has happened a total of 5 times:  once in 2005, 2007 and 2010 and twice in 2006.  That 5 times out of 20 wild card races.   Let’s then add in what would have happened if a second wild card team existed during the last 10 years.  My calculations show that the 2nd best non-division winner would have affected a total of 5 other division races during that time.  (I’m basing this basically off of the idea that a division wasn’t decided by the 3rd to last day of the season.) 

So basically adding the wildcard play-in game would have possibly affected 10 out of 60 division races over the last 10 years.  But let’s look a little closer here.  Do the extra wildcard positions really affect division races more than if they wouldn’t have been there?  No!  The added teams would have done nothing more to the competition for those division titles.  The two teams, under the current system, are competing for a division title…winner take all…with the loser going home.  Under the new system, the loser still gets a shot at making the playoffs with the play-in game.  Nothing has changed! 

In the end, the only thing that will change is the dynamic for the #1 wildcard team in each league.  As I said before, 5 times in the last 10 years, the wildcard team was battling with a division winner up until the end of the season.  Five times out of 20 wild card races, or 5 times in 60 division races…take it any way you want, it happens about once every other year. 

Why is this a big deal? 

Well, for me, the reason I hated the wildcard round when it was installed in the mid 90’s what that it introduced a “wildcard” scenario into the playoffs where a team that played well all season could meet up with a team that “got hot” at the end of the season and won the wildcard…meeting in an unpredictable 5 game series.  We as fans, while entertained by underdogs beating favorites, should be striving to see the best team in baseball win the World Series every single year.  While this might mean the Yankees would have added a dozen more titles, it still stands that the winner of the World Series should be the best team in baseball, not the team that got the most breaks in October.

The argument against the added wildcard team is that it is possible for a team with the best record in their league to have to fight for their life at the end of the season with a possible wildcard team to ensure they win their division and not get stuck in some play-in game where anything can happen. 

How many times would this have happened in the last 10 years?  Twice.  First was in 2007 with the Yankees and Red Sox…and that was a race that was borderline on being included as the Yankees were 3 games out with 3 games to go in the season.  The second time was in 2010, again in the AL East, this time between the Rays and the Yankees. 

In 2010, neither the Rays nor the Yankees made it to the World Series…likely a fate that would be no different than it would have been if there was a play-in game.  In 2007, the Red Sox won the World Series.  This situation could very well have been affected by a play-in game, if the Red Sox and Yankees had to battle to the very end of the season just to get into the playoffs.  In 2006, the World Series champion Cardinals had to battle the Astros, who were not really in the wildcard race for the division…so nothing would have changed with a play-in game…the Cardinals would have gone into the playoffs under the same circumstances.  In 2005, the White Sox won the World Series…and also and added play-in team would have had no effect on their division race. 

In the end, only once in the last 10 years would the play-in game have likely had a significant negative impact on the team that eventually won the World Series. is one last little thing I’d like to throw out there…what if there was no wildcard at all?  Division winners were the only teams to make it into the playoffs.  (Yes, I know this isn’t possible since there are 3 divisions in each league…it wouldn’t quite work out.)  But hypothetically, with no wildcard teams, that would mean that every division winner might have to battle down to the wire with another team to get into the playoffs.  The wildcard, as it currently exists, took away some of those division races.  The new setup re-installs that competition. 

I still stand by my belief that the play-in game will be a good thing, and it makes the wildcard much more palatable.  Teams that win their division will get a little rest while the two potential wildcard team’s will have to exhaust every resource they have to win a single game to get into the playoffs.

And I can live with the fact that play-in game might have a negative effect once in 10 years…because the other 9, it will probably help the better teams…the teams that should be winning the World Series.