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Baseball's Current Wild Card Format is Far From Perfect

Pittsburgh Pirates v Chicago Cubs

Tuesday night baseball enters its second year of the one-off Wild Card playoff game in each league. In that short amount of time the Wild Card game has already notched a level of notoriety with last year’s Cardinals/Braves game and the controversial infield fly call that cost Atlanta.

The baseball world’s view of the game has already evolved. Look no further than tonight’s National League participants, the Pirates and the Reds. When the Pirates clinched last week it set off a wild celebration inside the Wrigley Field clubhouse, which made grown men start belting out Journey power ballads. Meanwhile the same night the Reds barely let the fact they’d be returning to the playoffs register.

In this particular case it makes sense.

The Pirates had gone 21 years between playoff appearances, whereas a year ago the Reds won the National League Central.

Still, what are we to make of the Wild Card playoff game? Baseball is a game played out over 162 games. It’s not exactly designed for a one-off deciding game. However you could argue it beats the alternative. Until divisional play began in 1969, only two teams made the postseason with the pennant winners playing directly in the World Series. In 1995 four teams made the playoffs — three division winners and a Wild Card. That format lasted until 2012 with the addition of the second Wild Card and 10 of the 30 Major league teams playing in the postseason, even if two only last an additional game.

It’s created a delicate balancing act, trying to keep the 162-game regular season valuable while creating excitement and interest in more cities late into the season.

Last week I spent the day at the MLB Network studio’s in Seacucus, N.J. and asked the various analysts — ex-players and broadcasters — their opinions on the Wild Card game. Perspectives, as you’d guess, were varied. Two years in it seems like nobody knows exactly what to make of the Wild Card game.

Lowell celebrates with his teammates“(The Reds) celebrated just as much as the Astros and Marlins and your year was a success,” Mike Lowell said. “Pop some champagne and get back to business.”

Even so Lowell, who won a World Series with the Marlins in 2003 as a Wild Card, isn’t a fan of the current one-game playoff format.

“I love the second Wild Card, I hate the way they determine it,” he said. “This isn’t football. Losses are a part of baseball. You can basically chalk up 62 losses for every team at the beginning of the year, so for it to come down to one game? The reason I don’t like it is this, you can have one wild Card team with a better record than a division winner and the other one that scratches through, but they have that one ace. Let’s say you’re a team that ekes into the playoffs with 87 wins, but you have Clayton Kershaw. That makes a huge difference. I’d like it to be 2-out-3.”

That said, the one-off do-or-die nature of the Wild Card game does put a premium on winning your division, whereas in the past the differences between a division-winner and Wild Card team were negligible outside of one additional home game in the first round. When teams knew they were in — take the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East — they could put it on cruise control down the stretch.

“It’s better, at least you get that one game,” former Reds first baseman Sean Casey said. “Now winning the division is at a premium. Before it was like, we can just set up our rotation and rest some guys. Now it comes down to the end, no rest.”

There are clearly cases to be made for and against the two-Wild Card format. On the plus side, it’s kept baseball meaningful in September in more cities; this year in places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Wouldn’t a team rather have a chance for a one-game playoff to keep its season going, rather than nothing at all? The American League Wild Card race needed a 163rd game to decide the second participant with the Rays and Rangers finishing in a tie.

On the flip side, the one-off aspect of the game itself doesn’t quite jive with the nature of the baseball season and its 162 games spread across six months. Again look back at the Braves/Cardinals game — a result decided in part by an umpire’s interpretation of the rules.

“You can take a high school pitcher on any given day who can beat a big league team if he’s got his stuff,” Mitch Williams said. “That’s what it comes down to and that’s why I think 2-out-3 would be better.”

In theory, yes, a best-of-3 series would be fair for the Wild Card teams. Problems arise since it would extend the season further into November. There’s only so much of a window to get the games in. One bad day of weather in a Wild Card series would throw all of October into havoc. Nobody wants to start the season in late March to give time for a Wild Card series in late September.

Beyond that, the long layoff for division winners before the Wild Card starts would allow them to rest players, but it would also cause them to lose their rhythm built up over the season. The Tigers were clearly hurt in last year’s World Series, waiting around a week after sweeping the ALCS before playing the Giants. Sitting around for a week as the Wild Card games are played out might end up being counterproductive for the division winners.

There’s another factor at play here that has nothing to do with sporting interests. The Wild Card win-or-go-home game does attract casual eyeballs to the television. On a weeknight in October with little other sports on, people might be more inclined to watch a one-off game without a direct rooting interest compared to investing into an entire series.

“I’ll say this, I’m not sure they want to hear this on Park Avenue, I think those two Wild Card games, that’s my favorite time of the baseball season,” broadcaster Matt Vasgersian said. “You have the urgency of win and get in and there’s still something to look forward to. It’s maybe because when a World Series ends in a sweep like last year’s did, it’s kind of a thud. It’s the difference between Christmas Eve and 8 p.m. on Christmas Day. You still have that thing to look forward to and you’ve just had something awesome.”

As with so many aspects of baseball, expect the merits of the Wild Card playoff game to be debated and dissected. It’s far from a perfect format, but it’s better than nothing for the teams involved, right?

“Is it fair? I don’t know,” Dan Plesac said. “In some ways it is. If you don’t win the division a few years ago you were going home. It gives teams a chance.”

A chance to play, at minimum, nine more innings of baseball.

Consider this scenario, what happens if the Reds beat the Pirates tonight at PNC? As nice a story as the Pirates have been all season — qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since the Sid Bream play — how much will it mean if they’re one-and-done? In the blink of an eye Pittsburgh will probably turn its attention to the Steelers 0-4 start. If that’s the case how much does the addition of the second Wild Card accomplish?

“What we saw this year with the Reds not celebrating, that was fast. In one year we’re not celebrating, they should be after six months,”  Brian Kenny said. “That tells you the story it might be devalued and a one-shot deal might be unfair. “

Related: Yankees: More Questions than Answers Heading into Offseason

 

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