One Way to Properly Value Baseball’s Wild Card
Major League Baseball said the advent of the Wild Card Game in 2012 would improve competitiveness by giving added value to winning your division and decreasing the value of being the wild-card team that survives the play-in game to reach the division round. The Wild Card Game does this, but it’s also a gimmick, a transparent effort by MLB to gin up fan interest in late September by giving more teams a chance to reach the play-in game, and then present the play-in game itself as a bona fide playoff game equipped with a unique name and worthy of the same level of fan interest as the LDS, LCS, and World Series rounds. None of the other major North American pro sports leagues resort to this gimmick; the NCAA does with its four play-in games in March’s basketball tournament, but few people not connected to the eight schools playing in the four games pay attention to them.
A cleaner way to elevate the division winners and give them a better chance in the playoffs, while degrading the value of the wild card, would be to return to the 1995-2011 format of four playoff teams in each league, and pair the wild-card team with the best team in the league in a five-game division series. But, the league’s best team gets four home games instead of three, in a 2-1-2 format. The wild-card team would host the third game of the series, ensuring its fans of at least one chance to watch their team in the playoffs (possibly in an elimination game), but forcing the team to win at least two road games to beat the league’s best team.
Here are some advantages to this system:
- It preserves the value of the long regular season by making success over 162 games decide who makes the playoffs, rather than using a single play-in game to determine whether a team makes it into the bona fide playoffs.
- Since the wild-card team will often have had to make every effort to win its last few games and beat out other teams to make it into the playoffs, it will probably not be able to use its top two starters three times in the five-game series, putting it at a disadvantage in its LDS matchup. The 2-1-2 format would ensure that even if the wild-card team won 95 or 100 games and clinched its playoff berth a week before season’s end, it would still be at a disadvantage to the three division winners.
- The four-one split of home games would also potentially benefit the league’s best team financially by generating more ticket and merchandise sales, giving a team’s executives and owners a reward for being the best team in the league even if their team loses in the first round.
MLB presumably dismissed the 2-1-2 idea, and other versions of a four-one home games split in the 1-4 LDS matchup, a few years ago when changes in the playoff structure were being studied. But I think many fans are dissatisfied with the Wild Card Game format, and 2-1-2 would punish the wild-card team without resorting to a hyped-up Wild Card Game to do so. I know 2-1-2 is not going to happen, and MLB has shut the door on playoff realignment, but we can still think about how it got the realignment wrong.