Yesterday, VICE Sports Canada published a piece extolling the virtues of MLB's Wild Card format. It's great, you should go read it. Today we offer a counterpoint.
My issue with the one-game wild card playoff in Major League Baseball is not that it’s bad or boring—it is demonstrably neither of those things. I don’t even care whether or not it’s a “fair” representation of which team is necessarily better—if we wanted to reward the team that prevailed over the long run we would simply crown the city with the best regular season record as champions, 19th century style. My problem with the one-game wild card playoff is that it is a flawed solution to a nonexistent problem. It takes a perfect system and mucks it all up.
If you watched last night’s game between the Cubs and Rockies, you probably think this is indefensible, and even though it’s a hill that I am willing to die on, I see how once you get into the weeds of what is “necessary” or “not” in sports, you run the risk of sounding like someone who takes the whole thing a little too seriously. For six years and also last night, the one-game wild card playoff games have been great! Super exciting. I watched the Giants beat the Mets at Citi Field in 2016 and it was one of the most electrifying sporting events I’ve ever seen live. It was also entirely contrived.
Just because something is good, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to do it. (This is neither a moral argument nor a defense of stodgy baseball traditionalists who decry bat flips.) I just mean, like, literally, when it comes to entertainment, it’s all added value and yet we instill arbitrary parameters that curtail the net value of fun. If you like football, why not have 18-week seasons? Or hell, year round! A slip-n-slide between third base and home plate sure sounds like a hoot and yet the basepath remains dirt to this day! If the World Series was nine games long, I would tune in for those extra games and someday find myself marveling at how wacky and wonderful that comeback from a four-game deficit was.
So the question is not whether these games are enjoyable—baseball is awesome, as is deviation from the norm, even when contrived—but whether this is the optimal system for MLB’s playoff structure. Which, it’s not! In fact it is a shift away from the optimal structure, when we had one wild card team.
The single wild card team, introduced in 1994 but first implemented the following year after the strike-shortened ‘94 season, solved the problem introduced by the expansion from two divisions per league to three. In doing so, it also accounted for the possibility that a second place team might have a playoff-worthy record but be denied a spot in October on the virtue of playing in an especially strong division. That these teams are better than the first place teams in other divisions despite playing against such strong competition is a reason to reward them. This reward, as far as I’m concerned, does not need to come with a corresponding punishment. But more on that in a moment.
This is an elegant, airtight solution. It introduced a whole new round (hell yeah, ticket sales) and four more teams into the playoffs while preserving baseball’s superlatively exclusive postseason. And that’s where it should have ended. What baseball failed to realize is something the NCAA has similarly grappled with while selecting the field for its basketball tournament: the cutoff point is always going to be hotly contested, regardless of whether four teams or five from each league ultimately advance to the postseason. But that’s what makes getting to the postseason so special. It’s hard. It’s supposed to be hard. There is a cut off and if you don’t make it this year, you have to wait a whole other year to try to get back. I’m not saying having two wild card teams is like giving everyone a participation trophy, but I’m also not not saying that.
That second wild card team was added in 2012 to solve amorphous, situational ills. It was believed that an extra pair of playoff berths would encourage competitive balance; more teams with their eye on October would result in better regular seasons. This is a reasonable assumption but six years into the experiment and more teams than ever are tanking. The Cubs and Astros are largely to blame for this, existing as ringing endorsements of leaning into the rebuild, but if not for parity’s sake then what?
There’s a line of thinking that if wild cards are treated the same as division winners, it dilutes the value of winning the division, but that just doesn’t make any sense. First, a wild card team would still always have to play the best division winner, and second why risk getting into a slugfest with as many as 12 other teams for one spot, when you can battle it out with four others (realistically more like two) in your own division? As a result of this needless fix we now find baseball in a situation where it simultaneously rewards and punishes objectively playoff-caliber teams for having the misfortune of playing in a strong division.
The single most compelling part of the wild card showdown is that it’s one game long—despite everything so deeply entrenched in baseball’s slow-and-steady legacy—but that’s only because that’s all they have time for. There’s a Division Series to get to. It’s a side effect of the constraints, rather than an endgame in and of itself.
Of course, the excitement of a win-or-go-home game is undeniable. That’s what’s so special about Game 7s or Game 163 tie-breakers. Trying to recreate that atmosphere absent the context feels a little like the proposals to start extra innings with a guy on second base. Sure, that’s an exciting scenario, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily skip the build up. If you want the playoffs to feature all win-or-go-home games then we can just… do that (We can’t, there would be riots, not to mention a massive loss in revenue.) But the one-game, winner-take-all format is merely incidental to adding a second wild card team—it’s a problem born of an unnecessary situation.
MLB is selling a product and of course they want every postseason to be the best one ever but fans should be frustrated by that even if they are benefiting from the experience of these weird-by-design single game series. Last night, people kept talking (OK, tweeting) about various firsts or mosts that the 13 innings between the Cubs and the Rockies represented but it seems odd to marvel at a stat that is largely just reflective of a shift in the overall system and that will be necessarily diluted by the very perpetuation of that system.
All sports drama is contrived but with the one game wild card playoff the machinations of catering to an impatient, short-attention span audience feel especially heavy-handed. It’s arbitrary, not in result, but in design.