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Wednesday, October 07, 2009
Why I hate the wildcard in baseball (a biennial reprise)

There is much celebrating this morning (at least outside of Michigan) of last night's amazing one-game playoff game between the Tigers and Minnesota Twins for the AL Central Division title, a 12-inning featuring three comebacks, which the Twins finally won 6-5. So let me play the curmudgeon here.

Two years ago, journalist Robert Weintraub wrote about the 1993 pennant race between the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants and said "The drama of late-season baseball has been transferred from occasional but memorable all-or-nothing contests between great teams, to annual lower-stakes games between the good-to-mediocre." He blamed the wild-card system, adopted in 1995, because any do-or-die, win-or-go-home contests to win a division or wild card occur only among lesser teams, not among the top teams. I wrote in whole-hearted agreement, using the 2007 season as a perfect example.

Well, this year bears my argument out once again. Yes, last night was a great game and it was an exciting race. But it was between two teams that finished the 162-game schedule with 86 wins--fifth-most in the league entering last night's game. None of the top teams in the American League (the 103-win Yankees, 97-win Angels, or 95-win Red Sox) had any pressure at the end of the season--all were play-off bound, just as the top teams will be every year. The only other division "race" was in the National League West, where, entering Saturday's game, the Dodgers (93 wins--most in the NL) lead the Rockies (92 wins, tied at the time for second-most prior to Saturday) by a game and were playing each other, ostensibly for the division title. But the Rockies already had the wild card won and were play-off bound, since they had the second-best record in the whole league, so they had no pressure and no real incentive to catch the Dodgers and win the division.

Two years ago, I criticized the incentive structure this creates:

A wild-card system values having lot of teams in the play-off hunt and more times with post-season hopes later in the season, with a lot of win-or-else games. But it achieves that at the expense of having the best teams playing those win-or-else games. This is sound as a business decision--more fans in more cities will come out or watch in that final weekend, knowing their teams still are alive.

But as a baseball decision, it stinks that there is no chance to showcase the best teams in these high-stakes games, at least as part of a regular season that is long enough (162 games over six months) to create a meaningful competition. So while that was a great game last night, wouldn't it be nice to have a game like that played between two great teams?

Thanks for listening. Odds are, I will be back with a similar post in 2011.


I don't really see a problem with the wildcard in baseball. For the amount of teams in the league, baseball has the least amount of playoff teams of any sport. Because of this, baseball already does the best job at putting the best teams in the playoffs. This season, the AL central happened to be a weak division. That may happen from time to time, but the wild cards in both leagues are very good teams this year. Also, because the MLB schedule is made in advance, I'm not sure how you would guarantee more meaningful games by eliminating the wild card. It's just as conceivable that the top two teams in each league could have cemented their place in the playoffs early and have little to play for in september.

Blogger Jeremy -- 10/07/2009 10:44 AM  

There have been four wild cards win the World Series. The 1997 Florida Marlins, the 2002 Anaheim Angels, the 2003 Florida Marlins, and the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

To change the system, we would need to go back to two divisions and let the division champions move to the league championship with the survivor going to the World Series.
So, depending on how you divide up the two leagues, this year we would have the Yankees playing the Angels and the Phillies playing the Dodgers. The Cardinals would not make it into the playoffs. Of course, if the setup had been different, the result might have changed as well.

Howard, I was not a fan of the wild card at first either. However, when I moved to Minnesota for six years, I became a bit more interested in the concept. If you eliminate the wild cards, you are certainly going to push out more "small market" teams. The wild card does keep a bit more fan interest in the game in cities where there is a chance to advance. My bigger problem is with the number of games played. We should shorten the season. The chances of that are really remote.

Blogger Ed Edmonds -- 10/07/2009 12:54 PM  


I question your premise that eliminating the wild card would hurt small-market teams, although I would have to look it up (and we would have to agree on a definition of small-market). Are small-market teams disproportionately winning the wild card while big-market teams are winning divisions? In six of the past seven years, the AL wild card has been the Yankees or Red Sox--whichever team did not win the AL East.


Baseball has the fewest playoff teams, but baseball also has the most meaningful regular season. Things really get worked out over the course of 162 games in the way they do not over the course of 16 games (football), 30 (college basketball), or even the NBA (82 games).

Also, my point is not that eliminating the wild card will produce close pennant races every year. You're right; we don't know. This year only two divisions went down to the last weekend. But sans the wild card, there would have been real excited in two divisions (rather than just one) and one of the close races would have involved the two best teams in the league.

My point is that the close races we get will *never* involve the top teams; they always will be for the wild card among the fourth and fifth best teams in the league or among two teams competing for a weak division.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/07/2009 5:48 PM  

I couldnt stop laughing when the Twins player was celebrating and poured champagne on the interviewers times..

Anonymous constant gina -- 10/07/2009 6:30 PM  

The Wild Card gives incentive to teams to play hard the whole season. While I agree that I would like to see higher qualities teams playing each other for higher stakes late in the regular season, I do not think it's worth eliminating the wild card. Maybe the regular season should just be shortened. Individual games would matter more. Check out my sports blog at

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Blogger poll -- 10/07/2009 11:38 PM  

Howard -

Here is a list of the playoff teams in the American League from 2000-2009. The list is in order by East - Central - West - Wild Card. My main question for you is are you proposing to go back to two divisions or keep the current three divisions and use another playoff format.

2000 - New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners*
2001 - New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians, Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics*
2002 - New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Anaheim Angels*
2003 - New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox*
2004 - New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Anaheim Angels, Boston Red Sox*
2005 - New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Boston Red Sox*
2006 - New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers*
2007 - Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, New York Yankees*
2008 - Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Boston Red Sox*
2009 - New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Boston Red Sox

This is list by teams showing the number of times each team made the playoffs during this decade:

Angels - 6
Athletics - 5
Indians - 2
Mariners - 2
Rays - 1
Red Sox - 6
Tigers - 1
Twins - 5
White Sox - 3
Yankees - 9

No appearances - Blue Jays, Orioles, Rangers, and Royals

My point about small market teams is that an elimination of any playoff spots hurts the chances of a small market team making the playoffs. The Angels, Red Sox, and Yankees made a total of 21 playoff appearances. I think we can agree that they are “large market teams.” How we divide up the rest would be an interesting discussion.

Blogger Ed Edmonds -- 10/08/2009 11:27 AM  

But eliminating playoff spots also hurts the chances of large-market teams to make the playoffs. My point is that to make this a large-market/small-market issue, it must be that small-market teams are uniquely advantaged by having the wild-card and thus would be uniquely disadvantaged by eliminating the wild card.

And I would call the O's a large-market team, just a poorly run one.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 10/08/2009 11:47 AM  

Allow me to settle this...

A 2004 study done in Hard Ball Times shows a positive correlation between an MLB teams market size and wins, meaning a team in a larger market is more likely to come up with more wins in a given season then a small market team. If this is true, then a large market team has a greater chance of winning more games and as a result winning the division. With the large market teams more likely to win the division, this leaves the "smaller" market teams competing for the lone wild card spot. Without the wild card spot, the large market teams would be taking the playoff spot and the small market teams would have nothing to compete for. Thus, Ed is correct in that a small market team loses more by eliminating a wild card spot then a large market team.

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