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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.