Should Baseball Really Make it Tougher for the Wild Card

When Brad Lidge struck out Troy Tulowitzki late Monday night, 2009 became the first year since 2001, and only the fourth time since the current playoff system was established, that both wild card teams were eliminated in the first round.  The frequency with which wild card teams advance in the playoffs is often viewed as a failure of the current playoff structure and presented as a reason for changing the structure to create more barriers for the wild card.

This criticism of the current playoff structure rests implicitly on the notion that wild card teams are the weakest playoff teams and should face more barriers accordingly.  However, even anecdotally, this assumption rarely makes sense. Does any serious baseball fan really think, for example, the central division champion Twins were a better team than the wild card Red Sox this year.  The numbers tell a similar story.  There have been 30 wild card teams, fifteen years times two leagues, since the current playoff system started.  Only nine of those teams had the worst record in their league.  Seven of those wild card teams had the second best record in their leagues, while the remaining fourteen had the third best record.  The distribution varied somewhat by league.  In the National League, the wild card team had the worst record seven times and the second best record only twice, but in the American League those numbers were reversed as the wild card team had the second best record five times and the worst record only twice.  In the American League, a policy of punishing the wild card team would mean, in many cases, a policy of punishing the league’s second best team.

Since 1995, each team has sent three wild card winners to the World Series, so 20% of all pennant winners during that time have been wild card teams.  That may seem like a lot, but it is probably the right percentage, just below the 25% figure which would be the case if pennants were evenly distributed among all playoff teams, but high enough so that wild card teams have some hope going in to the playoffs.  Importantly, none of these pennant winners had the worst record of any playoff team in their league.  Four had the third best record and two, the 2007 Rockies and 2004 Red Sox, had the second best record in their league.

There is very little evidence that the current structure allows mediocre wild card teams to win pennants and championships.  Of the fifteen wild card teams which had the worst record in their league, eight were eliminated in the first round, while seven were eliminated in the LCS. None of these teams went on to win a pennant.  Bad wild card teams tend not to make it out of the first round while good wild card teams fare better and occasionally win a pennant.  Wild card teams have won four of the six World Series in which they played, but this may reflect something else, such as in any given year one league being stronger than the other.

There is something intuitively appealing about creating more barriers for the wild card winners.  The argument that wild card teams did not even win their division is reasonable at first glance, but the divisions are too starkly unequal for this to make sense.  This is partially due to the extremely strong AL East which has produced 11 out of 15 AL wild card winners since 1995. This year, for example, the Twins not only won fewer games than the wild card Red Sox, but they did it against a schedule that was probably easier.  Moreover, given the almost random seeming inequalities in the schedule based on interleague play and the bizarre rivalry series, the schedules are even less balanced, and for less rational reasons than they might seem at first glance.

The problem with the current playoff structure, if a problem exists at all is not that wild cards do not confront enough barriers, but that winners of the league’s weakest division are rewarded for seasons that are often clearly worse than those of the wild card winner.