Part of baseball’s charm is that it very much resembles life. Even the most successful hitters fail seven out of 10 times at bat. When a pitcher surrenders a home run, he stands alone, beaten for all to see. It is simultaneously the most individual and team sport, with every episode isolating two men, yet season-long success requiring more depth of talent and chemistry than any other sport.
Win or lose, the next day you almost always need to suit up and do it all over again. Like life, the baseball season tests and exposes teams over the long haul rather than from isolated, random stints. That’s what makes this week’s single-elimination wild card play-in games so improper.
The Wild Card Elevates Poor Performers
After a 162-game regular season, the final spots in the Division Series are decided by just one game irrespective of the wild card teams’ final records. In 2012, Major League Baseball added the second wild card team and, in the first five years, eight of the 10 games featured two teams within one game of each other at the end of the season. Fortunately.
However, Atlanta lost their one-game playoff against a St. Louis club six games worse than them in 2012. The next year, Pittsburgh was forced to square off against a Cincinnati team four games worse in their own division.
It gets worse. Tuesday and Wednesday, New York and Arizona will host teams that finished six games behind each of them for winner-take-all matchups. The Diamondbacks had a better record than the NL Central-winning Chicago Cubs and the second-best run differential in their league. The Yankees had the second-best run differential in all of baseball. Their accomplishments will be rewarded by a game of chance this week. In any other realm of life, we would call that unfair.
Here is food for thought: If the Colorado Rockies manage to beat the D-Backs and their ace Zach Greinke Wednesday night, does that indicate they are A) a better team, or B) only five games worse? There is no rationale for answering the former unless the two teams are tied after the first 162 games. A season that measures success over such a large sample should not embrace randomness and mediocrity as such.
A Better Way to Arrange Postseason Games
None of this to say that arranging a postseason format is easy or scientific. Nor is it to say we should axe it entirely in favor of awarding the championship to the team with the best regular-season record. The postseason should balance excellence over the long season with head-to-head showdowns between the best teams and, yes, the drama of short series.
MLB already does this better than the NHL and NBA because those leagues qualify more than half their teams for their playoffs! Not to mention the NFL could never do more than single-elimination playoff games because the sport is too brutal on the human body to press it more.
Best-of-seven series between three division winners and the next-best record in each league is the most sensible format. But the play-in game is a bridge too far and deeply out of character for the league. If MLB is pining so badly for an extra two games of TV viewership and ticket sales, expanding the Division Series from best of five to seven would be an excellent alternative. Not only would it include a financial payout, but it would increase the likelihood that the better team advances.
Others defend the play-in game because it augments the importance of winning one’s division. It does so slightly, at the greater expense of reducing the importance of the regular season overall. Divisions are arbitrary, for one. Teams also play fewer than half their games within them. Excessively penalizing or rewarding teams that draw a good or poor division is extreme and unnecessary.
Eight Red Sox teams between 1998 and 2009 won between 92 and 98 games and finished second to the Yankees in the AL East. While Boston fans certainly deserve to suffer all sorts of grave sports misery, it would have been unfair for all of those perennially good Red Sox teams to be subject to random single-elimination propositions against much lesser teams simply because they were stuck with the Yankees in their division. And for all the emphasis on intra-divisional excellence, the Diamondbacks will face off against an inferior division rival Wednesday. Through baseball’s veil of ignorance, we should understand this is not reasonable no matter who the best wild card is.
Let’s Restore Balance to the Postseason
Finally, many proponents of the second Wild Card—perhaps the most honest among them—admit their affinity is about the excitement of single-elimination. The final game in a series is always exciting, which made the Cubs’ first World Series victory in 108 years in extra innings of the seventh game among of the best sporting events ever. “Game Seven” are the two greatest words in the English language, because they are earned. If every game is an elimination game, it devalues the drama.
If that were not the case, MLB should just expand the postseason to a “sweet 16” and make it single-elimination until the champion is crowned. While that is not presently being entertained, the reducto ad absurdum should raise concerns about the muddy terrain that MLB is traversing.
While wrong about many things political, the great liberal philosopher John Rawls was right that baseball’s balance was one reason it was superior to all other sports. MLB needs to restore balance to its postseason. In life, we recognize that time-tested excellence should be rewarded over flashes of brilliance. Baseball mostly does that, but it will disregard that virtue in the most glaring way this week.
MLB should eliminate the second wild card in favor of a seven-game American League Division Series as soon as possible. Until then, every baseball fan outside of Colorado and Minnesota should be rooting for the better teams on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.