“But he’s Canadian,” you say, “So what does he know about baseball?” Well, he’s from Toronto, the team most screwed by the current system, so let’s give it a shot:
A few days ago, the MLB announced that it was expanding its playoffs to include a second wild-card team. Under the new system, the two wild-cards will play a single game that determines who goes to the divisional series. Response has been, at best, mixed. The strongest criticisms, like this one from ESPN’s Joe Sheenan, have taken a traditionalist perspective. Sheenan worries about what this new system will mean for deep-seated, and still exciting, elements of baseball like the pennant race. He sees the wild-card system as debasing what has historically been one of the most exciting parts of being a baseball fan: following your team through a tense September race to win the division. By Sheenan’s estimation, the old system encouraged top teams to play their best throughout the whole season. If you happen to be one of the two best teams in the league by regular season record but can’t win your own division, tough grapes.
I sympathize with Sheenan and other traditionalists. Baseball’s regular season is long and arduous and does a pretty good job of determining the “best” team (or, at least, a better job than other pro-sports at determining the best team). Meanwhile, baseball playoffs, due to the nature of the game, are pretty close to random. As Billy Beane said, “my shit doesn’t work in the playoffs” – seven and five game series are simply too short to give us a good idea as to which team is best. In the 17 post-seasons since the advent of the wild-card, the wild card team has won five times and made five other World Series. This problem is acute in baseball. Sheenan is right that winning a division is no longer a big deal and that division battles between top teams mean less due to the wild card. He’s also right that it seems somehow unfair when teams like the 2011 Cardinals win the World Series. 162 games should mean something. And epic collapses like that of the 2011 Red Sox are less epic when they land in the second wild-card spot.
But I’m a Torontonian. I have the comfort of knowing that, no matter how good my Jays are, I can begin every season with little hope. Despite playing in the AL East, in 2008 we won 86 games – the same number as the 2011 Cardinals and enough to win the 2008 NL West – and yet had no hope of making the playoffs! To do so, we’d have had to finish with a better record than two of New York, Boston, and Tampa Bay and beat out another team from another, weaker, division all while playing one of the league’s most crippling schedules. While Toronto may be in a unique position, Toronto is not alone in its general predicament. By late-July, most teams are well served to pack it in. So few teams make the playoffs in the MLB that, for most of the country, the last half of the season is a good excuse for one long late summer nap in most cities.
MLB’s solution has been to push the tension down the table. While the pennant race might be riveting, those cities remain interested in October and expanding the playoffs at least makes a few more cities interested in August. So how can baseball solve this situation? How can baseball keep the regular season interesting and reward regular season accomplishment? While some problems of competitive balance can’t be addressed without baseball undertaking economic reforms, some structural playoff reforms could help balance these two concerns.
In order to make winning your division, and therefore the divisional race, more valuable, we must come up with a playoff system that rewards division champions by giving them a better chance at winning the World Series than wild-cards but keeps fans interested after the divisions have been clinched. Here’s a potential, and potentially radical, solution:
- Move back to two leagues of two divisions, the East and the West.
- Four teams still make the playoffs like under the current (well, current up until this week) model.
- The over-all division champion, as measured by record, gets a bye into the League Championship Series.
- The two wild-card teams, one from each division, play each other in a “coin-flip” game to make the Divisional Series against the second division champion.
- The second division champion and the wild-card play the divisional series for the right to make the League Championship series.
I think this proposal splits the baby (without killing it!). First, assuming an underlying probability of 50% for each team in each series, the team with the overall best record has a 50% chance of making the World Series – a result that has the benefit of 1) making the best regular season record more valuable than it currently is thereby encouraging the top team to play all out until the last day of the season and 2) comporting with our intuition that the MLB regular season is a good measure of the best team.
Meanwhile, the division winner with the second best record during the regular season has a 25% chance of making the World Series while the wild-card teams have only a 12.5% chance of making it. This preserves the integrity of the pennant race between top teams. While currently, finishing with the second best record in your division and winning the wild-card gives you approximately the same probability of making the World Series as the eventual division champion (approximately 25%), now you risk a 12.5% to 37.5% decrease in your chance of making the World Series! As for potential revenue loss, it’s true that baseball loses between two and four divisional games, but the added interest generated by the more meaningful pennant race in August and September should more than make up for it. Plus, in the rare situation where the wild-card makes a run at the World Series, the “Cinderella Story” is far more compelling than it is now.
Such a solution may not save the Jays, although it will make the baseball regular season a lot more exciting. Will traditionalists object to such a change? Surely. Many of them will complain that my system is too complicated. I don’t think that it is, but nothing short of returning to two divisions, a single LCS, and three teams not named the Mets in NYC will appease them. I think that even George Will knows we’re not going back to that. All I can hope is that, if George reads this blog, he’ll agree with my proposal more than I agree with him every Sunday on This Week.