Wild about the wild cards?

This marks the 10th anniversary of wild-card teams in the postseason. Has their inclusion been good for the game?

Originally Published: October 4, 2004
By Jim Baker | Special to ESPN.com

Not counting the false start of 1994 in which baseball was shot by the starter's pistol getting out of the blocks, 2004 marks the 10th year of the three-division era. Now that we've experienced a decade of this format, what can we say about it qualitatively?

What we can say and what we experience on a day-to-day basis are two different things. On the one hand, we go to the ballpark or turn on the television and what we see is still baseball -- well played, dramatic and entertaining. The quality of the on-field product is as good or better than it's ever been. The competitive infrastructure, however, is a nightmare. The thing of it is, though, it's a nightmare you don't have to think about to enjoy individual games. There is still nothing like a trip to the ballpark regardless of how befouled the underpinnings of the competitive format might be.

Part of the morass is attributable to factors beyond the control of the powers that be. Thirty teams don't divide out very well, leaving some clubs in a six-team pool and some in a four-team mix. This makes for inequality before a single game has been played. That 30 doesn't split into two equal, even numbers is also problematic.

Roger Clemens
Clemens fanned 12 in the ALDS in 12 innings.

Part of the morass is attributable to the powers that be, however. They decreed that there be an extra round of playoffs (many games of which are not available to the entire viewing audience), and this necessitated having three divisions instead of two, leading to the imbalanced split. They also continue to insist that interleague play is necessary. Both of these guidelines have undercut the structural integrity and inherent fairness of a schedule in which teams competing for the same titles play the same schedules.

Let us, then, ask some questions about the playoff system of the modern era:

Does the system allow lower-tier teams to advance to the World Series?
What was unique about the 1980 World Series? It was the first time that two teams with the third-best records in their respective leagues met in the World Series. During the 25 years of the two-division era, those '80 Phillies and Royals were joined by only three other teams who finished that low in their leagues and still got to the World Series: the 1973 Mets (fourth-best record), 1987 Twins (fifth-best) and 1993 Phillies (third-best). That's five out of 50, or, one in 10.

On the contrary, in 18 league seasons of the three-division era, the third-best or worse team has made it to the World Series fully one-half of the time. Our last four World Champions fit that description. Was the 2000 World Series the ratings flop it was because it only featured teams from one region, or was it so because it pitted the fourth-best team from the National League against the fifth-best from the American?

Final answer: Yes. The system allows far more teams of lower consequence to advance. As we know, the postseason is very much a crapshoot, so these lesser teams are often able to push their betters to the side in a short series.

Does the system allow teams to compete on an equal footing?
In the two-division era, teams played everyone in their own division 18 times and opponents in the other division 12 times. When the American League expanded in 1977, it went to 15 versus-own and 10 or 11 versus-other format. Two years later, teams adopted a balanced schedule that called for 13 games versus own-division teams and 12 against the other.

The current system is, to put it in old-school military terms, SNAFU. Baseball operates under the most convoluted and random scheduling since its early days in the 19th century. Playing teams in one's own division 19 times was a positive step. It's the rest of the schedule that is an utter disaster. Baseball's insistence that interleague play must survive comes at the price of introducing a concept to the game that should not be there. Two things that should have never been heard in the same sentence before the 1990s: "baseball" and "strength of schedule." No baseball team should ever have a harder or easier schedule than another team that is competing for the same regular-season goal. Unfortunately, that is not the case as teams within the same division often find themselves with varying interleague and interdivision schedules.

Take the Blue Jays and Yankees in 2003. Apart from the games in their own division, they only played the same number of games against five common opponents: three games apiece against the Cubs and Reds, nine against the Angels and Rangers and six against the Royals. They had two uncommon interleague opponents and a variable number of games against the other six American League opponents. This is not baseball, folks. It's college football, and we know what a difficult time they have determining who is best in that sport.

Final answer: No way.

Does the wild-card system put substandard teams into the playoffs?
It's not the wild card that does it, but the three divisions. More often than not, the wild-card team has had the third-best or better record in its league. What is more, wild-card teams have acquitted themselves pretty well in the playoffs. Only two of them have ever been swept and, as a group, they are over .500 in the postseason. Three have won it all. That's one more than the group of teams that have won their division by 10 or more games.

Final answer: Sometimes.

Josh Beckett
Josh Beckett and the Marlins won the World Series last year after reaching the postseason as the NL wild card.

Are wild-card races fair?
Final answer: Absolutely not! The single greatest evil of the modern era is the fact that teams are competing for the same playoff spot while playing vastly different schedules.

Are wild-card races as exciting as divisional races?
With fairly small pools (four, five or six teams) to work from, the schedule maker has a pretty good shot at contriving a final showdown against two divisional hopefuls. On the contrary, the chances that wild-card contenders will meet late in the year is coincidental at best. What that leaves is a whole lot of scoreboard watching and only the occasional, random direct confrontation.

Final answer: No.

Does the threat of elimination still exist, and, if so, does the inherent drama in that scenario still make for real pennant races?
What, exactly, is a "real" pennant race, anyway? It is, quite simply, one where the also-ran also runs home for good. Is this element completely gone from baseball? No. In 54 tries, there have been 13 fairly close divisional finishes in the three-division era (defining fairly close as the second-place team finishing three or fewer games out of first). In those 13 races, the second-place team was also the wild-card team on seven occasions, meaning the "race" was nothing more than a jockeying for position as to who would get the home-field advantage in the postseason, a prize that is not as important in baseball as it is in other sports. Of those 13, one resulted in a tiebreaker game for the wild card (1999, Mets over Reds), meaning the Reds lost the pennant chase but still had a shot at the postseason. On the other five occasions, the also-ran was truly eliminated. They are:

1. 1995: AL West: Angels lost tiebreaker game to Mariners. Went home.

2. 1997: NL West: Dodgers finished two games behind Giants. Went home.

3 and 4. 2001: NL Central: St. Louis lost division on tiebreaker procedure to Astros. Won wild card. Phillies and Giants both finished two games out in their divisions and went home.

5. 2003: NL Central: Houston finished one game behind Chicago. St. Louis finished three behind. Both went home.

Final answer: The majority of the time in the three-division system, the desperate struggle for first turns out not to be so desperate after all.

Has the new system created more races?
Yes, but only -- obviously -- because there are more divisions. Close races as a percentage of all races are about the same as they were in the two-division era. (Of course, as we discussed above, a number of these close races have been undercut by having the runner-up still make the playoffs.) One interesting thing, though, is that the blowout races have gotten more pronounced. The average distance between first and second place has gone up about two games in the three-division era.

Final answer: Sort of.

So, you have two choices:

You can be outraged at the inequities of baseball's playoff system and let it bother you to the point of distraction.

or

You can choose to ignore them and just enjoy the ride.

If you take the latter course, the standings will not reveal these inequities to you. If you pretend these problems do not exist, the regular-season games will still entertain you and the postseason -- regardless of which teams get there under what circumstances -- will still give you the same thrill it always did. As it has been since day one, the inherent greatness of the game itself will always overcome the meddling of those responsible for its care.

Jim Baker is an author at Baseball Prospectus and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

Jim Baker is an author at Baseball Prospectus and a frequent contributor to Page 2. You can e-mail Jim at bottlebat@gmail.com.