Commentary

Five options for improving the wild-card system

Originally Published: October 4, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

"I made my arguments and went down in flames. History will prove me right." -- Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush after voting against realignment and a new wild-card system during a Major League Baseball owners meeting in September 1993. Bush was the lone dissenter in a 27-1 vote.

"Time will tell. We believe in our research and that the positives far outweigh the negatives." -- Milwaukee Brewers president and acting commissioner Bud Selig after owners approved the new system 14 years ago.

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Judging from their track records on this one, maybe Selig should take a crack at sorting out that nettlesome Iraq situation and the president should forget about baseball and events in Baghdad and turn his attention to health care.

You didn't have to stay up late Monday night to watch Colorado's 9-8 victory over San Diego for confirmation that baseball's wild-card system makes for compelling entertainment. It's apparent from the euphoria in Denver, an NFL hotbed where baseball suddenly is monopolizing the front of the sports pages.

Keith Foulke
Al Bello/Getty ImagesThe Red Sox reached the postseason in 2004 as the AL wild card team, and then went on to win the World Series.
You can see it in Major League Baseball's record 79.5 million attendance this season. That includes a combined increase of about 1.25 million fans in Philadelphia, Denver, San Diego and Milwaukee, cities where teams were playing meaningful games right down to the jubilant and/or bitter end.

And you can tell by baseball's spiraling revenue, which has increased from $1.2 billion to $5.8 billion since owners had the temerity to mess with tradition and introduce realignment, followed by revenue sharing and a luxury tax on big spenders.

Selig, who spent last week watching games at Miller Park and channel-switching at home, called his old pal, former Boston Red Sox CEO John Harrington, and they marveled at the direction the game has taken.

"John said, 'Commissioner, did you ever think when we were designing all this that it could be this good?'" Selig said. "The answer is no. I thought it would be great, and so did John. But are you kidding me?"

Baseball's playoff system is so popular, even Bob Costas is no longer on a soapbox on behalf of purists everywhere. The only people with reason to complain, it seems, are those unfortunate division champions who keep getting sent home prematurely by upstart wild-card clubs.

WILD CARD SUCCESS
YEAR TEAMS HOW FARED
2006 AL: Detroit
NL: LA Dodgers
Lost in WS
Lost in NLDS
2005 AL: Boston
NL: Houston
Lost in ALDS
Lost in WS
2004 AL: Boston
NL: Houston
Won WS
Lost in NLCS
2003 AL: Boston
NL: Florida
Lost in ALCS
Won WS
2002 AL: Anaheim
NL: San Francisco
Won WS
Lost in WS
2001 AL: Oakland
NL: St. Louis
Lost in ALDS
Lost in NLDS
2000 AL: Seattle
NL: NY Mets
Lost in ALCS
Lost in WS
1999 AL: Boston
NL: NY Mets
Lost in ALCS
Lost in NLCS
1998 AL: Boston
NL: Chicago
Lost in ALDS
Lost in NLDS
1997 AL: NY Yankees
NL: Florida
Lost in ALDS
Won WS
1996 AL: Baltimore
NL: LA Dodgers
Lost in ALCS
Lost in NLDS
1995 AL: NY Yankees
NL: Colorado
Lost in ALDS
Lost in NLDS
Wild-card notes
• Eight of 24 wild-card teams have made it to the World Series
• Three of 24 wild-card teams have won the World Series, including three of last 10
• Overall series record of wild-card teams: 26-20

If recent history is any indication, this year's wild cards, the Yankees and Rockies, might be sticking around a while. Since 2002, six of the 10 World Series participants have been wild cards. Three of the six -- the 2002 Angels, 2003 Marlins and 2004 Red Sox -- went all the way.

When the Yankees win the wild card with their massive YES network revenue, a lineup featuring Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter and a $195 million payroll, it's officially time to dispense with the notion of wild-card teams as Little Engines that Could.

On the contrary; lots of people in baseball think wild cards have an inherent advantage because they're grinding for victories until the final days of the season out of sheer necessity.

Since the current system first came into effect, wild cards are 14-10 in the Division Series, 8-6 in the League Championship Series, and 4-4 in the World Series.

"You're talking about guys playing their best, most inspired baseball of the entire season during the time they're rushing to make the cut," said Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. "Oftentimes it seems like there's a carryover there."

That's not a hard and fast rule, of course. The 1997 wild-card Florida Marlins went 12-15 in September and won the World Series. The 2000 Mets (15-14) and 2006 Detroit Tigers (12-16) were also underwhelming in the final month.

But since the rule's inception, wild-card teams have posted a staggering .631 winning percentage (461-270) in the final month of the regular season. The Angels, Giants, Marlins, Red Sox and Astros -- the five wild cards that made the World Series from 2002 through 2005 -- had an aggregate record of 94-47 in September.

Does late-season momentum outweigh the advantage that a division title winner derives from clinching early, setting up its rotation and having an opportunity to rest injured regulars? The 2006 Yankees, who won the AL East by 10 games and got bounced by Detroit in the Division Series, might beg to differ.

Still, the enduring success of wild cards in the postseason has prompted some baseball insiders to wonder whether it's time to erect a roadblock or two. In an effort to gauge that sentiment, ESPN.com surveyed general managers, assistant GMs and other front office personnel from all 30 big league clubs on the state of the wild-card system.

We gave them five alternatives and asked the following question: If you had a choice of these scenarios, which wild-card setup would you prefer? Here's how it turned out:

Option No. 1: Keep the current system exactly as is (seven votes)

"Certain things are adages and clichés for a reason," said Dan Jennings, Florida Marlins assistant GM. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. I think the wild card is the greatest thing that's happened to our game in the last 40-50 years."

Right off the top, let's dispense with the notion that wild-card teams somehow slip in the back door. Discounting the strike-shortened 1995 season (the first of the wild-card era), there have been 22 wild-card winners. Only three (the 1996 Orioles, 2005 Astros and 2006 Dodgers) failed to win 90 games. And no wild card has ever won fewer than 88.

If there's reason for debate regarding wild cards, it relates primarily to the fairness or lack thereof in the schedule. In 2001, Major League Baseball went from a balanced to an unbalanced schedule that requires teams to play 17-19 games within their division every year. The Phillies, for example, have to play well against the Braves, Mets, Nationals and Marlins if they want to lay claim to the NL East title, rather than clobbering the other two divisions and simply holding their own in intra-divisional games.

I don't think they should look at the wild card as, 'Well, you didn't win your division.' You just might have been in a division that was better than the other divisions. Why should you be penalized after that?

--Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd

But the system also raises questions about the equity of the wild-card race, because teams are chasing the same goal based on the same criteria -- winning percentage -- while playing vastly different schedules. The distinctions are even broader now that interleague play is part of the equation.

And who's to say the wild-card Rockies, who won 90 games in a very competitive NL West, are inferior to the Cubs, who won 85 games while competing against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Houston in the sorry NL Central?

That's why a lot of executives think there's no call for a wild-card team to confront additional barriers in October. There were enough obstacles in place from April through September.

"I don't think they should look at the wild card as, 'Well, you didn't win your division,'" said Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd. "You just might have been in a division that was better than the other divisions. Why should you be penalized after that?"

Option No. 2: Expand the first round of the playoffs from five to seven games (13 votes)

Oakland general manager Billy Beane spoke for many when he referred to the postseason as a "crapshoot." A bad call by an umpire here or a chalk-line double there can mean the difference between advancing or going home early. So doesn't it stand to reason that a longer first-round series will negate the possibility of a fluke or a hot -- yet inferior -- team springing a surprise?

"The integrity of the playoffs would be better served with no five-game series where too many coincidences can impact the outcome," Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro said.

Detroit's David Dombrowski concurred that a longer first-round makes for a fairer test without favoring one club or another.

"We need to remember that sometimes the wild-card team is the second-best team in the league and has the second-best record," Dombrowksi said. "Handicapping them too much, in some cases, can be extreme."

Beane actually favors the opposite approach. He proposes extending the first round to seven games and giving the wild card home-field advantage if it has the second-best record in the league.

The biggest problem with a longer first round is the calendar. If this year's World Series goes the distance, Game 7 will take place Nov. 1. The new spaced-out schedule, which is dictated by television concerns, provides for more off days and potentially more wiggle room. But after last year's October weather debacle, the people in the commissioner's office would rather not be squeezed in the event of rainouts.

Selig said a seven-game Division Series has been discussed ad nauseam in recent years. Everybody loves the idea until confronted with the possibility of lopping games off the regular season schedule and losing revenue as a result.

"I understand the argument when a team says, 'Look, I played all year and went through all this hell for 162 games, and it's going to be over in five games,'" Selig said. "On the other hand, there's more drama because it's only five games. That's something to think about.

"I've always believed that we should go back to 154 games anyway. But that's a real hit, particularly for the big-market clubs. We went through this two or three years ago and I asked the clubs, 'Are you guys willing to cut two or four games from the schedule?' And the answer was always no."

Option No. 3: Add a second wild-card club (seven votes)

Some executives favored a one-game playoff, while others liked a best-2-of-3 series. But this option was particularly popular with executives of clubs that compete against opponents with superior resources. O'Dowd, Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi and Milwaukee assistant GM Gord Ash were among the respondents who favor expanding the field by one team in each league.

Ricciardi admits he's biased, but it's hard to blame him. Despite being crushed by injuries, the Blue Jays just posted consecutive winning seasons for the first time since 2000. Their reward: They finished 13 games out of first place in the AL East despite going a respectable 17-19 against Boston and New York.

Toronto is accustomed to having a payroll that's considerably smaller than New York's or Boston's. Now the new, more enlightened Red Sox and Yankees are pumping more cash and resources into the amateur draft and international operations, so they're starting to look invulnerable on all fronts.

Bud Selig
AP Photo/Matt YorkCommissioner Bud Selig really likes the current playoff format.
"I think you have to look at the dichotomy of the American League from our standpoint," Ricciardi said. "Those teams aren't going away. There's no cyclical change in their payroll or their ability to go out and get people.

"It's not that we're not up for the challenge of competing with them. All we're asking for is a little more of a shot. This gives the Kansas Citys, the Tampa Bays and all those teams a chance to say, 'Hey, maybe we can get in at 88 wins.'"

Atlanta assistant GM Frank Wren likes the concept of a best-of-three playoff because it would tax the depth of a wild-card team that might have qualified thanks to a hot streak at the end. If that team has to burn its two best pitchers in a "play-in" round, it will be at a disadvantage starting the next round.

One obvious objection to the "play-in" concept: With 10 teams and four rounds, the baseball playoffs would start looking more like the marathon odysseys in the NHL and NBA.

"Too many games," said Gary Hughes, special assistant to Cubs general manager Jim Hendry. "We might be watching Game 7 of the Fall Classic with our Thanksgiving turkey."

Option No. 4: Require the wild-card team to play four of five games on the road in the first round (three votes)

"We've talked about that a lot," Selig said. "But if you're going to make it almost impossible for the wild card to win, then why do you have the wild card?"

In truth, home field advantage isn't as much of a factor as you might think. Since the advent of the wild-card era, home teams are 155-138 in the postseason. But it was pretty much dead even until 2004. In the three years since, home teams have gone 42-27 in the playoffs and World Series.

The concept of wild-card teams-as-road warriors appeals to executives who want to tweak the system, but dislike the idea of dragging out the postseason with an additional tier or an expanded Division Series.

"I think the wild card should be disadvantaged, and this seems like the best way to me," said Gerry Hunsicker, senior vice president of baseball operations in Tampa Bay. "I still think when you play 162 games, winning your division should mean something, until the industry decides we're not going to do that."

Option No. 5: The old Japanese League system (No votes)

For years, under the Japanese system, a team that finished first by five games or more during the regular season was required to win only two games in a best-of-five series, while its lower-seeded opponent had to win three. That rule is now off the books.

While a few of our respondents were intrigued by the concept, no one embraced it as a realistic option.

"I think it's an extremely cool idea, but it's just too radical and would never happen.," said a National League front office man.

"Un-American," said another.

Selig, similarly, has no interest in a wrinkle that seems too gimmicky and contrived for the national pastime. For all the talk about tweaking the wild-card system, fans love it, the money is pouring in, and there's a healthy mix of new faces and old guard teams this October.

"You now have a system that's producing record attendance because people like it and believe in it," Selig said. "We're doing things we never thought possible. Why would you change that?"

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer