Column: Wild Card game has no place in baseball


Urban Cities City Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Pnc Park

Charlie Wolfson

As football resumes its inundation of our weekend TV guides and NBA and NHL teams get stretched out and ready for their seasons to commence in October, baseball’s year is winding down with its stretch-run to the playoffs.

All of the usual signs of late-season baseball are there. Each game carries a lot more meaning than one would in June or July (at least for the teams still in contention for a playoff berth). Every late-inning jam induces a lot more nail biting, just as the escaping reliever seems a lot more fired up as he walks off the mound with his glove covering his mouth to shield the TV audience from whatever profanity he’s yelling.

The stakes are simply higher, as is the entertainment and drama. Teams are fighting for a chance to do battle in October—a chance to compete in MLB’s postseason, and ultimately for the World Series. Only five teams make the cut from each 15 team league, after all. At 33 percent, that’s the lowest playoff qualification rate among North American major league sports. Compared to the NHL’s 51 percent, the NBA’s 53 percent and the NFL’s 38 percent, MLB’s playoffs are an exclusive showdown of the sport’s very best teams.

Unfortunately, the playoff format MLB uses is a flawed way of crowning a champion considering the nature of baseball. The game’s arbitrary, large-sample-size friendly tendencies lend themselves to the long haul of its 162-game regular season, not the whiplash-inducing brevity of its playoffs. Too many unpredictable and unpreventable things happen over the course of one baseball game for such an unforgiving playoff format to be a good method of choosing a champion.

For those unfamiliar, a description of how things operate:

Each league has three divisions, each containing five teams. Throughout the regular season, each team’s primary objective is to win their respective division, because the division winners are guaranteed a berth in the first round of the playoffs—the best-of-five Division Series (DS).

Since 2012, each league has also given playoff berths to two Wild Card teams—basically, the two highest standing teams that didn’t win a division. Those two teams meet in a one-game playoff (the Wild Card game), the winner moving on to the Division Series. 

The top division winner faces the Wild Card game winner in the DS, while the other two division winners square off against each other. The two DS winners move on to face each other in the best-of-seven League Championship Series (LCS), the winner of which advances to the World Series to face the team that came out of the other league.

The problem with this system is that the set of attributes a team needs to win a division over the course of 162 games is different from what is needed to win a short playoff series or a one-game playoff. The best-of-fives and best-of-sevens aren’t going anywhere (players, especially pitchers, are too taxed by that point in the season to add many more games to the schedule), but the one-game Wild Card playoff is utterly absurd and needs to be done away with.

A glaring problem with the one-game playoff is that it is not a test of which team has the stronger overall roster, rather it only determines (theoretically) which team has the stronger starting lineup. Pitching depth, which is absolutely essential to qualifying for the playoffs, doesn’t matter whatsoever, and whichever team has the better single ace, front-of-the-rotation arm will likely prevail.

Why should teams need one thing to qualify for the playoffs (a deep, talented pitching staff with at least three above-average starters and four or five dependable bullpen arms), and another to survive its first playoff round (one lights-out starter and maybe a good back-end reliever or two)? In this format, one team with the best, deepest pitching staff in the league could be toppled by another, clearly inferior team that happened to have the better number-one starting pitcher. This system is inherently flawed, and should not be included in the playoff to determine the World Series champion.

Another issue with the one-off format is that results in baseball are meant to be evaluated over a large sample-size. Even the most casual baseball fans know that to look at a player’s statistics for any one game is an unfair way of gauging his talent.

Let’s say a hitter has a .333 batting average over the course of a season. Assuming he has three or four plate appearances per game, it’s mathematically reasonable to say he’ll get at least one hit in each game. Though baseball can be measured and examined by analysts using math, it’s not governed by math. This batter will have many games with more than one hit, as well as many games with zero hits. He has no way of controlling when his hits fall; he’s trying his absolute hardest in each game.

The fact is, he’s trying to hit a ball thrown at 90 miles per hour with a round bat. For however much skill is involved in doing that, there’s some luck involved, too. Teams deserve more than one game to decide their playoff fates—it’s too easy for hitters to have routine off nights for a one-game playoff to be appropriate.

The same principle applies to pitching. Even the best pitchers have their off-days. On April 26, 2016, Clayton Kershaw allowed five earned runs. He went on to record a remarkable 1.69 ERA in 2016, finish fifth in the NL Cy Young voting and is widely considered one of the best pitchers of all time and a sure-fire Hall of Famer.

But his Dodgers lost, 6-3, that day because he didn’t pitch well. It wasn’t a discredit to him or his team; such off days happen in baseball. Teams deserve more than one game to decide their playoff fates—pitchers just don’t have their best stuff some nights, and a 1-0 deficit in a series is a far more appropriate consequence for this than immediate elimination.

Lastly, there are a number of freak incidents that happen in baseball that have no business being the sole decider of a team’s destiny. A routine grounder could deflect off of the third-base bag, over the head of the waiting third baseman. The difference between a walkoff home run and a long foul ball for strike two could be a fraction of an inch. In the 2012 NL Wild Card game, the outcome of the game was likely altered when an umpire enacted the infield fly rule when a ball was allowed to drop in—the problem being that it happened in the outfield and two runs should have scored.

These things are all part of the game and rightfully so, but they are too uncontrollable for a one-game playoff to make sense. It’s far more palatable for these whacky, hard-luck breaks to decide games within a playoff series, not a one-game death match.

Eliminating the Wild Card game would bring baseball back to having eight playoff teams instead of ten, and would be met by critics saying that this removes excitement from the regular season and takes more teams out of contention earlier.

So be it. The one-game playoff is utter nonsense in baseball. It makes sense for leagues with few regular season games (like the NFL and its 16 game season) and leagues with huge playoff fields (such as NCAA basketball and its 68-team tournament). Baseball has ten times the number of regular season games as the NFL and fewer than a sixth of the number of playoff teams as college hoops.

MLB would have to sacrifice a bit of excitement for a few teams in the regular season, but it’s well worth it if it means getting rid of something that counters much of what we know about how to build a successful baseball team.