National / Sports / Uncategorized / October 8, 2014

MLB wild card structure changes unpacked

Baseball Sketch copyOne of Major League Baseball’s most radical rule changes occurred prior to the 1994 season. The 1993 expansion had resulted in each division having seven teams, making it extremely difficult to win a division. This was best exemplified in the National League West that year. The Atlanta Braves won the division with a suburb record of 104-58, which at the time was the franchise’s best single season ever going all the way back to 1876. The division runner-up was the San Francisco Giants, who posted their best record since 1917: 103-59, one game back of the Braves. Yet the Giants didn’t make the postseason, even though they had a better record than that of the Eastern Division champions, the Philadelphia Phillies. To remedy this apparent injustice, MLB reorganized for the 1994 season. A third division was introduced in each league, with five teams in the East and Central, and four teams in the West for both the National and American League. To balance out the postseason, MLB introduced the Wild Card and a new round in the Postseason, the Division Series. Now a team could make the playoffs without winning a division.

Although the system was in place for 1994, it was not utilized fully until 1995 due to the strike. The Florida Marlins quickly took advantage of this new playoff structure, winning the World Series as the wild card in 1997. From 1995 to 2011, the World Series was won by wild card teams five times: 1997 (Florida), 2002 (Anaheim), 2003 (Florida), 2004 (Boston) and 2011 (St. Louis). There was, however, a major flaw with this system in that it gave a wild card team equal footing with the division winners at the beginning in the postseason. What this meant is that any team that suddenly caught fire in September could win the World Series without having been competitive for the entire preceding part of the season. This was demonstrated in 2011 when the Cardinals marched to victory after being a full 10 and a half games behind the Atlanta Braves heading into the final month of the season.

With all this in mind, MLB modified the Wild Card rule before the 2012 season. There would now be two wild card teams that would play each other in a sudden death game, with the winner advancing to the Division Series against the team with the best record in the league. The idea behind this change was to put a premium on winning the division. By winning the division, a team would receive additional days off and not have to burn their ace pitcher before getting into an extended series. This loss of the ace for the first game of the division series is particularly important for the wild card winner, because that pitcher can no longer pitch twice in the Division Series if he’s used in the Wild Card game. The expanded Wild Card has had several enormous effects since its inception in 2012.

More Teams are Competitive

The second wild card has resulted in just about any team over .500 (and even a handful under .500) remaining in the playoff race right up until the very end. For example, the Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics were this year’s American League Wild Card teams, finishing with records of 89-73 and 88-74, respectively. Under the old system, Oakland would have been eliminated on the final day since the Royals won their last game. Instead, what happened is that Oakland faced competition from the Seattle Mariners on the final day for the last wild card spot. The Mariners made an enormous final push, sweeping the Los Angeles Angels (who long since clinched the division title) out of Seattle and forcing Oakland to win its final game in order to avoid a game 163 in Seattle. If we look at the final standing for the Wild Card, behind Oakland there was Seattle (1 GB), Cleveland (3 GB), New York (4 GB) and Toronto (5 GB). The result was that all four of those teams were still in the race until the final few days of the season. This created an exciting final week, and the last day of the regular season in particular was exciting to watch play out due to what was at stake. However, heading into the final week or so, any one of those teams would almost certainly have to win out to make it in, but doing so is not impossible. The Cleveland Indians won all of their final 10 games in 2013 to sneak by and grab home field advantage for the Wild Card game (which they lost to Tampa).

Compare this with the final results for the American League Wild Card race in 2009. The Boston Red Sox won the Wild Card by a full eight games over the Texas Rangers, who were eliminated an entire week before the season ended. However, under the two wild card system, not only would the Rangers have made the playoffs, the Detroit Tigers (1 GB of Texas), Minnesota Twins (1 GB), Seattle Mariners (2 GB) and Tampa Bay Rays (3 GB) would all have been in the playoff race until the final days of the season. The second wild card and expanded playoff race means many more September games have serious implications, as a greater number of teams are in contention. Not only that, it gives many more opportunities to under .500 teams to play the spoiler role, which also means that even teams that are going nowhere have more games in September that are not simply pointless games, especially when it comes to rivalries within the division.

The increase in competitive teams has had effects throughout the season, specifically at the trade deadline. More teams with a chance at the playoffs means more teams are buyers at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and throughout August as non-competitive teams place their big name players on waivers to gauge interest. Leading up to the trade deadlines, teams around .500 must decide whether they should commit to the season and empty the farm system for some game-changing players, or simply stay the course. Combined with changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement with respect to compensatory draft picks which has reduced the trade market somewhat, the increase in competitive teams has meant that non-competitive teams have been able to extract enormous prices for big name players. The Chicago Cubs, for example were able to extract a potentially elite prospect along with a second highly touted prospect and pitcher for only Jeff Samardzija (the key element in the trade) and Jason Hammel. And for all their effort, Oakland lost the wild card game and was eliminated, giving the Cubs a clear victory in the trade, which may result in teams taking a second thought at potential blockbuster deals.

Teams Focus on Winning the Division

This was shown clearly on the final day of the regular season this year. Heading into the final game, the Cardinals had a one game lead over the Pirates, meaning a Pirate win and Cardinal loss would result in the two being tied and necessitating a game 163. The Pirates had already clinched a playoff berth, but wanted a shot at the division, so manager Clint Hurdle opted to start Gerrit Cole rather than save him for the wild card game against the Giants. Knowing that losing the game could result in a tiebreaker, the Cardinals planned to start Adam Wainwright, but since the Pirates lost their game before the Cardinals began, Wainwright was scratched since it was no longer necessary to avoid a loss at all costs. Meanwhile, the Tigers held a one game lead over the Royals in the American League Central. Wishing to preserve the division crown, the Tigers sent David Price to the mound against Minnesota, which proved to be good move: the Tigers won to deny the Royals, who also won, a chance at the division crown. The benefits of winning the division versus a wild card spot are clear cut, as mentioned above.

Wild Card Success has Changed

This is the toughest section to include, as it is based on a small sample size and is heavily skewed by the Wild Card success so far this October. At any rate, from 1995-2011, the Wild Card teams were extremely successful. Out of 36 wild card teams, 18, or exactly one half, of them advanced at least to the League Championship series. Ten of those teams advanced further to the World Series, with the five enumerated above winning the World Series. During the first two years of the expanded wild card, only one team (St. Louis in 2012) made it beyond the Division Series. Interestingly, three out of the first four wild card teams lasted the full five games against their opponents, who had the best record in the league, with the fourth (2013, Tampa versus Boston) lasting four games. After St. Louis advanced, they lost in seven games to San Francisco, meaning no new Wild Card team has made it to the World Series yet. The results this year skew these percentages however as Kansas City has not only advanced to the ALCS, it swept the Los Angeles Angels. Meanwhile, the Giants stunned the Nationals in the first two games in Washington (including an 18 inning affair in game two, which I watched every minute of), and finished them off in game four last night. Thus by pure percentages, half of the wild card teams (three out of six) under the new system have advanced, but it’s worth noting that both wild cards advancing is highly unusual. 2014 is the first year that has occurred since it happened in three straight years from 2002 to 2004.

Of these effects, the first two were almost certainly intentional and expected. Making more teams competitive adds intrigue throughout the final month, which makes many more games high stakes games and therefore more interesting from the fans’ perspective. A side effect of expanding the playoffs is that it affects competitive balance, which has been a major focus for Major League Baseball in the past decade. With more teams theoretically capable of making the playoffs, talent will be more diluted across the league via mid-season trades rather than becoming concentrated on three or four of the top teams each year. The key concern of competitive balance is the prevention of such concentration. Thus the expanded postseason augments the other competitive balance initiatives such as Draft Pick Compensation and the Luxury Tax.

When MLB first announced the addition of the second Wild Card, I was skeptical. It seemed as though it was more of a cash grab than anything else because it effectively allowed MLB to negotiate new and more lucrative television deals. And while that probably was a motivation behind expanding the postseason, I think the three described effects have been extremely positive. That being said, if Major League Baseball wants to put a really significant premium on the division crown, it would revert to the two division format with two wild cards and have a stepladder postseason format. Other ideas at present include making the wild card round a doubleheader, with a third game the next day if needed. The expanded wild card also has a positive effect for up-and-coming teams that lack recent postseason experience. If the team is a fringe team, say only around .500, the competition for the second wild card spot gives the young players experience in a tight race, which would help them significantly in the next several years as they look to compete for more than just a wild card spot. Thus, the expanded Wild Card has had several extremely positive effects for Major League Baseball and was a very good change to introduce.


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Tags:  atlanta braves division series major league baseball MLB national league west philadelphia phillies wild card

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