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5th Inning: Wild Card

Editor’s Note: Doug believes baseball is broken and would like to fix it. He plans to discuss an issue a week for the coming weeks. Read here for the topics he plans to help baseball fix.

You have been completely duped. There has been a con artist at work for 15 years and the baseball public has fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I will stand up and take the arrows and bullets from the 90% of baseball fans who think it is working.

If you think it’s good for baseball, you’re in love with the fantasy and reality. It doesn’t work the way it was sold to you. It allows for the above-average to be rewarded the same as the best. It gives false hope and stunts future growth. The bold are accused of quitting.

Fix the game. Eliminate the Wild Card.

If you read the third inning, from two weeks ago, I realigned MLB into eight 4-team divisions. For the most part, realigning MLB places teams in similar size markets into the same division. It eliminates the advantage money creates to get to the playoffs when rich teams compete against rich teams.

The Wild Card puts rich versus small. The Wild Card doesn’t work. It rewards second place. Baseball used to have the clear distinction as the one sport where only the best advance. It was survival of the fittest in baseball and now it’s survival of the pretty good.

If I can loosely quote Bob Costas, he once said, “Baseball went from two pennant races to four to zero.” From the beginning of baseball until 1968, every team was fighting to win their league so they could advance to the World Series. From 1969 to 1993, four teams made the playoffs but each one had something in common. They were all first place teams.

The pennant race is the one thing baseball had that no other sport could match. The highest pressure was September baseball when one mistake could cost you the playoffs. Now, that pressure is only reserved for divisions dubbed weak—if the wild card team has a better record—or cross-country teams fighting for the wild card when they haven’t played against each other in three months.

In my newly redesigned divisions, you win, you’re in. No second place teams allowed.

In order to convince you the Wild Card is a farce, you must look at the number one reason the Wild Card was sold to the public:

It gives teams who would be out of the playoffs a chance to stay alive in the race.

Now here’s how it has played out.

FACT: 11 of the 16 AL Wild Card teams were the Yankees or Red Sox

The Wild Card diminishes the amazing accomplishment of an organization like Tampa Bay when they prove they’re the best team over the course of 162 games yet New York or Boston get into the playoffs anyway.

FACT: 75% of all teams leading the Wild Card standings on July 1st do not win the Wild Card

The month of July is full of trades. As teams look to improve, they make big moves to push themselves into the playoffs. The Wild Card and the trade deadline conspire to help the bigger market teams. Since large market teams can more easily afford high-priced players, they can make the moves necessary to advance to the post-season.

The Wild Card diminishes the importance of April-June baseball and allows teams to save their seasons. Fans are sold that this is a great thing but look deeper. Who are the teams that are being saved? The large market clubs who can afford an end of the season run.

Only three times out of 32 Wild Cards did a small market team trailing on July 1st of that year in the Wild Card standings overtake a large market club (2001 A’s, 2003 Marlins and 2007 Rockies).

FACT: The LDS has had two teams from the same division 11 times in only 16 years of the Wild Card’s existence.

In other words, in the course of 162 games team A proved they were better than team B but they had to prove it again. Even though I’m writing to end the Wild Card, if we have to have one, cut the season down. At least make the argument in a 110 game season the division champ has more to prove. At least add another Wild Card team so they have to face each other and make it that much harder for the Wild Card winner to advance to the World Series.

FACT: Two stunning pennant races were nullified because of the Wild Card.

2001: HOU/STL tie for Wild Card and division. Ending any suspense, baseball uses head-to-head match up and declares Houston division winner.

1996: The dream match up. Two teams. Two games of separation. Three games left. One team sweeps their way to the division championship.

No suspense though. The loser was going to be the WC any way so LA didn’t even play their best line-up allowing San Diego to sweep.

FACT: Fans rip a trade that makes a non-contender better.

In 1997, the Chicago White Sox knew they were not a World Series team despite being 3.5 games out of a playoff spot. They made a trade with the Giants that helped set up Chicago for future runs at World Series. The trade worked brilliantly on the field and was a nightmare for Public Relations as fans thought the Sox put up the white flag on the season.

Chicago went to win the division a few years later, only to be beaten by a wild card team in the playoffs.

For the most part, the Wild Card helps wealthy clubs save themselves and make the playoffs. It puts a second place team on an even keel with three different first place teams. It lies to the fans making them think they should keep buying tickets throughout the summer when history shows your team isn’t going to make it. It helps continue the separation between the big market clubs and the small market clubs.

As the great American philosopher Charlie Sheen said, “Deal with it Middle America.”