The Commish Online www.thecommishonline.com
Wild Without a Wild Card
August 9, 2004
Before all the newspaper columns start coming out in the next month about how exciting the wild card has made baseball, take a look at the facts first. The writers in favor of the wild card will argue that the extra playoff races keep many more teams in the playoff hunt. The owners themselves believe this. Is it true? Technically, yes, but not nearly as much as you might think.
Right now, the way the divisions are structured, it appears that the Yankees have an A.L. playoff spot wrapped up and the Twins are sitting comfortably, but not quite a lock. Another spot will go to Texas, Anaheim, or Oakland, leaving the remaining spot to be fought over by the two non-division winners, as well as Boston (Chicago and Cleveland are longshots).
In the N.L., St. Louis is a cinch, while Atlanta and L.A. are in a similar position as the Twins. That leaves Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, and to a lesser degree, Philadelphia and Florida clawing for the last spot.
Take away the wild card, and the number of teams fighting for the playoffs wouldn't be much different. Remember, the wild card goes hand in hand with the 3-division format, so if we revert to the old 2-division format, here is what the standings would look like today:
As you can see, in terms of playoff contention, the wild card format only has a major impact on one team in each league, the Red Sox and the Cubs. Two teams whose fans often complain about getting the short end of the stick should be thanking their lucky stars that a format was developed enabling their teams to sneak into the playoffs without having to win a division.
Currently, two of the six divisions are foregone conclusions (Yanks and Cards), with three more heading in that direction, leaving only one (A.L. West) truly up for grabs. With the old format, the same two dominant teams would be cruising to the playoffs (deservedly so), while the West divisions in both leagues would be an all out slobberknocker.
Yes, the Cubs and Red Sox would already be making October tee times, but for the other teams, catching the team in front of them is even more valuable than today's format because there would be one less round of playoffs to reach the World Series.
For instance, Texas is 1.5 games behind Oakland in the real West standings. If they end up winning the division (or winning the wild card), there's not quite the unbridled enthusiasm throughout the city because they are still two rounds away from even reaching the World Series. In the 2-division format, however, Texas would still be 1.5 games behind, but the stakes would be much higher. Gaining two games on their competition means not only a spot in the playoffs, but a step closer to the World Series, with only the Yankees standing in their way.
Winning a division used to mean something. Heck, even second place was admirable for a team with unexpected success. Now, a division winner that doesn't win a playoff round is forgotten as quickly as a wild card team, and the only wild card teams people remember are the ones that win the World Series.
The 2-division format essentially makes September the first round of the playoffs as teams fight to win their division, with the regular season record becoming more relevant. Stumble in April and a team may be done, so those games (and the fifth starters, etc.) suddenly become more important.
Reluctant at first, I do admit that the wild card format has been a success, and Selig, through all his faults, should be given credit when necessary. The measure of the wild card's impact is the subject I question most. While often praised by fans and media, it really is nothing more than an excercise in decreasing the value of a playoff spot in exchange for the playoff hopes of a couple extra teams each year. The fans are the ones that matter, though, and if they're happy, then it's a good move.
I just know that from my standpoint, I'll always remember Julio Cruz jumping on home plate to clinch the division for the White Sox in '83, Harry Caray announcing the Cubs' pennant winning game in '84, and the Twins AND Braves going from worst in their divisions in '90 to first in '91, setting up one of the most exciting matchups in World Series history. Somehow, worst to wild card doesn't have the same ring to it.