February 22, 2011
The Payoff Pitch
Two, Three, Many Wild Cards!
Somewhere among the piles of spiral-bound notebooks stacked in my closet lies a short-lived diary titled "The Last Pennant Race." It recounts the day-by-day events of the last two months of the 1993 Yankees season, of which pretty much all I can remember is, first, that the Yankees managed to tie the eventual champion Blue Jays for first place roughly three dozen times, but never managed to take the lead on their own, and second, that in one late-season game, Don Mattingly, presaging the Jeffrey Maier incident by three years, got credit for a key home run despite it being caught by a fan leaning so far into the field of play that he could have shaken hands with the second baseman.
I chose the diary's title not because I was pessimistic about the Yankees' future—after ten years of Andy Hawkins and Torey Lovullo, I could see as well as anyone that players like Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill were headed for bigger things—but because I knew that the term "pennant race" would never again have the same meaning. That's because it had already been announced that 1993 was the final season under the old four-division system; henceforth, the leagues were to be split in six, and wild cards would be born. (Thanks to the player strike that would wipe out the 1994 postseason, they were not actually baptized until the following season.)
It was Bud Selig's first major move as then-interim commissioner, and whatever his goals—giving a fair shot to good teams that happened to be stuck in a division with a powerhouse, or just generating extra money from an added round of playoffs?—the result was, as I'd feared, a slew of unintended consequences. You had travesties like the final day of the 1996 season, where the tied-for-first Dodgers and Padres faced off with the division on the line, and the Padres started recently demoted starter Bob Tewksbury, while the Dodgers countered by pulling ace Ramon Martinez after one inning to rest him for the postseason, which both teams were guaranteed to make. You had nearly a decade solid of Red Sox-Yankees races to the wire that would have been historic if they'd taken place in the 1970s, but instead ended up as mere warmups for the postseason.
And more than that, you had the slow conversion of the regular season from baseball's main course into a marathon elimination round en route to the postseason, or as we old-timers called them before MLB's neologism squad got hold of them, the "playoffs." I'm old enough to have grown up in a time when a league or World Series win was just the icing on the cake of a successful first-place finish, which was celebrated as an accomplishment in itself. Today, how many Cubs fans cherish the memories of those back-to-back division titles in 2007 and 2008, instead of remembering mostly the way their team was swept out of the first playoff round both years? It's even worse in cities whose teams only get to hoist those miserable "wild-card pennants" (I'm looking at you, Milwaukee), the MLB equivalent of those "Participant" trophies they hand out in Little League. Eventually, you began to hear players and team owners alike say that "it's not a successful year unless we win the World Series"—which is a guarantee that fans in 29 out of 30 cities are going to end the year feeling miserable.
So when I heard last year that Bud Selig was thinking of adding a second wild-card team in each league, I—and I say this as an unmitigated and accomplished Selig hater—kind of liked it. Not because of any of the "hope and faith" nonsense that Selig gave as an excuse—Christina Kahrl already nicely punctured that balloon last fall—but because it would have the potential of restoring meaning to the pennant races. Most obviously, forcing second-place teams to run an additional gauntlet of a play-in game would create a renewed incentive for teams to finish first. (The twelve people who follow the WNBA might recall that that league went to a similar format for a couple of seasons for similar reasons.) And in baseball, there would potentially be an added effect: by forcing the wild-card qualifiers to burn their best pitchers in a wild-card game, it would give the division winners an actual advantage in the postseason, instead of declaring Year Zero and wiping the slate clean.
This is a problem that I would hope even the most devout wild-card lovers will recognize is a fatal flaw in the current format. Everyone—most famously Billy Beane—knows that the modern baseball playoffs are a crapshoot, but it's worth noting just how much of one they've become in terms of wild-card teams. In the 32 division-series matchups involving a wild card, the second-place team has won the series 17 times, and there have been four wild-card World Series champions, and one all-wild-card World Series (in 2002), or exactly what would be predicted if God were truly playing dice with the postseason. Giving second-place teams a shot at the championship isn't supposed to mean an equal shot.
So with most observers predicting that MLB owners are all but certain to approve "This Time It Counts II" for the 2012 season, I enlisted the inestimable Sky Kalkman to help calculate how much playoff parity would be mitigated, if any, by the Burn Your Ace Effect. In the interest of simplicity, we decided to assume that the twin wild cards would face off in a single winner-take-all game (an alternate plan would make it a best-of-three, with the six division winners presumably cooling their heels for several days), and that the main effect would be to swap in one extra start by the wild-card teams' third starter for their ace. (We would have considered fourth starters, but now that the division series has more off days than the U.S. Senate, it's unlikely we're going to see many of those showing up anytime soon.) Taking the difference in Run Average (not ERA, as unearned runs count on the scoreboard, too) between the first and third starters, then, and projecting it over a single estimated six-inning start, Sky set out to figure out how it would change the odds of each team winning each series, using their regular-season Pythagorean records.
As we typed in the data, it soon became clear that the impact was going to be weaker than expected, for a couple of reasons. First off, not all that many teams really have a single ace: for every 2003 Red Sox (Pedro Martinez 2.51 RA, Derek Lowe 5.00 RA), there's one like the 2006 Tigers, who had four pitchers (Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, Kenny Rogers, and Justin Verlander) who were interchangeably above-average that year. Second, half the time managers don't even lead with their best punch: for no apparent reason that I can tell, in 1996 Davey Johnson chose to start Mike Mussina in the meaningless second-to-last game of the regular season, leading to the appearance of pre-perfecto David Wells (5.30 RA) on the mound for the start of the Orioles' series against the 99-game-winning Indians. (The Orioles won the series three games to one, naturally, as the dice smiled on them that year.)
When Sky was finished crunching the numbers, the result was this:
From a virtual coin toss, then, handicapping the wild-card teams by one ace start would knock down their odds of taking a five-game series by 1.4 percent. In other words, it would change the outcome of a division series, on average, once every 35 years. It's possible the effect would be a bit more than that—we didn't attempt to account for reliever fatigue from a wild-card game, for example—but it's clear that any ace effect falls in the category of "not a whole heckuva lot."
Of course, Bud Selig isn't mostly concerned about ensuring that the best team wins, or the sanctity of the regular season, or anything like that. If he were, there would be plenty of other options to consider, like giving the division winner extra home games, extending the five-game division series to seven games so that there's less chance of a lesser team sneaking through on one chance play, or even crazier things like eight-team divisions with only the first-place team getting in. (The craziest—and most effective—scheme for ending the crapshoot would probably be to spot the higher seed a game, and force the lower-ranked team to win 3 of 4 or 4 of 6, as the case may be, something that so far as I can tell has only been tried in the Australian Football League playoffs.) Rather, Bud's main concern is likely cash, and as far as that's concerned an extra wild-card team should help at least a bit, both by creating one more post-season game that can be sold to TBS, and by bumping up interest ever so slightly in those otherwise-meaningless late-season Yankees-Red Sox series.
Of course, there's the danger of watering down the notion of "postseason" even further—would an added Braves-Padres matchup last fall really have qualified as playoff baseball?—as well as furthering the NHLization of the regular season. On the other hand, at least first place would mean something again, even if that something is just getting a bye in the Round of 10.
At least expanded wild cards, then, wouldn't be the dumbest thing Bud Selig has done. It'll be something to take solace in when we're watching the third-place Marlins complete their Cinderella run to the 2012 championship.