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September 21, 2004

Prospectus Today

The Wild Card

by Joe Sheehan

If you've read this space for even a few weeks, you know that I think the wild card is a gimmick that kills real races in exchange for the false excitement of allowing teams not good enough to win division titles a back door into the postseason. At the same time, MLB sells it as the greatest thing for fan interest since seats with backs. There's not much middle ground when it comes to the wild card; you either love it or hate it.

The thing is, neither side has any idea what it's talking about. While I can point to specific examples of the wild card killing divisional races, MLB can point to, say, this year's National League wild-card race as an example of the concept creating interest where there would otherwise be none. Those are just examples, offered up in support of an argument, as the saying goes, rather than illumination. It's a visceral argument, not a rational one.

So I went looking for illumination. The wild card was introduced for the ill-fated 1994 season, and the first wild-card races went to their conclusion in 1995. There had been 18 wild-card races coming into 2004. How many of those added something to the baseball season, and how many took away? On balance, did the presence of an extra playoff spot for a second-place team add or subtract drama to most seasons?

I was surprised to find out that the most common answer was, "neither." For the most part, the wild-card has been what you might call "excitement-neutral," not creating any more races than would already have existed. Here's a breakdown of what the wild-card did to each pennant race in which it was a factor:

Added: 1998 NL, 1999 NL, 2003 NL
Neutral: 1995 AL, 1995 NL, 1996 AL, 1997 NL, 1998 AL, 2000 AL, 2001 AL, 2002 NL, 2003 AL
Killed: 1996 NL, 1997 AL, 1999 AL, 2000 NL, 2001 NL, 2002 AL

Now, there's no standard for evaluating a race. However, I'm comfortable with these classifications. The details of each of these is included at the end of this column.

The years in which the wild card added drama to the season were generally years in which all the division races were runaways, so the wild card couldn't have damaged non-existent division races, and in fact, gave people a reason to watch. In two of those three seasons, the wild-card winner was determined by a one-game playoff.

On the flip side, I've written before about the 1996 NL West race, in which the Padres and Dodgers were in a tie for first through 161 games, and played game #162 with all the urgency of Paris Hilton looking for a job. The Astros and Cardinals played out the same scenario in 2001, reducing the division title to a seed line. In other years, tense two-team races had the life sucked from them because the second team had locked up a playoff spot. This is the situation we have the AL this year, as a Yankees/Red Sox battle has little meaning for two teams more worried about being healthy in October.

Races that I classified as "Neutral" were situations where the wild-card winner was never challenged, such as when the 1997 Marlins locked their spot up early but, at the same time, never came close to the Braves for a division title. I also included years in which the wild card merely turned a two-team race for one spot into a three-team race for two, such as 1995 in both leagues.

Note that supporters of the wild card, most notably those in MLB's offices, would consider both of these scenarios to be positives, situations where the wild card added to the game. After all, an additional team having playoff hopes is exactly what the system is intended to create. I concede the point; the wild card is certainly going to be good for whichever teams benefit from it in any given season. What I'm arguing is whether it is good for baseball on the whole; I don't think the two are one and the same.

You might expect some data on attendance at this point. Actually, with the published figures actually being "tickets sold," I don't think the information has much relevance, and is likely misleading. I think information on television ratings for teams in races, or on tickets sold after August 1 as a percentage of total tickets sold, or even video of ballparks during games, would all be better measures.

My sense--and I readily admit this is prone to 37 kinds of problems--is that additional interest in wild-card teams is hit-and-miss. Some cities in some years get excited and come out to the park, some don't. You can check this yourself by watching games this week in Florida, Texas, San Diego and San Francisco, all wild-card contenders with less than two weeks to go.

Having done this research, I'm left with a somewhat empty feeling. I think the wild card has killed more exciting races than it's created, and I'm comfortable that the evidence supports that. But because all those "neutral" seasons are creating more hope and faith--even if the localities don't care all that much--MLB sees the experiment as a success. MLB doesn't see the things that aren't there, the races between great teams, in much the same way that baseball people often don't see all the outs a low-OBP "RBI man" gets, or the many times caught stealing that reduce the value of Alex Sanchez or Brett Butler.

The real reason for the wild card, the extra round of playoffs, is with us for good. That means that the wild card is also with us until expansion to 32 teams, which isn't coming anytime soon.

I'm fond of saying that the people who hate the DH should probably get over it; it's been 31 years, and nearly every baseball league in the world uses it.

Maybe it's time I took my own advice.

--

The classification of every race since 1995:

1995 AL: Neutral. Created three-team race for two spots rather than two-team race for one. Good for the Yankees.

1995 NL: Neutral. Again, created three-team race for two spots, rather than two-team race for one. Good for the Astros, even though they missed out in the end.

This is the basic conflict. MLB wants more teams to have a chance, even if it muddies the pool. I think Angels/Mariners and Dodgers/Rockies would have been interesting enough, and that the presence of the wild card didn't enhance the season.

1996 AL: Neutral. AL East and West races had some tension sapped from them. Wild-card race was fairly interesting among three #2 teams (White Sox, Mariners, Orioles). Good for the White Sox, who would have been done much earlier than the season's last week without the wild card.

1996 NL: The final race of the season was killed by the wild card, as the Padres and Dodgers played for seeding, not survival, in game #162. The Expos were in the mix as late as the last Friday of the season, but weren't taken very seriously.

By the way, those Expos, supposedly destroyed by the strike, sold 33,133 tickets to their 6-4 loss to the Braves on September 27, 1996. Baseball in Montreal didn't die in 1994. It was murdered years later.

1997 AL: The wild card killed what should have been a good race in the AL East, as the Yankees and Orioles both locked up playoff spots by mid-September.

1997 NL: In a rarity, the wild card had no effect. The Marlins locked it up early, but were never in a race with the division-leading Braves. Of course, the wild card did have a significant effect on the postseason, as the Marlins went on to their first championship.

1998 AL: No real effect, as the Red Sox locked it up with about a week to go, but were miles behind the 114-win Yankee juggernaut.

1998 NL: The wild card added something, as all three division races were blowouts, but the wild-card race went to the wire and beyond, with the Cubs beating the Giants in a playoff, and the Mets being eliminated on the season's final weekend.

1999 AL: The first time the wild card sapped the tension from what might have been a great Yankee/Red Sox September. The Sox were never challenged for the slot down the stretch, and thanks to it, were never forced to play do-or-die games with the division-leading Yankees.

1999 NL: The wild card added some drama, as for the second straight year, a one-game playoff was needed to determine the NL slot. The Mets backed in after finishing the season by dropping eight of their last 12, turning a close NL East race into a romp.

2000 AL: Classify this any way you like. The second-place teams in the East and Central weren't really in division races. The AL West was a dogfight, but instead of being a "win or go home" scenario, it was a three-for-two. We traded a heads-up match for a scramble.

2000 NL: The wild card killed the Mets/Braves race in the NL East, as both teams had locked up playoff spots by mid-September.

2001 AL: There was no race for anything, and the wild card didn't change that.

2001 NL: The wild card ruined a perfectly good Central race. The Astros and Cardinals played meaningless games heads-up the last two days, making the division title into a seeding slot. The Giants gained some extra benefit.

2002 AL: The wild card ruined a good heads-up match between A's and Angels. Both teams were comfortably in the playoffs with two weeks left.

2002 NL: The wild card only affected the West, where it turned three-for-one into three-for-two, perhaps buying a couple of extra days of tension for Dodgers and their fans. Not a memorable race by any means.

2003 AL: Like the 2000 season, a hard one to classify. Instead of the Red Sox chasing the Yankees and the Mariners chasing the A's, it was more the Red Sox and Mariners chasing one spot. A good example of how the focus and the goal changes when you add the wild card.

2003 NL: The wild card added something to a season with just one division race, as the Marlins, far behind in the division, held off three teams to win the slot, and eventually, their second championship.

Thanks to Retrosheet for the historical standings that made this research possible. (God Bless Retrosheet!)

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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