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February 22, 2011

The Payoff Pitch

Two, Three, Many Wild Cards!

by Neil deMause

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:

Year

Wild Card

Division Winner

WC1 ERA

WC3 ERA

WC win odds

WC win odds w/ #3

Diff

2010

Yankees

Twins

3.48

4.24

53.3%

51.4%

-1.9%

2010

Braves

Giants

4.09

2.91

49.7%

53.0%

3.3%

2009

Red Sox

Angels

3.54

4.30

50.8%

49.0%

-1.8%

2009

Rockies

Phillies

3.59

4.79

48.7%

45.7%

-3.0%

2008

Red Sox

Angels

3.34

4.13

54.9%

52.9%

-2.0%

2008

Brewers

Phillies

1.88

4.48

46.5%

40.1%

-6.4%

2007

Yankees

Indians

3.79

4.73

54.2%

51.9%

-2.3%

2007

Rockies

Phillies

4.30

5.05

51.7%

49.9%

-1.8%

2006

Tigers

Yankees

4.23

4.28

49.1%

49.0%

-0.1%

2006

Dodgers

Mets

4.00

3.79

48.1%

48.6%

0.5%

2005

Red Sox

White Sox

4.81

4.51

50.3%

51.1%

0.8%

2005

Astros

Braves

2.67

3.17

49.3%

48.0%

-1.3%

2004

Red Sox

Angels

3.34

4.99

54.3%

50.4%

-3.9%

2004

Astros

Braves

3.19

4.43

48.2%

45.1%

-3.1%

2003

Red Sox

Athletics

2.51

5.00

51.6%

45.6%

-6.0%

2003

Marlins

Giants

3.42

3.87

46.4%

45.3%

-1.2%

2002

Angels

Yankees

3.28

4.02

50.4%

48.6%

-1.8%

2002

Giants

Braves

3.74

3.79

51.5%

51.4%

-0.1%

2001

Athletics

Yankees

3.61

3.86

58.6%

58.0%

-0.6%

2001

Cardinals

D'backs

3.58

3.29

49.3%

50.1%

0.7%

2000

Mariners

White Sox

4.49

4.68

49.4%

48.9%

-0.4%

2000

Mets

Giants

3.68

4.40

43.9%

42.2%

-1.7%

1999

Red Sox

Indians

2.36

4.21

48.3%

44.1%

-4.2%

1999

Mets

D'backs

4.45

4.64

44.9%

44.4%

-0.5%

1998

Red Sox

Indians

3.16

4.22

54.3%

51.7%

-2.6%

1998

Cubs

Braves

4.89

3.73

38.1%

40.8%

2.7%

1997

Yankees

Indians

3.09

4.50

58.3%

54.9%

-3.4%

1997

Marlins

Giants

2.92

3.79

54.7%

52.5%

-2.2%

1996

Orioles

Indians

5.30

5.07

42.9%

43.4%

0.5%

1996

Dodgers

Braves

4.06

3.67

45.4%

46.4%

1.0%

1995

Yankees

Mariners

3.82

4.38

48.3%

47.0%

-1.3%

1995

Rockies

Braves

4.73

5.28

43.3%

42.0%

-1.3%

AVG

 

 

3.67

4.26

49.6%

48.2%

-1.4%

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.

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

26 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

JoshC77

OMG the WNBA has 12 fans???!!! I had no idea there were that many!! (please note the heavy sarcasm)

In all seriousness, I think the baseball postseason is so broken it is not even funny. It isn't necessarily that the wild card has diluted the field or that it has made winning a division title meaningless (well, at least less meaningful than it used to be).

The problem is this best-of-five first round. You can pair up two baseball teams, one good and one crappy in a best of 5. If that crappy team just happens to have two stud starting pitchers, they have a definite chance to advance (by potentially having 4 of the 5 games started by their studs). Change it to a best of seven series, and now, that crappy team has to win all 4 games pitched by their aces or try to steal one not pitched by the ace.

The regular season is about the grind of 162 games, a 5 man rotation, and utilization of all the pieces and parts in your organization. The playoffs right now are about star power and maybe the top 15 or 16 players on the roster. A great team (all 25 players) in the regular season should be afforded the opportunity to be a great team in the playoffs.

Now, if Bud is so inclined as to add a play-in game to get to the 'real' playoffs (akin to the previous NCAA tournament play-in games that no one but fans of those schools care about..yes, I know it's changing), then fine. But make the REAL playoffs best of sevens across the board, eliminate all of those ridiculous off-days, and make it more like the baseball we all enjoy in the regular season.

Feb 22, 2011 05:04 AM
rating: 4
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

As a former New York Liberty season ticket holder, I mean no disrespect to my 11 fellow WNBA fans.

And agreed about the off days being a huge problem, but as other commenters note further down, this is what the TV networks wanted in exchange for throwing sackfuls of cash at MLB. I'm not holding my breath for any playoff change that involves MLB turning away money.

Feb 22, 2011 10:19 AM
 
Tythelip

Since the common perception is that playoff teams and games are "good," and more playoff teams/games is "better." Why don't we just cut right to the "best" solution and put ALL 30 teams in the post-season? I can already hear Duff Man saying "...making the past six months a complete waste of time."

Feb 22, 2011 07:06 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

Actually, if there are two "wild-card" teams who play a one game play-in game, one of them is eliminated immediately, resulting in a 0% chance of winning the WS. The other, as you correctly state, faces just one more minor hurdle(burning a pitcher, perhaps a crazy two travel days) once they win the play-in game. But to calculate percentages, you are reducing the chance of each wildcard team's winning the WS by ever-so-slightly more than half.

Feb 22, 2011 07:17 AM
rating: 4
 
RaysProf

I read the article as stating, since WC teams do not appear to have a disadvantage in the playoff series, if we force them to use their ace, what is the probability that THE wild-card team facing a division winner, will win the series. The effect is minimal.

The question is NOT what is the probability that A PARTICULAR wild-card team wins the next series.

(One of my few complaints about BP is the articles frequently fail to clearly define every abbreviation, particularly on columns of data or results.)

Feb 22, 2011 08:07 AM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

This is just semantics. Our (excellent) author is only counting the team that wins the "wild-card game" as the wild-card team. I would consider both wildcard teams, well, wild card teams, and thus the extra elimination game, when viewed this way, is a significant disadvantage.

Feb 22, 2011 09:52 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

Yes, sorry if this was unclear: All the tables and such are designed to show whether burning your ace would affect *a* wild card team's chance of making it to the next round. Obviously if there's a one-game playoff to decide who's the Wild Card Winner, then each team involved has a lesser chance of making it.

Feb 22, 2011 10:15 AM
 
RaysProf

The wording of a question is important. Neither of you were incorrect, you addressed different questions.

Feb 22, 2011 11:30 AM
rating: 0
 
ddufourlogger

Agreed on limiting the off-days. Obviously, if another layer is added to the postseason, time becomes a crunch. NO one wants baseball in November. If we HAVE to add to the MLB postseason (and I vote NO!), cut out ALL off-days prior to the World Series except for one travel day BETWEEN series. If a series goes 7, hey, they can handle it. And I'm not sure a best-of-3 First Round isn't the best scenario, to both save time AND keep an advantage to the higher seed. Two games at home and one away.

And I echo JoshC77 on using the WHOLE TEAM. The old saying (paraphrasing) is to "dance with who brung you," and I can think of few better examples than a 25-man MLB roster. Use those 4th and 5th starters and whole bullpen! The best TEAM will advance! A more condensed playoff schedule will make this a necessity.

Feb 22, 2011 07:20 AM
rating: 0
 
npb7768

Here is my solution...

1. Add NL teams in Brooklyn and Montreal.
2. Move Houston and Washington to the AL (also, Washington loses all gold trim from the uniform).
3. Two 16-team leagues. Play each team 10 times, plus 12 interleague games --- your rival 6 times if you have one. Rotate blah blah blah...
4. All teams make the play-offs
5. League champions get 8 days off.
6. Second-place teams get first round byes.
7. Play-offs:
Round 1: 9-10, 8-11, 7-12, 6-13 5-14 4-15 3-16 play best-of-3, with higher seed spotted a game. First game at lower seed, game 2 (if necessary) at higher seed. TAKES 2 DAYS. Two games played at 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm on 2 networks.
Round 2: (right back atcha, no off-day). 7 teams advance. All re-seeded again...Second place team enters, plays lowest remaining seed, etc. Same rules as Round 1, and again it TAKES 2 DAYS. Games at 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm on 1 network. 4 teams advance.
Round 3: Rinse repeat. TAKES 2 DAYS. 2 teams advance.
Round 4. Rinse repeat. TAKES 2 DAYS. 1 teams advance.
Round 5. Now we just do the ALCS and NLCS as before, with the league champion getting home field advantage.

THE END

Feb 22, 2011 08:28 AM
rating: -1
 
Matt Kory

If by "THE END" you mean, "I now crown the KC Royals as World Champs" then fine. You had me until #4 then you lost me.

Feb 22, 2011 22:47 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

Teams with stud pitchers do not do particularly well in the postseason. That myth's been evidentiarily blasted from here to Katmandu.

To eliminate off-days, you'd have to play the get-away games during the day. Else your players will be zombies by week 2. Then you lose most all the TV/cable money. The networks will pay squat, but little more than that, for daytime sports programming.

Feb 22, 2011 08:55 AM
rating: 1
 
Robotey

Isn't there a fundamental flaw to the premise of the article? How can you assume teams will have their rotations set to even start their ace in the one game do-or-die? Only teams that can afford to coast the final week can adjust their rotations accordingly, so are we assuming that with 2 wild cards neither would be fending off a 3rd challenger that final week? When the CC Sabathia Brewers edged out the flailing Mets they relied on the big man every four days, thus making him available only for Game Two of the NLDS (and ineffective). If the Brewers had to face the Mets in the do-or-die he may or may not have been available, depending on which teams had dropped to the wayside by then.

Feb 22, 2011 09:06 AM
rating: 3
 
emillion

I would argue that the wild card isn't even the true problem of the current system. Anyone want to guess how many wild card teams have finished below 88 wins (excluding strike shortened 1995)? None. There are 8 division winners with that distinction (again, wild card era only excluding 1995). If they add a 2nd wild card, I'd rather they have the 4th and 5th teams by record duking it out (the 4th team by record is historically the wild card team about 1/3 of the time) rather than arbitrarily forcing what can be the second best team who happens to share a division with a power house into a one game matchup. The best teams should make the playoffs period. This is because of the crap shoot nature of playoffs. I don't want to see an 83 win team winning the world series ever again (apologies to Cardinals fans).

Although I haven't run the numbers, I also suspect the team with the best record is more likely to be bounced in the first round because they have to play the wild card in the LDS. The wild card is very often a strong team. The current tournament but properly seeded would be a better improvement.

Any time you add playoff entrants to your end-season tournament, you remove the meaning of the late-season games for the best teams. It's unavoidable. Unless we go back to a two playoff team per league format, meaningless games between playoff competitors at the end of the season will still happen.

Feb 22, 2011 11:16 AM
rating: 7
 
Robotey

Emillion-- good points, however as for your last assertion it ain't necessarily so. Back in the day with only East - West divisions it was possible to have all 4 divisions locked up by the final week, rendering that week a snooze. One extra team may or may not add to the race depending on how many teams close in on that magic 88 win mark.

Feb 22, 2011 11:30 AM
rating: 0
 
emillion

You're right of course. I merely meant that it is more likely in the old format to have compelling September baseball.

In the old one division per league format it was still possible for the best team to have a world series appearance locked up with a week to go as well. It all depends on the number and distribution of strong teams. However, while there are usually at least 2 strong teams in a league, there aren't always 3 or more.

Feb 22, 2011 11:49 AM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

Which team is more/less worthy? The division winner of a weak division? Or the wild card with fewer victories? Or more? I think if you look at the 'best team left out' since the Wild Card, you'd be hard pressed to find a squad that suffered a major injustice for being sent to play golf early. But if you consider the Giants who won over 100 games only to lose out to the Braves, they may have been a better team than the other division winners that year. Or not.

Feb 22, 2011 12:01 PM
rating: 1
 
Edwincnelson

All this is awfully negative considering how overwhelmingly positive the wild card has been to the average fans, and rightfully so.

The game has changed so much that having MLB without a wild card seems silly. The players are making so much money that if there is even the hint of an injury to a star player, and that team is out of the race, he's likely to sit the entire month of September. By all accounts Josh Johnson was able to pitch with about 2 weeks left in the season, but with the Marlins out of it he sat. There are countless examples of this now.

How many more meaningful games are we watching in August and September now than we were then? For every Tewksbury-Martinez duel there are games like the 1998 playing game for the Cubs that probably equal out the perceived loss of drama even on the last day of the year. I think a lot of this is looking at the past with rose colored glasses.

Feb 22, 2011 13:38 PM
rating: 0
 
Matthew Avery

One thing that would be interesting to look it is how much would fans have to become "less interested" in the regular season (in terms of stuff like TV ratings and attendance) to off-set the gains from having an extra playoff game.

This is of course assuming that a watered-down regular season leads to less fan interest in said regular season at some margin. If you're selling out all of your home games like the Red Sox do (and hence presumable have excess demand that would swamp the diminished relevance effect), it probably doesn't matter unless there's something noticeable on the TV ratings. But if you're a team like the Braves who don't sell out the stadium, it may mean fewer butts in the seats.

Note that an extra wild card should not necessarily mean more teams will play important games down the stretch, since you could have situations where it's a 2-team race for the WC, in which case the effect on the importance of "down the stretch" games is actually diminished by the addition of an extra team. So the above analysis has just focused on an overall "watering down" of the regular season, assuming that it makes fans less interested in it on the margin.

Feb 22, 2011 14:42 PM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

'Fan interest' is a difficult thing to define as far as I'm concerned. Go to the park and between the local version of dot racing and kiddie cams you get the feeling that the experience is more tilted toward drawing in the casual fan and not the hard core rooter. A typical MLB team doesn't market to a BProspectus reader, they've already got us locked in for life. They're shooting for semi-baseball fans, and when sports shoot for the margins they tend to latch on to ideas such as expanding playoffs, because if you're just a random semi-interested sports fan, if you find out your home team may go to the post season all of the sudden you're injected with civic pride and opening your wallet, whether it's national pastime or tiddlywinks.

Feb 22, 2011 14:48 PM
rating: 1
 
bisanders
(329)

To Edwincnelson: I think the big difference is that any "meaningful" September games now involve mediocre teams. Under the old format, they often involved the league's best. And I think you're mistaken. Dramatic pennant races that lasted for weeks were once the rule, not the exception that is the occasional loser-goes-home battle for 4th place on the season's last day.

I thought emillion had an excellent point that it is more appropriate to penalize the 4th- and 5th-best records instead of the wild card, per se. But while I agree it would be fairer, this would remove the primary appeal to the new proposal. If the Blue Jays & the Orioles have the two best teams in the AL, make 'em fight it out for a division title that actually means something to their World Series chances. Restore significance to the race for the division crown.

Feb 22, 2011 14:56 PM
rating: 0
 
emillion

If it were up to me I'd get rid of divisions altogether and only put the top team in each league in the world series. It often takes 162 games to decide who the best teams are anyway. This is a pipe dream, however, because there's so much more money to be had with expanding playoffs.

The current system marginalizes exciting September baseball so that it can save that drama for October and higher revenue. I'm not sure there's any system the powers that be could come up with that will return September baseball to its former glory so long as there are as many playoff entrants as there are. It will only ever mean a lot if, in your scenario, one of the Blue Jays or Orioles were left out entirely. The one game playoff proposal still gives the loser a roughly 50% chance of getting in to the show. While the players I'm sure would still leave it all on the field, they still get a second chance. It just can't compare to the pennant races of old.

Since we're stuck with the current system, I would rather try to minimize the damage and make it as hard as possible for the weakest teams from getting in whether they won their division or the wild card.

Feb 22, 2011 15:37 PM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

The Aussie Rules playoff system should work better in the various football codes, where it's one game at a time rather than a series.

On the other hand, the Father-and-Son Rule would be cool on draft day. (If dad played X+ games for a team, they can give up a mid pick to take the kid early)

Feb 22, 2011 16:58 PM
rating: 0
 
SC

No pennant races? The AL Central disagrees.

Feb 22, 2011 21:48 PM
rating: 0
 
deep64blue

I like a best of 3 Wild Card round better - G1 is played at the lower seeded team on the Monday after the regular Season, G2 & 3 (if needed) are both played on the Tuesday at the higher seeded team. The winner then starts their play-off series on the Wednesday having potentially played 3 games in two days whilst the Division Winner they are facing has been resting for a couple of days.

Feb 25, 2011 10:41 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Neil deMause
BP staff

That's so crazy it just might work!

The TV networks would flip, though. If they can't even handle three LDS games on the same day, having potentially four wild-card games in one day, with the only ones guaranteed to happen being the afternoon ones ... the streets of Atlanta would run red with blood.

Feb 26, 2011 18:31 PM
 
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