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March 1, 2011

The BP Wayback Machine

Wild Card: A Fairy Tale

by Nate Silver

While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

We've offered a number of more contemporary takes on the matter, but with the prospect of a second wild card looming, let's flash back to what Nate had to say on the subject in an article that originally ran as a "Lies, Damned Lies" column on September 17, 2003.

Once upon a time, a long time ago, September was a cruel month for baseball. The weather dampened, the children went back to school, the nation's attention turned to the Second-Best Sport, and many teams soldiered on with only pride and the next season's paycheck to play for. Year after year, attendance slumped badly, with nothing to bridge the gap between the long, baseball-and-B-B-Q evenings of summer, and the crackling drama of the post-season. It was, like the moment just after intimacy, a time of unspeakable melancholy.

Then, one day, the Commissioner made the Wild Card. The Commissioner was a wise man, and he knew that the self-styled defenders of tradition would not like his creation. But they had complained about westward expansion and night baseball and the Designated Hitter and too many other things to count, and every time they had come back, first to queue in line when the gates opened in spring. Tradition wasn't marketable anyway, not in the way that a tense battle for fourth place between the Marlins and the Phillies was.

The Wild Card, in fact, was a remarkable success. The Commissioner, never known for his fondness for crowds, became omnipresent in those Septembers, maintaining a furious itinerary, shaking hands with awestruck fans at every ballpark from Yawkey Way to Elysian Fields. The Commissioner took no credit for the Wild Card; he had created it, after all, in the Best Interest of Baseball, and what reward did a man deserve for the mere execution of his duty? It was, he said, remarkable only that it had not been thought of earlier, but that was the hallmark of all great inventions, like post-it notes and garage door openers.

And they lived happily ever after.

---

Even fairy tales have a grounding in reality. The Wild Card hasn't changed baseball irrevocably, as its detractors might suggest, nor has it saved it from a fiery death. But it was created in order to address a very real problem--a sharp drop-off in September attendance.

That's per-game attendance in 1988-1993, the final six years prior to the introduction of the Wild Card, before and after the first of September. The September slump has generally been on the order of 15%.

Not all September attendance slumps are created equal, however. We can divide teams into three categories based on their standing on the morning of September 1 of the year in question:

  • Clinchers are teams that led their divisions by more than five games as of 9/1. Though there are, of course, some infamous cases of teams blowing leads that large or larger, 90% of the time, an advantage of that magnitude is safe, enough so that the pennant race intrigue that a fan might feel in coming out to the ballpark is somewhat diminished.

 

  • Pretenders, conversely, are teams that are more than five games out of the division hunt as of 9/1.

 

  • Contenders are everyone in the middle--teams that lead by no more than five games in their division race, nor trail by more than five.

    It certainly was the case that, in those days of yore before the Wild Card, there weren't many teams playing "meaningful" baseball in September. In the period that we're focusing on here--1988 through 1993--an average of fewer than five teams each year were classified as Contenders. In some seasons, the number was as low as two, with three of the four division races having resolved themselves well ahead of time.

Let's take a look at the attendance change that each group experienced; 'Delta' is September attendance less rest-of-season attendance, so a negative number indicates a late-season decline.

September Attendance Analysis: Pre-Wild Card Era

Clinchers       Contenders      Pretenders
        n       Delta   n       Delta   n       Delta
1988    3       +311    2       +658    21      -5260
1989    0       N/A     12      -964    14      -6360
1990    3       -1741   2       +4794   21      -5293
1991    2       +1260   4       +1367   20      -6517
1992    2       -1149   5       +1074   19      -6732
1993    2       +2049   4       +64     22      -3318
Average 2.0     +3      4.8     +360    19.5    -5486

As we'd expect, the burden of declining attendance falls mostly on the shoulders of those teams that are out of contention. Clinchers saw virtually no change in their per-game attendance, Contenders witnessed it increase a little bit, but Pretenders experienced a drop-off of more than 5,000 fans per game. Unfortunately, there were so many Pretenders that baseball's September attendance float-floated away, like so many love balloons.

Enter the Wild Card. While the Wild Card turns a few Contenders into Clinchers--those teams that would have faced a division title battle but instead are all but guaranteed to reach the playoffs because of the presence of the Wild Card--it has also resulted in the promotion of a number of Pretenders to the Contender ranks.

We'll now take a look at the same attendance figures for teams in the Wild Card era, excluding two seasons: 1995, because attendance was impacted by the strike, and 2001, because attendance was impacted by the events of September 11. We also need to revise our definitions a little bit--a Clincher is any team that's more than five games ahead in the race for a playoff spot, be it a division title or the Wild Card. (The A's, for example, held a 3.5-game lead over the Angels when play began on September 1 of last season, but would have been six games ahead in the Wild Card race even if the Angels had been ahead of them; they're classified as a Clincher.) A Pretender is a team that's more than five games out of both the division and Wild Card races. A Contender is anyone else.

September Attendance Analysis: Wild Card Era

Clinchers       Contenders      Pretenders
        n       Delta   n       Delta   n       Delta
1996    3       +3649   11      +2411   14      -2085
1997    4       +702    9       +1834   15      -1911
1998    6       +1476   5       +3975   19      -160
1999    5       +73     6       +4207   19      -1229
2000    2       -1922   10      -84     18      -1955
2002    5       -2008   7       +10     18      -3703
Average 4.2     +364    8.0     +1820   17.2    -1807

Several points of interest here. The number of Contenders, as anticipated, has increased by about three per season. The highs and lows of the September attendance shift remain roughly the same: not much movement one way or the other for Clinchers, a boost in attendance for the Contenders, and a drop-off for Pretenders.

In fact, looking at the course of the entire six years, attendance has in fact improved for all three groups. That may not have to do entirely with the introduction of the Wild Card--the introduction of a number of new ballparks built during the period helps to keep attendance stronger all season, and perhaps somewhat less sensitive to the quality of the teams on the field. Still, there's little doubt that there's some benefit to increasing the number of teams in the Contender group.

So everything's ice cream and roses, right? Perhaps Bud Selig really is a hero of epic proportions.

The trouble is that the attendance boost is eroding. If we look at that table in a bit more detail, we see that the boost in attendance experienced by the Contenders, very strong in the first several years of the Wild Card, has eroded to almost nothing in 2000 and 2002. Clinchers, which registered substantial increases in attendance in 1996 and 1998, instead saw their September gates decline significantly in more recent seasons.

Last year, in fact, the September attendance slump, after initially having reversed itself entirely, was greater than it was in 1993, the last year of the Divisional Era:

What is happening here? While it's possible that the patterns observed in 2000 and 2002 have something to do with the new ballpark effect I discussed earlier--that is, the magic of the retroplexes is wearing thin--baseball also needs to be concerned that fans have adapted to the presence of the Wild Card.

By that I mean the following: In the years immediately following the introduction of the Wild Card, a pennant race was taken to be as significant as it ever was, and drew plenty of fans to the ballyard. Over time, however, fans have realized that a ticket to the playoffs isn't as special as it used to be. With three rounds required to win the title instead of two, one-and-outs are aplenty, and merely reaching the playoffs isn't the goal. Fans of Contenders remain more interested in the balance of the season than do fans of Pretenders, but they don't remain as interested as they were before the playoffs were expanded, and the impact of the regular season is diminished. And fans of Clinchers appear to lose interest during the season's final month, preferring to save their energy for the games that really count.

The great irony is that the September attendance decline may turn out to be exactly as profound as it always was. Sunday's Braves-Marlins tilt drew fewer than 19,000 fans to Pro Player Stadium, paltry even by South Florida standards. The first game of the Marlins-Phillies series on Tuesday night registered a more respectable 36,000, but was hardly the sellout you'd expect from two rivals engaged in a death battle for the right to pursue postseason glory. The fans are catching on to the Wild Card: it doesn't increase attendance so much as redistribute it.

I'm not one of those self-styled defenders of tradition; the Wild Card is fine by me, and it improves my interest as a fan and an analyst. But there's a precarious balance at hand between engaging fans in more cities in the season's final month, and including so many teams that the regular season becomes trivialized entirely. Expanding the playoffs further to include another set of teams would surely be a mistake, not just from an aesthetic perspective, but also, potentially, from a financial one.

The End.

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

Related Content:  Fans,  Attendance,  Wild Card,  Contender,  September,  Second Wild Card

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Hoff

How's this trend holding up? Have September bumps gotten bigger or smaller? What about the effects of macro economic shocks?

Long story short is: MLB shouldn't become the NBA, its not nearly flashy enough to get people interested in a regular season if it doesn't count.

Mar 01, 2011 06:06 AM
rating: 0
 
tortoise

Never had a problem with the Wild Card. Just never understood why on earth they made it a five-game series.

The way it stands, your reward for becoming the best team in your league — after slogging through a 162-game schedule, motivating yourself night after night, day after day, managing bullpens, fourth and fifth starters, personalities, injuries, and countless other minutiae — could be to get knocked out by a Wild Card team that happens to have two stud starters and then sit at home for the rest of October.

In baseball even the elite teams lose three out of every five games fairly regularly, no matter who they're facing.

We can show this by looking back at the last team to have the best regular season record in baseball and then lose in the Wild Card round — the 2008 Angels, with a record of 100-62.

For the 2008 regular season we can look at every group of five consecutive games the Angels played and see that they lost three of five regular season games 39 times (out of 154 possibles). Those same Angels lost four of seven consecutive games 31 times (out of 150 possibles).

This means that, based on statistical probability alone, the best team in baseball in 2008 was 22% more likely to lost 3 out of 5 than they were to lose 5 out of 7.

As I said, I understand and agree with the decision to expand the playoffs to include more teams. I just don't understand giving those Wild Card teams a 22% better chance of knocking off a division winner just through the format alone.

When the LCS came into being in 1969 it was a five-game series as well. It took Major League baseball 16 years to expand it to seven. 2011 marks the 17th season of baseball's Wild Card. I know it won't happen, but it's time to make a change.

Mar 01, 2011 08:06 AM
rating: 2
 
BarryR

There is no evidence that a seven game playoff series is more likely to result in the "better" team winning than a five game series. None. Go back over the history of the World Series starting after WWII and you will see how seven game series results are as random as anything.
What another seven game series will do is make the playoffs feel interminable, with more teams waiting around for their next opponent's series to end.
A better idea would be a three-game first round - at the higher seeded team (the one with the best record)- followed by a five-game LCS and a seven game World Series. It increases the importance of every game and moves faster.
And just to make the high-end pennant races mean something (looking at you, AL East), have two wild card teams meet for a one game play-in.

Mar 02, 2011 10:28 AM
rating: 0
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

Seven game series logically do increase the chance that the better team will win, but you are right that the increase is only a little.

I agree with moving faster. I'd like to see no off days in the middle of playoff series. Teams play 7 and 9 days in a row during the season and don't get an off day every time they travel. Do the same thing for the playoffs and the tension will build, the full staff will get used, and the momentum and excitement will be much better then multiple off days in every series.

Mar 02, 2011 14:22 PM
rating: 0
 
tortoise

Love this suggestion.

The league could easily squeeze in two more games within the same time period for the playoffs.
Last year the playoffs started on Oct. 6 and Game 7 of the World Series was scheduled for Nov. 4. Playing 21 games in 26 days shouldn't be a stretch, by any means.

More baseball is always better than less, right?

Mar 03, 2011 08:21 AM
rating: 0
 
tortoise

Don't know a great way to empirically determine the "better" team in World Series. Regular-season records won't work because the two teams play different competition throughout the year (radically different throughout most of the period you refer to).

There's a better way to compare that lets us look at results within one league. As I said, the LCS started as a five-game series and switched to seven.

A look at all ALCS results shows that during the 16 seasons in which the ALCS was a five-game series, the team with the better regular-season record won 8 and lost 7 (one season both teams had the same record) for a winning percentage of .533.

During the 25 seasons in which it was a seven-game series, the team with the better regular-season record won 16 and lost 7 (two seasons both teams had the same record) for a winning percentage of .696.

If my team had spent the past six months earning the best record in the league, I'd like the looks of two-thirds success rate much better than 50-50.

Mar 03, 2011 08:13 AM
rating: 0
 
Bob

Nate f'in Silver! So nice to see your byline here again!

I'll make an official request through the link you provide, but my absolute favorite column ever in the history of Baseball Prospectus is the Lies, Damned Lies... column that you used to do. I particularly miss the statistical analysis you did on prospects. While Kevin Goldstein is, indeed, golden, a quantitative analysis of prospects is missing from this site.

At the very least, we need UPSIDE again. But some commentary and some comparative analysis between the qualitative and quantitative analysis of prospects would be awesome. I believe there was a column or two that you wrote which weighed the benefits of each approach and explained how and when UPSIDE was useful in predicting prospects. Perhaps you could run that one again?

Mar 01, 2011 15:47 PM
rating: 1
 
Patrick

This article is from September, 2003. Nate isn't back writing for BP.

Mar 05, 2011 07:43 AM
rating: 0
 
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