The past week or so has provided a great deal of entertaining baseball for fans of all the teams that were still in the playoff race. Many talking heads have stated that credit for this is due to the revamped playoff system that began last year in which two wild card teams qualify for a one-game playoff. It seems to make sense that, since the format changed and things got more exciting, that one caused the other. However, if you think about it, the two are not related at all.
Think about last week. The Indians, Rangers, and Rays battled down to the last day to qualify for the wild card game. Is there any logical reason why it was more exciting because two of them would qualify instead of one? The only added excitement came Sunday afternoon, when the outcome of the Rangers’ game still meant something, whereas with one wild card they would have been eliminated when the Indians game was over. There was also a lot of discussion about the different possibilities for a three-way tie, but those would have been the same with one wild card. The only additional excitement was probably in Baltimore, New York, and Kansas City, whose teams might have been eliminated one day later because of the second wild card.
The situation in the National League was even worse. Think about how cool it would have been if the Pirates and the Reds had played their season-ending series with the only wild card slot on the line, instead of simply playing for home field in the wild card game. The announcers hyped the whole series like it had earth-shattering consequences, but the reality was that the winner of that series improved their chances of winning the World Series from about five percent to about seven percent, so there were several college football games on Saturday that were probably more crucial.
Mathematically the situation in which the second wild card will add the most excitement is where there is one wild card with a huge lead over every other contender, and there are several teams bunched together contending for the second wild card. This may add excitement, but it also guarantees that a decidedly inferior team will qualify for the playoffs, with a decent chance of eliminating a team that proved itself to be superior over a 162-game season. Is it worth having that happen for the sake of a little more excitement? If providing excitement to the most possible people is the whole objective, the ultimate solution would be nude ballgirls. Just sayin.
Actually, the whole objective should be to determine the best team. The wild card by definition thwarts that objective, as teams that proved themselves superior over 162 games often have to do it again over a short series where luck or a slump can have disproportionate impact. The only way the wild card goes away is if MLB expands to 32 teams and eight divisions. That does not appear to be on the horizon, so we will live with the wild card, and I can at least understand the argument that when the two best teams play in the same division the wild card prevents some degree of injustice by not excluding one of them at the expense of an inferior division winner (although it seems less unjust when it benefits someone other than the Yankees and Red Sox). If baseball wants to use the playoff format to create excitement, though, I would challenge the premise that the second wild card does so.