A (mostly) modest proposal: Fixing the broken wild card system

Since 2012, Major League Baseball has used a wild card playoff structure that just doesn’t work, and it needs to be changed beyond just reverting back to old practices. There’s a fix that is both simple and potentially drastic.

Major League Baseball deserves plenty of credit for an active pursuit of improvement. For a sport with origins dating back at least 150 years, its efforts to modernize and improve have never halted. True, as a sport it can be painfully slow to evolve in some ways, but the product that fans see on the field today is vastly different from what it was even a decade or two ago–one example, of course, is how the wild card playoffs are structured. But more on that in a minute.

That is not to say that all of the changes made in Major League Baseball in recent history were improvements. Giving the league that wins the All-Star game home field advantage for the World Series, for instance, has offered little gain both for the All-Star game or for the World Series. Both are compelling events in their own right and baseball didn’t need that arbitrary incentive assigned to an exhibition game.

The more egregious change in recent years though has been the addition of a second wild card team in both leagues. The MLB playoffs were in need of a slight change in structure, but that was not the right one.

In baseball’s early years, there were no playoffs. The American League and the National League were much more separate and in some cases contentious entities and they didn’t bother to intertwine. When the two leagues did converge in a shared contest to determine the best of their respective teams, they simply played a series against each other – a series that was at one time nine games long – to determine a champion.

Eventually, as the two leagues cooperated more directly, the American and National Leagues would take the team from each league with the best record and send them to the World Series. The winning of the pennant in those days meant fending off the rest of the league, not beating them in a playoff series in October.

Expansion in both leagues necessitated a change in the late 1960s, and by 1969, both had divided into an Eastern Division and a Western Division. This added the “championship series” to determine the best of the NL and the best of the AL before they could face off in the World Series.

Further expansion split the two leagues into three divisions each in 1994. Now, what was once a simple playoff format with only four teams, needed a way to balance three teams from each league. Enter the wild card team. For just over a decade, this system worked simply. But, during the winter prior to the 2012 season, a second wild card team was added to the mix, thus necessitating the “Wild Card Game” that pits the two teams in each league with the best records among non-division winners against each other in a one game play-in, before the winner can advance to the divisional round.

And this is where everything went wrong.

What’s the problem?

The chief problem is that a one game play-in is antithetical to the way the rest of the baseball season is structured. It is probably impossible to avoid when teams finish with a tie in the standings, but instituting it as a staple of October baseball was a real mistake. Think about it – after a regular season built entirely on teams playing each other in a series and generally focusing on winning each series as opposed to every single game, two teams in each league are suddenly thrust into a scenario that is the opposite of that.

With the addition of the second wild card team, this scenario is now a certainty every year. It could be argued that this adds a layer of excitement to September games and that it allows for another deserving team to get a shot at the playoffs (think about the 97-win 2015 Cubs and what only one wild card team per league would have meant for them). It is, after all, comparatively more difficult to reach the postseason in baseball than it is in the other major professional sports.

But, this change is ultimately more harmful to teams that make it to the playoffs via the wild card, and putting it in place as a postseason institution flies in the face of the way baseball has been played professionally since the beginning.

There is a simpler and better way to address the one game play-in problem that still allows for the most deserving teams to get to October and that keeps the spirit of a series of games intact.

A (mostly) modest proposal

The 2016 regular season will end about a week from now, and at the time of writing, the National League wild card is essentially at a three-way tie. Just reading about what this would mean for settling who faces the Cubs in the NLDS is dizzying. And while this might look favorable to the Cubs in the end, not everyone agrees.

It’s a headache that baseball and the fans don’t need, and there’s a two step solution to restore some order here. First, do away with the second wild card team. It’s created some late season drama, sure, but it’s manufactured drama that causes more problems in the postseason than it’s worth. Second, do away with division winners as automatic playoff qualifiers.

This is the part that might seem drastic, but consider for a moment that the NBA follows this model, and while they allow more teams to make the playoffs than MLB does, they still maintain a divisional structure.

So baseball would not need to abandon the East, Central, and West divisions in both leagues, but it should stop choosing the top team from each division for the playoffs and then leaving the rest of the league to battle it out.

Instead, the top four records in both leagues advance. That’s it. There’s no need to muddy the waters further with strength of schedule questions; at least, not for now. In that scenario, the 2015 playoffs would have featured the Blue Jays, Yankees, Royals, and Rangers from the AL, and the Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs, and Dodgers from the NL. Imagine how differently last year’s playoffs look then.

The simplest solution being the best is an old adage, but in this case it works. Baseball has complicated the postseason and moved away from the spirit of the way the schedule is structured, and it’s time to fix that.