The likeliest scenario for next week has the Yankees and Diamondbacks hosting wild cards having proven over 162 games that they are far superior to their opponents, yet at risk of having their season end in three hours.
This is the jeopardy teams face when they do not win a division: a sudden-death contest.
But does it have to be?
There have been questions of fairness since the second wild card was installed in 2012. Is it fair to prove playoff worthy for six months and have a season end due to nine bad innings?
I have wondered about providing a better reward for specifically a dominant wild-card team against an inferior opponent that still honors the major reasons the single-game wild-card format was created: 1. To give greater advantages to division winners. 2. To create more content for TV (think more money) and make instant drama of an elimination game so that TV would be interested. 3. To not add too many extra days to the postseason and extend it too far into November, if at all.
That is why I found a recent Travis Sawchik piece on Fangraphs so fascinating. Until reading it, I did not know that the Korea Baseball Organization has a best-of-two wild card. In South Korea’s top league — the one, that among others, Eric Thames returned from this season — the wild-card team with the best record host two games and has to win just one to advance while the lower seed must win two.
I will trust Sawchik’s math that the home wild-card team in a one-and-done has a 54 percent chance to win, and it only rises to 56 percent in a best-of-three. But if the lower seed has to win two straight, the higher seed has a 79 percent chance of advancing to the Division Series.
I would make a modification to this: If the teams in the wild-card game finished within four games of each other during the season, then it stays a single-elimination game. But if the difference is five or more games, then the two-game format goes into effect.
So it would not happen that often. In the 10 wild-card games played so far, just once has there been a five-game-or-greater discrepancy — in 2012 in the NL, the 94-68 Braves played the 88-74 Cardinals. And wouldn’t you know it, Atlanta lost.
But it is possible in both leagues this year. When play began Wednesday, the Yankees led the wild card by five games and the Diamondbacks by six. Let’s go back over the priority list to explain why this suggested format is better:
1. This gives even a greater advantage to division winners because the wild-card teams might have to work harder to advance to a next round.
2. It creates more content for TV and more of what they want: elimination games. Game 1 of a two-game series is an elimination game for one team and, if it reaches Game 2, it is an elimination game for both. If both leagues were in play in the same year, then you could play games at 4 p.m. Eastern and 8 p.m. Eastern on consecutive days.
3. To play an additional playoff game every few years would not create too much of a hardship with the schedule. In theory, if you needed to play a two-game series, then it can begin the Monday after the season, Game 2 would be played Tuesday and the Division Series could begin thereafter. Consider that the wild-card games this year are not even being played until Wednesday and Thursday.
To consolidate further, the two-game wild card could be a doubleheader and played in one day if necessary. That would put the winner at a still greater disadvantage when it comes to the Division Series – further giving division winners an edge.
But there are benefits beyond that. It is possible that in the next day or two that, for example, the Twins could get locked into the wild-card second seed and the Yankees in the first. That would make the final few games of the season meaningless playoff prep. But what if both teams were playing to either gain the best-of-two or avoid it?
That would give more significance to the end of the regular season, bringing larger attention to the games and bringing greater value to more ticket holders. And it would stir fascinating decisions/debates about how to play these last few games. Would you, for example, use an ace on the final Sunday to try to prevent or secure a five-game gap and run the risk of not having him for either the two-game series beginning Monday or the one-and-done Tuesday?
And if the format was ever a wild-card doubleheader, could you imagine all the strategizing that would have to go on into the opener, especially by the higher seed that knows it has a safety net in Game 2, if necessary?
In eight of the 10 wild-card games so far, the teams finished either tied or within a game of each other. In that situation, a sudden death feels like a logical extension of the season and proper. But this year when the Yankees and Diamondbacks have proven over six months to be far superior to whom they are likely to face in the wild card, then being in peril of having a season end in nine innings is unfair.
The two-game wild card in those scenarios would provide a better alternative.
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