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Are the Wild Cards Now a Trap?

Posted By Dave Cameron On July 23, 2012 @ 1:33 pm In Daily Graphings | 55 Comments

Over the weekend, Vince Gennaro — president of SABR, author of Diamond Dollars, and friend of FanGraphs — launched his own blog. For his first post, he talked about the second wild card and it’s effect on the upcoming trade deadline. In that post, he said some of the things that I’ve been thinking lately, so instead of just repeating those ideas, I’ll quote him instead:

What are the implications for trade deadline deals? Since we know the real financial payoff for a team’s performance results from a run through the postseason—the deeper the run, the richer the pot of gold—teams will need to shift their mindset to not treat all postseason qualifying positions as “equal”. In the new system, it may make more sense to fortify your ballclub when your playoff status is assured, but being anointed a division winner is still in question—think Texas or even the Angels. However, a team fighting for a wild card berth should think twice before they go all-in for the privilege of potentially extending their season for one more day. This is the exact opposite of the old mindset—do everything you can to qualify for the playoffs, but don’t worry too much about winning the division.

Vince is right about the incentives of the old system, as there was no real incentive to try and secure a different seed within the playoff structure. If you were in, you were in, and your goal should have been to just get in. But, now, the addition of the second wild card changes everything. In reality, it’s the play-in game that is really the differentiator here, as the new structure created a vast separation between winning your division and finishing as a strong runner up. As Jesse noted last week, the playoff probability curves have shifted, and the incentives on when to be a trade deadline buyer have to shift as well.

There are now twice as many wild cards, but they are less than half as valuable as they used to be, as they only guarantee a ~50-50 shot at a real playoff spot, and, in order to secure that playoff spot, the team will likely have to burn through their pitching staff in order to win the one game playoff. Rather than entering the division series on even footing, the wild card may now very well be without their best starting pitcher until Game 3 or Game 4. Not only does a wild card entry no longer get you any guaranteed home playoff dates, it increases the likelihood that the wild card will be losing in the first round.

These are good changes that I’m in favor of, but the devaluation of the wild card may have some unintended consequences at the trade deadline, as Vince noted in his post.

For instance, the recent surge by the Oakland Athletics has left them just a half game behind the Angels and tied with the Orioles in the wild card standings. Under the old system, the A’s and O’s should probably have both acted as buyers. While they’re not as good as the Angels in terms of true talent, they’re close enough to that first wild card spot that there’s a realistic chance that they could outplay Anaheim over the final two months of the season and steal a lucrative playoff spot that could re-energize their fan base and create significant revenue gains. However, under the new system, both teams should probably resist the urge to give up prospects for rentals, as the reward for running down the Angels (or even just maintaining their current spot in the standings) is likely a one game, winner-take-all affair against Jered Weaver in Anaheim.

Yeah, they could beat him, but how much of your farm system do you want to bet on coming out victorious against Weaver on the road, especially when you’re pretty sure that the Angels roster is still stronger than yours even without factoring in the pitching match-up? The outcome of any one game is unpredictable enough that they shouldn’t just fold up their tents and give up, but trading good prospects for the right to try and win one game as an underdog on the road against one of the best pitchers in baseball just seems like a poor use of value.

It was one thing to trade a prospect for a guy who gave you a 10% chance at getting to the World Series, where the potential return could dramatically alter the trajectory of a franchise. But, now, with the required play-in game, teams that are hanging out in the wild card race but probably aren’t contenders for the division title should probably hold instead of buy. The play-in game is enough of a carrot to keep teams from repeating the White Flag Trade, but it shouldn’t be enough of a carrot to get teams to give up real long term value to chase a wild card spot.

Of course, there’s a flip side to this coin as well. Since the division title is so much more valuable than a wild card berth, teams like Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis should be far more incentivized to win the central divisions than they were in prior years, when a second place finish could still get them into the playoffs as a wild card. Likewise, the Washington Nationals should probably be more aggressive buyers this year than they would have been last year, as they can’t afford to let the Braves pass them in the NL East race.

The changing marginal values of wins 87-97 have made it so that first place teams should be more active this week, while second place teams should probably be a bit less active unless they’re close to the top of their division.

It will be interesting to see which teams are aggressive in adding talent. It probably won’t be the same ones that would have been active in prior years.


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