FG on Fox: The Second Wild Card Trap

As we head into play on Wednesday, 12 of the 15 teams in the American League are within six games of a playoff spot. This is great news if you were a member of Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon Committee, tasked with bringing parity — competitive balance is the preferred MLB jargon, I believe — to a sport that has seen its fair share of dominant dynasties. The addition of a second wild card, along with rising television revenues that have shrunk the gap between the haves and the have-nots, means that more teams are fancying themselves as contenders now than ever before.

The Royals, a game below .500, are reportedly more interested in acquiring a hitter to bolster their offense than in selling off the final few months of James Shields‘ contract. The Rays are five games below .500, but have won six straight and might just be talking themselves out of trading David Price, given their recent surge. Even the Red Sox, who looked dead and buried a few weeks ago, have now won eight of their last 10, and can probably make a case for keeping their team together to make a last ditch run at defending their championship.

However, I’d like to make a suggestion to American League teams chasing the second Wild Card spot: proceed with caution.

The reward for even winning the Wild Card used to be a best-of-five series that would likely result in at least two home playoff games, a nifty little reward for a team’s fan base. Under the new system, however, the carrot at the end of the Wild Card stick is just a single game winner-take-all affair, with the loser only extending their season by one additional day, and maybe not even playing that game in front of their home crowd.

And the news gets worse for the second Wild Card entry in the American League this year; not only are you going on the road for an elimination game, but you’re almost guaranteed to be going up against one of the very best teams in baseball.

Read the rest on Just a Bit Outside.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


52 Responses to “FG on Fox: The Second Wild Card Trap”

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  1. Marsupial Jones says:

    The Royals and Rays are in totally different positions. The Royals realisticly would be playing for the second wild card. The Rays could very well win the division with a good second half.

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    • AK7007 says:

      Rays could win the division, and like Dave said, could talk themselves into holing onto Price until the offseason. Guess what? They could sell him after the season without jeopardizing their future! If the Royals sell their future to “go for it,” they don’t have the flexibility to do different things later like the Rays do.

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  2. #KeepNotGraphs says:

    While it’s good to have more incentive to win your division, also having an unbalanced schedule makes life unfair for teams in a strong division like the AL West

    #KeepNotGraphs

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    • Andrew says:

      maybe we can keep the unbalanced schedule but balance it back by taking the average of a teams winning percentage against intra-league team.

      So a intradivision team that goes 10-2 against the Phillies/Astros/Cubs etc is at an equal footing with an out of division team that goes 5-1 against the Phillies/Astros/Cubs.

      3 division winners plus 2 next best records qualify, the top 3 average winning % teams avoid the play-in. Doesn’t fix the unbalanced schedule, but can mitigate some of the problems potentially

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  3. Steve says:

    I don’t even have to finish the article to know this is Dave going on about how the Wild Card is basically already Anaheim’s, and they have it wrapped it, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. Sorry, it’s 1 game, I don’t buy that at all.

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    • Steve says:

      The Jays have scored 8 runs in 9.2 innings off Wilson this year. If they were the 2nd playoff team, they would likely face Weaver, and their line-up against righties is – when healthy – completely stacked.

      The Mariners have a guy called Felix Hernandez that the Angels would have to get through. Red Sox – Lester. Rays – Price. Royals – irrelevant, they’re not gonna be the 2nd wild card team.

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    • nd says:

      You should read the whole article. He’s basically just saying that there’s no reason to mortgage the future on a one game playoff where you will probably be the away team.

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      • Steve says:

        Fair enough, I went back and read it, but he’s been beating this drum for weeks now about how teams basically shouldn’t even try because they’re going to lose to Anaheim, and I don’t see it.

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        • Nick says:

          “shouldn’t even try” and “shouldn’t mortgage their future by trading for pieces to maybe enter a coin-flip game” are pretty different arguments, all hyperbole aside.

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        • Steve says:

          A top of the line starter could arguably be worth giving up a lot for, for a team like Toronto or Baltimore. Personally, I’d do a bullpen game if I were the Jays in the Wild Card game, but I wouldn’t hold it against them to trade for someone like Price for this year’s wild card game + next year.

          What pure rental players are going to have any team mortgaging their future for at this year’s deadline? Maybe I’m mistaken but I can’t think of a single one, so why even have the conversation?

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        • Tom B says:

          That’s why we’re reading fangraphs Steve, and not your publication on baseball wisdom.

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        • jpg says:

          Steve, the problem is that you’re arguing against a point that Dave isn’t, you know, actually making. There is a difference between a “short term upgrade” and a “pure rental”. If a team wants a guy like David Price they are going to have to give up the farm because he’s great and not a pure rental. Samardzija brought back a huge haul to the Cubs because he is very good and not a pure rental. Those are the types of guys he’s talking about. Dave is saying it would be dumb for a mediocre team chasing the second wildcard to mortgage the future for that kind of guy. Conversely, Dave thought the Oakland deal for Samardzija was a worthwhile gamble because they aren’t just some mediocre team. Nobody, except for you, is bringing up the notion of mortgaging the future for a pure rental.

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        • Steve says:

          Again though, except for the Royals, I disagree with his point entirely. The Mariners should go for it, they might never get this chance again for several years, whether or not they keep Walker (for example). Same with the Jays, they’re only getting older. These teams should be trying to maximize the best chance they’ve had in years. These teams have shown that they should be good enough next year as well, especially if adding significant pieces for this summer and next.

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        • Jason B says:

          “Same with the Jays, they’re only getting older.”

          If there are players who are not getting older, I demand a full-scale investigation! POST HASTE!

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    • Nick says:

      I don’t even have to finish this comment to know that Steve is basically a toolbag with zero insightful witticisms or remarks.

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      • Steve says:

        You kind of miss the point, I’m not saying he’s a bad writer or not worth reading, I mean that he’s been making this point over and over lately, and framing arguments around his point as if it’s fact, and I disagree.

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        • AK7007 says:

          You kind of miss the point that Dave never said the things you claim he did, and framing arguments around your false memory as if it’s fact, is dumb.

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        • David says:

          …because this time of year there’s always lots of chatter about mediocre teams and what they should do to reach the playoffs. And article about what they should NOT do is a fair counterpoint

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        • Steve says:

          As I wrote above, it just seems like a roundabout way for him to get this point across again. I don’t see any pure rental players that teams are going to give up their farm system for, so why even have the conversation? Dave is quick to point out how terrible anyone’s chances vs. the Angels are, but I don’t see him mention a single rental player that his article is supposedly about.

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        • Antonio Bananas says:

          Steve, the articles are about probability. He’s not touting the angels. If you’re 40, your financial advisor probably doesn’t want you to sell everything and buy bonds because you aren’t close to retirement. Dave is saying the same thing to all these teams. That’s it. You’re arguing points no one ever made.

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    • jmsdean477 says:

      He guarantees that it will be a one game in Anaheim, and that is looking likely, so do you really want to go all in on a race you might not win in order to go play a good team at there park…

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  4. John says:

    The real thing worth discussing here, to me, is how wildly unfair this situation is to either the A’s or the Angels. They may very well be playing in a coin-flip game against a team that they finished more than 5 games clear of in the standings. That’s pathetically unbalanced.

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    • Tom B says:

      You are right, the wildcard should be eliminated completely because it’s a gimmick to make money and not fair to any teams that actually deserved to make the playoffs.

      #AngelsGoHome

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    • David says:

      …and before the wild card the 2nd best team in the AL would end up staying home entirely.

      …and with only one wild card and a 5-game series there’s less reward for winning your division.

      Pick any playoff setup you wish, and I can come up with a end-of season scenario that makes it “pathetically unbalanced”. At some point you just have to suck it up and win your ball games.

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    • Matthew says:

      I really just wish they would player a best of 3 play-in rather than a single game.

      I’ve thought the best approach would be a 3 game series with all games played at the park of the team with the better record. The first two games are played as a doubleheader. The division winners would get those two days off, and the wild-card winner would only get a day off if they swept the first two games. It rewards division winners and it benefits the top non-winner by giving them a longer series and home-field advantage. I realize this will never happen.

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      • jmsdean477 says:

        except then they have burnt there entire pitching staff and are going into the DS with the actual number 4-5 starters going, since you can’t turn any of the 3 around you just threw that fast, they would always lose that way, which is probably why they didn’t do it this way, there is no way to fit in that series and give the team enough time off to make the DS remotely fair.

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        • Matthew says:

          I’m assuming there would be a day off in there somewhere, so that you wouldn’t be looking at a situation where you have to use a start on short rest. I can’t remember the specifics, but doesn’t baseball throw in all sorts of unnecessary rest days in the playoffs? If the division series with the (likely tired) wild card team starts the day after the wild card series ends, I suppose they could do game 1, then a day off, and then game 2. Of that series starts a day late, which would give the team with the best record 3 total days off, which woudn’t be the end of the world.

          But yeah, it’s obviously hard to figure out a way to have a play-in that (1) is more than a one game series,(2) doesn’t result in “too many” off days for the other teams making the playoffs, and (3) still gives the wild card team some semblance of rest.

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        • Antonio Bananas says:

          2 divisions in each league, 6 playoff teams in each league. 4 wild card spots. Balanced schedule.

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      • Luke says:

        My goodness a playoff double-header would be SO much fun.

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        • Luke says:

          I like the 5-team system more than the previous 4-team one, but I’m really hoping it’s a stepping stone to a 6-team system. 6/15 still means that making the playoffs is an accomplishment, unlike in the ridiculousness of the NBA and NHL playoffs in which under .500 teams routinely make the playoffs.

          There is no denying that the current system punishes the 4th place team relative to the previous system. Usually, that 4th place team is pretty darn good and is only in 4th place because it happens to play in a tough division.

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  5. King Buzzo's Fro says:

    IT’S A TRAP!

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  6. Bobby says:

    A trap that might be some of these team’s best chance to make the playoffs in years. Make it and win one game and you could find yourself in the WS.

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  7. Bo Knows says:

    I don’t buy that the Angels are this lockdown team to be hosting the WC game… or that they are even built to win it. When your division contains teams with -85 and -109 run differentials, you are going to look better in the standings than you probably are.

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  8. BIP says:

    I think the correct course of action for teams in this position is to pursue high variance players–ones with good upside but little chance of reaching it, keeping their costs low.

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  9. daniel cumings says:

    What Dave’s and Fangraph statistics show is that if you have the best pitcher in the American League, you will be favored to win a one away game playoff against either LA or OAK. So if you’re SEA, you should be going for it. He’s not called the King because he was born into it. He earned the crown.

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    • Naveen says:

      One of the main points he was making is how the format of the one-game Wild Card round neutralizes the advantage that teams like Seattle would have. Anaheim or Oakland would go to their bullpen early and often and they have the relievers to be able to shorten a game. Playing a one-game ’round’ like that is very different from a regular season baseball game where there’s always tomorrow to think about.

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    • JS says:

      There is no guarantee any of your top starters will be able to start the wildcard game. Teams many need to use their ace in the last game or two of the season just to have a chance at the wildcard.

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      • JS says:

        Teams *may* need to use

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      • Jason B says:

        Totally agree with JS. People keep talking about “well you wouldn’t wanna go up against Felix/Price/Lester” when it’s very likely going to be a fight to the finish and teams will need to utilize player at their disposal just to MAKE the wild card game.

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  10. Aaron (UK) says:

    The second wildcard could yet get the unfair advantage of knowing that they will be the second wildcard, allowing them to set up their ace (say, Felix), whilst the A’s and Angels battle to the end for the division.

    Would it be optimal for them to skip their aces anyway if they were tied going into game #162?

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    • jmsdean477 says:

      Except they won’t be battling to the end, the A’s are much deeper on both sides of the roster, and the Angels just can’t keep pace with there rotation, and there won’t be upgrades coming with the farm they have. Watch as the stretch separates them. Also they have only gotten close thru getting a bunch of Tex/Hou games while the A’s played the likes of Det, and now for the rest of the month the worm has turned, A’s don’t play a single game outside of the two worst teams in baseballs parks while the Angels get Det/Bal. A’s 6-3 vs. LAA this year as well so business will be taken care of.

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  11. Zack says:

    It looks like deciding the 2nd wildcard spot in both leagues could come down to the last day. I’m not sure why many are automatically assuming their ace is going to pitch the wildcard game. More than likely that ace pitched within a few games of that day and won’t be available.

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  12. grant says:

    In terms of an analysis as to “how likely are you to win the WS”, this article is correct. But, for some long suffering franchises (eg: Jays, Royals) the mere fact of having reached the post-season, even if it’s a one and out, would be worth it. The revenue bump the following year from making the playoffs is, I suspect, a lot more significant for mid-markets that had gone a long time without hope, than it would be in places like Tampa (where fans seem apathetic no matter what) or Boston / NY (where less than WS is considered a disappointment).

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    • jmsdean477 says:

      Except I don’t think the bump is near the same off a one and done where your fans don’t even get to see a single postseason game at home. Its not the playoffs its game 163, and it punishes good teams since the Angels can conceivably get bumped by the King or his elk, while having the second best record in baseball, which I think is super stupid, allowing some garbage time teams to make the DS. The playoffs should be 6 teams to avoid all one division making the whole bracket, but it should just be top 6 winning % seeded, maybe bottom 4 play three game series to decide who takes on the 1-2, then normal series after that.

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  13. PackBob says:

    Just hire Joe Saunders to pitch the wildcard game and save the studs for the 5-game series.

    Sure the Angels will be the better team and at home, and if this game were played a bunch of times the Angels would win more than they lose. But it’s only one game so it all boils down to performance on that particular day, no matter who is pitching.

    The point of the article to me is not to give away too much just to try and get to the 2nd wildcard. You could maybe even say the same thing for the Angels except that they have a shot at the division, which ups the rewards.

    I would also say that for the teams contending for the 2nd wildcard that they generally have more than one major hole to fix, so that fixing one hole by overpaying could still leave them short and potentially without resources to fill the other holes having spent them on the overpay.

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    • jmsdean477 says:

      Its also heavily about the fact that the Angels have a large lead over #2 so they have much higher odds where as any of 6 teams are within 5 games of the 2nd spot, so your odds of being top of the heap aren’t great to begin with. Selling the future for a 1 in 20 or something is not smart.

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  14. DNA+ says:

    I think you are actually showing that the team that gets the second wildcard actually has a very good chance of winning the play in game. Chances are good they won’t be favoured (depending upon how the pitching lines up), however, it will be closer to a coin flip than it will be to a real underdog situation (like you have in American football).

    If things stay the way they are, the team that will be penalized the most will be the Angels.

    Also, it is a bit misleading that teams are playing for the WC. The only teams that are really playing for WC (i.e. have no realistic shot to win their division) are Seattle, Cleveland, and Kansas City. Every other team is either awful, or is trying to win their division (with the potential for the WC as consolation).

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  15. Ernie14 says:

    I don’t see why the Mariners shouldn’t “go for it” by trading for Price, thus having either Felix, Iwakuma or Price for the elimination game and the division series. (As for Dave’s bullpen theory in the elimination game, the Mariners have had the most effective pen in MLB this season). If it doesn’t pan out, or even if it does, they can flip Price in the offseason to recoup their lost prospects, or maybe get that premier right-handed bat they covet that isn’t out there right now.

    Not gonna happen now, of corse, because the Rays can’t seem to lose…

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  16. Ernie14 says:

    …of course…sorry

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  17. Vince Coleman says:

    Whew. I thought the headline said “Wild Tarp”

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