Making The Divisions Count Again

When the Wild Card was introduced, one of the main critiques of the idea is that it would cheapen pennant races, which historically had been fought down to the last week, as teams battled for their division’s only trip to the playoffs. While the benefits have generally outweighed the costs and the four team playoff has become accepted, we saw the downside of the system in full force yesterday. On the final day of the season, the Yankees and Rays had identical records and shared the top spot in the American League East. And no one cared.

Sure, a few Tampa players gave a fist pump when the Yankees loss was shown on their big screen, but a raucous celebration it was not. Both teams knew that they were in the playoffs regardless of the outcome of yesterday’s affairs, and the resulting lack of drama reflected that fact. While I like the current playoff system more than the old one, its hard to watch the final month of baseball in the AL East and not feel like it could be improved. Those games should have meant something. They could have been fantastic theatre, but instead, they were glorified exhibitions. There has to be a better way.

One popular idea, floated by Jayson Stark a few weeks ago and discussed in a community post here recently, is to make the Wild Card a play-in spot. Pick the two best teams that didn’t win their division, and once the regular season ends, make them square off for one playoff spot, with the winner of that moving on to face the best of the division champs. The three division winners would get a legitimate advantage over the Wild Card, which would put some meaning back in those races once again.

It’s a pretty good idea, honestly. It fixes the biggest problem with the current system and would serve to keep more fans interested in the final weeks of the MLB season, even after the NFL returned and started competing for attention. However, it presents a problem best summed by up Matthew Carruth in response to the community post:

Say going into the final day the standings are:

New York 95-66
Tampa 95-66
Minnesota 93-68
Boston 90-71 (2nd Wild Card)
Texas 88-73

Under your proposal,
New York and Tampa: have large incentive to win their final game so as to avoid the one game Wild Card playoff with Boston.
Minnesota, Boston, Texas: no incentive on final day.

So NY and TB play their best available starters to try and win. Say NY wins. The playoff match ups are then:

If seeds are done strictly on reg season record or

NY vs (TB/BOS)
If done where Wild Card = 4th seed.

Here’s the problem. In the first scenario, NY and TB used their best starters in their final game to avoid the WC playoff. That gives an advantage to TEX, MIN and –most importantly– Boston, who had no such incentive and thus rested their best starters. You’ve punished Tampa to the favor of Boston, the worse Wild Card.

In the second scenario the advantage is limited to just BOS, but it’s still present. You’ve put the teams with the better record at a disadvantage by giving them incentives to win until the end of the season while not providing the same motivation to the lower teams.

Matthew’s right. We want the division races to be meaningful, but not at the expense of penalizing a team for trying to win a division. The one game play-in model could hurt a franchise that plays to win on the final Sunday. If MLB was going to add a second Wild Card, they would either have to go to a three game series or take more days off to expand the gap between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the division series, thus allowing division winners that played to the end to have a ready-to-go rotation for the division series.

That drawback makes the plan less appealing to me, and has me looking for alternatives. One idea that I haven’t seen get too much consideration is far simpler, and perhaps is even more of a potential reward for teams to finish with the best record – each division series could be played in just one city.

Home Field Advantage is smaller in baseball than in any other sport, with just a 54/46 split. Giving the team with an advantage just one extra game in their home city, where their odds of winning aren’t that much better than they are on the road, isn’t a huge motivator. But what if they got to host the entire series?

Now you’ve given them a tangible (even if small) advantage in each game, and in a full length series, that can add up. In addition, the home franchise gets a significant revenue boost, so ownership would almost certainly push their teams to try and make sure they were one of the teams hosting in the first round. You’d eliminate the need for travel days, so the first round could either be expanded to seven games or simply be condensed into a shorter time frame, shortening the overall playoff schedule and helping the season end before November.

The goal is to incentivize winning games in the last week of the regular season. By forcing the wild card and the worst division winner to play entirely on the road in the first round, you give teams a real reason to rack up as many wins as possible. Under this system, not only would Tampa Bay and New York have been fighting for a real home field advantage yesterday, the Reds would have had motivation to win out as well.

I think this system would give teams a legitimate reason to play for a division title and not settle for the Wild Card without creating the moral hazard of the play-in game. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one that I’d like to see get a little more notice, at least.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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