The Second Wildcard Spot and the Unquantifiable Element

Not long ago, it looked like the As were running away with the 2014 American League West. Things have changed. After Sunday night’s game, the Angels are in first place by one game and the As are the first wildcard team at the moment. Whichever team ends up winning the division, barring a shocking twist, the other team will be a very tough matchup for the second wildcard team.

The prospect of facing such a particularly tough opponent in the wildcard game might lead some to think that the second wildcard spot is not all that valuable this season. Not only is the opponent likely to be very good (arguably better than the other division winners), but they will be playing at home. The second wildcard gives a team a chance at advancing, but it does not look like a very good chance. This is probably true most seasons, but it seems particularly clear this year.

Taking that all into account, the question arises as to how much value teams should place on that second wildcard spot. Sure, any team would take that spot over not making the playoffs, but should it really alter a team’s plans with regard to the future budget, trading away prospects, or making other “win now” moves? Is this something that can be quantified?

The wildcard game is often called the “coin flip game” for good reason. No matter what the matchup is, the nature of randomness over a single game (not as if five or seven games is a big sample, either) makes it a virtual, uh, coin flip.

Of course, it is not really a 50-50 proposition. The better team can be expected to win. It might be tough sometimes figuring out which team is more talented, but we have tools that can help us get a pretty good idea more often than not. The current season’s record is not a very good way to go about it. However, at issue here is not specific projections, but a general point about what it means to make the wildcard game. Taking examples from teams that might be in the wildcard game this season, we have a pretty good idea that Oakland (.589 winning percentage so far this season) is better than Seattle (.550).

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that Oakland and Seattle are true talent .589 and .550 teams, respectively.The Log5 method is a commonly accepted way of figuring out what a team’s chances to win. Because the point of this post is not precision and I like simplicity, let’s use the straight-line simpliciation of log5 as formulated by Tom Tippett, where Team A’s chance of beating Team B are:

.500 + (Team A Winning Percentage) – (Team B Winning Percentage)

Using Seattle (.550) as Team A and Oakland (.589) as Team B, this gives Seattle a .461 winning percentage. That is not great. If one wanted to give it an optimistic slant, one could note that it .46 rounds up to .5. Coin flip game!

There is another factor, though — not only does the second wildcard get a tough opponent this season, but the game will be played in the first wildcard’s home park. Without getting into all the discussions regarding home field advantage, let’s just stipulate that the home team wins 54 percent of the time (see Jeff Sullivan’s discussion from last season).

Taking that into account, the Mariners’ chances would be:

.460 + .550 – .489 = .421

There goes rounding up to .500! A .421 team over 162 games would be a 68-94 team, no one’s idea of a good record.

But again, lousy teams beat good teams all the time. Indeed, last year’s Mariners, who finished the season with a .438 winning percentage, actually won their regular season series against the .593 As, 11-8 (.579). A four-in-10 chance is not quite a coin flip, but it is not a one-in-10 chance, either.

Still, this is not a “just go for it” speech or an existential reflection on the difference between four and one. We pretty much already know that a .550 team on the road against a .589 team is at a real disadvantage, the calculations just throw it into relief. The question was whether or not it was worth it for a team to make plans around making the second wildcard spot. Put another way: how do we judge a team’s attempt to contend if their likely destination is a one-game playoff on the road against a quite superior team?

One could look and check not only the odds of winning the playoffs, but the chances of getting to successive rounds. Projections already do that, of course. A broader approach might use social scientific data to see how much more fan interest would be generated for the team given even a one game playoff loss (and, naturally, how much more interest there might be if the team advances). This fan interest would, presumably, lead to more money for the team, which could be used to fund future payrolls. One can imagine other ways to calculate the value of going for the second wildcard spot based on probabilities and benefits.

These factors are relevant. The point is not to dismiss numbers or the business end of baseball. But I am reminded of a post I was writing years ago when I was first blogging. It was about a great player who was on a big contract. My initial conclusion was that despite the player’s greatness, his trade value was extremely limited because of that contact. When discussing my idea with Dave Cameron, he suggested that I should mitigate my conclusion. Even though the contract and the player’s projected value meant that he offered little direct surplus value, the player was so good that he could help a contender win championships in the right situation. And that is the point — to win games. If the point was simply to accrue surplus value, “every team should try to be the Marlins,” as Dave put it (not an exact quote, but that was the gist).

Of course, teams should try to accrue surplus value when they can. Getting the most talent for the money is a good way to go about winning games. But surplus value is not an end in itself. While no one denies that profession baseball is a business and very few expect teams and owners to take foolish losses, but the point is to win.

Most of us probably think that in the context of major league baseball, “winning” finally means winning championships. We do not expect teams to go “all in” in an effort to win 73 games instead of 68. But if winning the World Series is the point, then there is a difference in kind between, for example, winning 87 games and not making the playoffs and winning 89, going on the road to the West Coast and at least having a shot.

Does this justify doing anything and everything, trading away key future prospects for a one-year shot and/or giving foolish contracts based on a chance to get into the playoffs, wherein the team will have a small chance to advance at all, much less get to and win the World Series? Obviously, it does not justify doing just anything for some small shot. Various factors, present and future, should be taken into account. Data must be sifted and choices must be made based on data and projections that are known to be fallible.

But without sentimentality, if we accept that the point of (even?) professional baseball is to try and win, then deciding at what point it is worth it to go for it, even if “it” is the second wild card spot, cannot just be boiled down to an algorithm. Perhaps that line should be a 55 percent chance to have a 42 percent chance to win the wildcard game. Maybe the line should be drawn at a 35 percent chance to make it. This is not to say that the line is drawn in an arbitrary faction. But whatever calculations inform the decision, an unquantifiable element is present.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.