Fixing the Wild Card

February 10, 2008

It's been almost ten years since we came up with a way to fix the current wild card system. It still hasn't been fixed. And it still needs to be fixed.

The 2007 AL East race between the Yankees and Red Sox was the closest since 1978, but I stopped watching in early September, because the current wild card system makes the division title worthless. Once the Yankees put enough space between themselves and the Tigers, the rest of the season became meaningless.

Last season could have been the most exciting playoff chase in recent memory. A chance for the Red Sox to collapse as badly as they did in 1978. Instead, we got to see a bunch of games where Terry Francona sits his best players and experiments with how best to use Eric Gagne.

It seems like the calls to fix the wild card have died down. I think it's because the ALDS and NLDS can produce some exciting playoff baseball. That's great. I don't want to get rid of the wild card. I just want to fix it so that the division races regain importance. In case you missed it the first time, here's my proposal:

1) Replace the current Wild Card system with two Wild Cards. Because these are the 4th and 5th teams in each league to earn a playoff spot, we will call these teams #4 and #5.

2) As with the current system, the division winner with the best record is the #1 seed, the division winner with the next-best record is the #2 seed.

3) On the first day after the end of regular season, team #5 plays a one-game playoff at team #4's home stadium.

4) The winner of this game advances to meet team #1 in a best-of-five series.

In other words, this is identical to the current system, except that each league adds a 2nd wild card team which faces off against the 1st wild card team in a one-game showdown.

Some advantages of this new system:

a) Division races gain importance. Settling for the wild card means there's roughly a 50% chance you'll get knocked out in one game. Even if you do win, you have to hop a plane and go face the best team in your league the very next day.

b) "Home field" races (such as between the 2007 American League division winners) gain added importance. There would now be a big difference between being the #1 seed and the #2 seed. In a short series, wouldn't you rather face a team that just used their best available pitcher in a one-game playoff?

c) This addresses the frustation that the current wild card system is "unfair" because the wild card has as good a shot (or better) at making it to the World Series. No team wants to face a 1-game elimination playoff, no matter how good their best pitcher is. Moreover, it's unlikely that a wild card team's best pitcher will be rested for this playoff game. And even if he is, and the team manages to win the one-game playoff, they have to start the division series with their #2 starter.

d) This adds to post-season excitement, and TV ratings, without significantly lengthening the playoffs. We don't have to worry about playing mid-November games in Boston or Colorado.

e) The one-game playoffs create instant excitement to kick off the post-season. It's like scheduling a couple of Game 7's right at the beginning of October. Baseball needs this, because a lot of fans are losing interest in the playoffs. It's ridiculous that the Braves would have thousands of empty seats in the playoffs because "it's only the first round".

At least from Bud Selig's point of view, this system is an improvement on all grounds. It restores the importance of each division race while also increasing fan interest -- because even more teams now have a shot at the post-season. In fact, although we are adding 2 teams to the playoffs, we actually increase the chance that each division winner has of reaching the World Series (because we disrupt the starting rotations of the wild card teams -- putting them at a disadvantage in the ALDS and NLDS).

But instead of actually fixing the current system, Selig has been busy making bizarre tweaks to the post-season format, like giving home-field advantage in the World Series to the team from the league that wins the All-Star Game. Last year, he created a new rule that most baseball fans don't even know about that lets the league winner with the best division record decide whether the ALDS will span 7 days or 8 days (the best National League team got no such benefit, but it appears that the leagues will "trade off" this lovely privilege in future years).

It's about time to restore the division races to prominence, while also adding some post-season excitement. It shouldn't be too hard to get baseball to stand up and notice this idea. So I'm calling on all baseball fans to write to Commissioner "Bud" and ask him to make the division races relevant again. You can probably find his e-mail address online, but I've learned that snail-mail works better for these kinds of things. So here's a word doc you can just print out, sign and mail.



Clay Dreslough

Sports Mogul Inc.