Wild Card Races Are Bullshit.
Good point. It is true that the wild card race, as it presently stands, has given hope to Cleveland where there would otherwise be none.
“And,” the emboldened wild-card fan continues, “look at the National League race! There are five teams within a two-game lead there. That’s pretty exciting! You have to admit.”
Before taking this set up too far, let’s take a look at the wild card races—starting with the National League.
A cursory glance at the standings shows five teams bunched up within two games of the wild card lead: Philadelphia, Florida, Houston, New York, and Washington. Other than Houston, every team hails from the NL East—which means that the wild card race is a race for second place in that division, with every team in striking distance and Philly only 4.5 games behind division-leading Atlanta. Without all the brouhaha surrounding the wild card race, no one has mentioned that the table is set for a compelling division race.
Each team’s games matter as much—if not more so—in the divisional race. The fact that there is a safety net waiting there, knowing that should they fail to win the division, there is an 80 percent chance that an NL East team will make it to the postseason, takes away from the inherent excitement of a pennant race. The artificial construct of the wild card waters down the excitement.
Houston, like Cleveland in the American League, is the only true beneficiary of this structure. Second in a division behind the runaway Cardinals (who have built a 13-game nest egg), the Astros’ only salvation lies in the wild card. But should Houston outlast the competition in the East, two interesting things happen: First, as the wild card winner, the de facto fourth-seed Astros would not face the Cardinals, the top seed—because they both hail from the Central. The second is this: Since teams no longer play a balanced schedule, the East, a much tougher division, may well have beaten one another up, allowing a backdoor entrance by Houston, whose own divisional foes are all below the .500 mark with little left worth playing for.
So why does Major League Baseball build the regular-season schedule around all these divisional rivalries, then create a playoff structure that favors teams that perform well within weaker divisions?
Look to the AL wild card and something even more disturbing emerges. The AL wild card race is essentially between three teams right now: The A’s, Yankees, and Indians are in a virtual dead heat for first. (Let’s dismiss plummeting Toronto, who are about the become the O’s version of a wild card contender for third place in the East, and Minnesota, who at 5.5 games out, have a lot to prove before they can get back into the discussion.)
Starting with the AL West, the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels are sparring for the top spot with a 1.5-game gap separating them. Isn’t this a race someone should be paying attention to?
In the AL East, the Yankees simultaneously hold the wild card while gunning for the Red Sox, who are clasping a 2.5-game lead. With lots of head-to-head games left, both teams’ sights are set on the AL East crown. For the Yankees, who have won the division every year since 1997, coming second to the Red Sox would be yet another sign of their prolonged demise—even with Alex Gonzalez’s World Series-winning bloop hit in 2001, the Yanks have drifted further and further away from the Precious. For the World Champion Sox, who haven’t won the division since 1995, boxing out the Yankees would mean Satisfaction. Yet knowing that taking care of their own business may still afford the Yankees to get in the back door brings with it a sweet-and-sour bite—sour for obvious reasons, sweet because this is the same path they climbed to vault into the World Series last year.
The primary arguments in support of the wild card are that it allows more teams to contend, and that teams in runaway divisions still get a shot. Yet the focus on two wild card races clearly steals attention from three otherwise engaging divisional races, giving each a margin for error by allowing one of the runners-up admission anyway. It may grant the Astros and Indians a role in all of this, but who gives a shit about Houston or Cleveland? Really.
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