By now it has all become official. The Houston Astros will be moving to the AL West, most likely in 2013, and a second Wild Card team will be added to each league. Most prognosticators expect that the two Wild Card teams will face each other in a single game after which the postseason will proceed as normal.
But is this good for baseball? Critics point to the last day of the 2011 season, arguably the single greatest day of regular season baseball in modern era. There were four (four!!!!) games that day that directly impacted the postseason. Three of them ended within minutes of each other. We had dramatic comebacks and extra innings and unless you lived in a blacked out media market, you had a hard time deciding which game to watch at any given minute. Even my wife, who is not a big baseball fan, was drawn into the drama of the evening. But that evening would just have been another day had there been a second wild card. Had there been a second wild card, the post season would have been set before the first game that day was played.
But is that reason to oppose a second wild card? I’m not so sure. I think we need to look at more than just last season before we decide if this is a good idea. And that is exactly what I did.
First of all, let’s get the counter argument to the critics on the table. The last day of the 2011 season was fantastic because we had multiple games with a win-or-else feel to them. There were four teams in four different games who had to win, and that gave us a Game 7 feel that spanned across hours. Under the new format, we are guaranteed at least two games that should have a similar feel at the end of every season. The two wild card teams for each league will face off in a single game. We don’t need the stars to align to get excitement and drama; it now comes standard with every season.
But let’s go beyond that. Will a second wild card in each league make the regular season post season races less exciting? To answer that question I dug through the final standings in each league over the several seasons. And for me, those standings make a very compelling case for a second wild card. I think history strongly suggest that baseball got this one right. Take a look at the data and see what you think.
2010 National League
Atlanta took the wild card, with the Padres one game back. The next closest team was the Cardinals, nine games back. A second wild card would have lessened the drama here.
2010 American League
New York took the wild card, and no one else was within six games. However, if we add the second wild card, we have Boston and the White Sox finishing just one game apart. The new format would have added a lot of excitement in two major markets.
2009 National League
Colorado took the wild card and no one was within three games of them. Not much excitement. The second wild card would have gone to San Francisco, with Florida and Atlanta one and two games back respectively. If you look at the players on those three teams, we missed out on one fantastic race to the finish.
2009 American League
Boston took the wild card, and there was no one close. But once again, we missed out on a great race to the finish. Texas would have won the second wild card, but Detroit, Seattle, and Tampa all finished within three games of Texas. Detroit was also in the thick of a division race. A second wild card would have converted 2009 from a fairly routine season to a hotly contested event in the final week.
2008 National League
Milwaukee took the wild card by one game over the Mets. With a second wild card, the Mets would have finished just 2.5 over Houston and 3 over St. Louis. A second wild card would have spread excitement to more cities and teams, but the overall level of excitement would have been about the same.
2008 American League
2008 had no wild card drama in the AL since Boston just ran away with it. A second wild card would have gone to New York by a 1.5 games over the Twins, with the Blue Jays three out. That’s right, Toronto would have been in contention in the final week of the season. I have to think that would have been good for baseball.
2007 National League
Critics of the new format will hate 2007. It was already a great year for excitement with close division races across the league and the Rockies winning the wild card by just a game over the Padres. But the Mets would have missed out on the second wild card by just half a game. That means New York’s missing game would have been made up the day after the season ended, and if the Mets won it we would have a winner take all show down with the Padres, and then the wild card game with the Mets. To me, it looks like the second wild card would have added up to three win-or-else games to the end of the season. A great finish to the season would have been even better.
2007 American League
New York took the wild card by 6 games in a drama free finish. Add a second wild card, and that totally changes. Seattle and Detroit finished in a tie. We would likely have had a one game playoff to determine the second wild card, the winner of which would have played the Yankees in the wild card game. Add it all up, and the second wild card could have given us up to three win-or-else games on top of the two wild card games across baseball in 2007.
2006 National League
The Dodgers beat the Phillies by three games for the wild card, but Philly was three ahead of Houston for the second slot. A second wild card would not have changed much.
2006 American League
The White Sox finished five back of Detroit and would have taken the second wild card, but the Angels were just a game behind the Sox. Instead of a fairly bland finish, a second wild card would have added a nice dash of excitement.
I’m going to stop here; I think you can see trend. There are a select few seasons in which a second wild card would do more harm than good (such as 2011), and a few more in which it would not have mattered. In most seasons, though, a second wild card would have improved things. It would have added more teams into the postseason race, increased the excitement in several cities, and given us many more must-watch games in the final weeks of the season. It would have brought playoff race excitement to cities like Seattle and Toronto who have had a hard time breaking through in recent years. Ultimately, it would have brought more fans into the game and expanded the fan base in several key cities. Again, I have to think that is a good thing.
I encourage you to keep looking through the wild card standings of seasons still further back. I think you will see that the trend holds; in most cases, a second wild card would have been good for baseball. I would not be surprised if, like me, you start to wish baseball had done this a lot sooner.