I don’t know how many times I have heard in the last several weeks that the wild card has worked out just like Bud, in all his brilliance, intended. If we just confine our evaluation to how many teams are at least theoretically in a race in the final six weeks or so of a season, that’s probably right. Teams like the Marlins and Braves would have been buried long ago if not for the wild card. They are buried now, as they deserve to be, but they–especially the Marlins–were in the hunt until quite recently.
However, the implication upon which this common argument for the wild card is based rests on a flawed assumption: That races are better when mediocre teams are involved.* In the NL, until the Phillies and Padres began to pull away from the pack in the last week and a half–the Padres have actually overtaken the West division lead, leaving the Dodgers, for now, in the Wild Card lead–the teams in the hunt were all struggling to stay above .500.
What if there were no wild card, and we were back to the two-division alignment in each league? Of course, the records of the various teams are partly endogenous to the division alignment, in that the schedule varies by division and management strategies in acquisition and deployment of personnel vary according to what the available “prizes” are. Still, we have to hold something constant, and we’ll hold constant the records across this experiment.
What if the various teams, with their records as of the start of play on 22 September, were the same as they actually are, but we had two division winners instead of three plus a wild card?
We’d have some pretty interesting races!
The NL East would have been over long ago, just as it was in the real alignment of 2006. In the West, the Padres and Dodgers would be battling it out for a winner-advances, loser-goes-home race. Under the actual alignment, there is a strong chance that both will advance, although the Phillies have kept things interesting in the West by remaining close to the Wild Card. The letdown in a wild-card race involving teams from different divisions is that such teams seldom play each other down the stretch, as the Dodgers and Padres have done just recently, and as the various contending teams in the AL Central also have done recently.
If the NL had its two divisions on a sensible geographic basis like its current three, and unlike the real two-division alignment in place from 1969 through 1993, the Cardinals (and the lowly Cubs) would be in the West (and the Braves and Reds in the East). Then we’d have a tight three-team race for the NL West. Instead, other than a brief period in mid-August, the Cardinals have been in control of their division most of the second half.
Now for the AL. With a two-division format, the Yankees and Tigers would be undergoing a thriller, with the teams at this moment separated by 1.5 games, and the Yankees only recently having pulled into the lead. The West would be led by the Twins, who would have just caught the A’s after a summer-long pursuit, and with just one game currently separating the two teams.
Back in the real world, except for the uncertainty as to which of three teams–Dodgers, Padres, and Phillies–will be left out, the playoff teams have all been settled within the past week or more. The only other decisions yet to be made in the final week ahead are about seeding. The top position in the NL is obviously going to the Mets. But the number two could still be either the West winner or the Cardinals. In the AL, any of the four teams heading for the postseason could still be the top seed, as only three games in the standings separate the Yankees from the A’s. Seeding is anything but trivial. The Angels’ stunning capture of the home-field advantage against the Yankees in the final weekend in 2005 may have been crucial to their Division Series win. But the battle over home-field advantage and first-round matchups is not quite as thrilling a a winner-take-all race down to the wire.
So, which format would have made for the more compelling races in 2006?
* There is another argument for it–its counter-medicrity potential. The argument that the wild card prevents goods teams from being excluded when worse teams win a division is a good one, but by no means the as common in popular media discourse as the empower-the-mediocre one .