Various news media reports in the past week have hinted at a possible reform of the first round of the Major League Baseball playoff system (the Division Series).
A change to a best-of-7 is evidently not being contemplated; however, a change intended to limit the prospects of a wild-card team advancing beyond the Division Series is being considered.* Presumably, a desirable side effect would be to enhance the incentive to play for the division title when two teams in one division are both assured of advancing, rather than play as if the wild card is just as good. In other words, the existing incentive structure is being deemed insufficuent. Under the current structure, the only incentive for winning the division rather than the wild card is denying the wild-card team home-field advantage in the Division Series and, if it advances, the League Championship Series.
The idea being broached is to give the wild card no more than one home game in the Division Series (instead of the current two, in a series that goes four or five games). In other words, make the home-field advantage bigger than just opening the series with two at home and being assured of being home again for a possible fifth game.
The basic idea–to maximize the integrity of the division races–is a good one. But as I have alluded to in some past discussions of the wild card, the assumption on which the idea is based is flawed. That flawed assumption is that the wild card is an inherently less deserving team than any of the three division winners in the league.
However, the wild card never can have worse than the fourth best record in its league. It can be (and has been) as high as second. A division winner, on the other hand, could be a .500 team or even a sub-.500 team. The last two years have seen one of the NL division winners barely finish above .500. Several times, a division winner has had only the fifth best record in its league, and last year’s Padres advanced to the playoffs with only the seventh best record (and barely avoided being only the ninth–yes, 9th–best).
So, why penalize the wild card when it is not the worst of the playoff-qualifying teams? The assumption is that a division winner is inherently superior because, well, it finished first! That’s a plurality bias (I had to get electoral systems into this planting somehow!), but as soon as MLB went to an odd number of divisions, it had implicitly already abandoned a purely plurality defnition of team success.
I do not necessarily oppose the penalty for being the wild card that is currently under consideration. However, I would suggest that the same penalty be applied to any division winner that finishes with a worse record than the league’s wild card team (provided it is playing a division winner with a better record that the wild card, as will usually be the case).
Further reforms could also be considered. For instance, a division winner that fails to have a record above .500 or ranks worse than fifth in its league’s overall standings could be barred from the postseason in favor of a second wild card. (I suppose MLB would not go for this one, but as an anti-mediocrity, or anti-embarrassment, provision, it makes sense.)
Within the Division Series itself, an alternative to giving the wild card (or, under my addendum, a lower-ranked division winner) a maximum of one home game would be to establish asymmertic criteria for advancement. That is, the higher-seeded team might need one less win than the lower-seeded team to advance (three wins for the higher, but four for the lower seed, or two and three).
I believe any combination of these additional proposals is better than the one MLB is reportedly considering. Whether any are better than the status quo is another matter. I am not convinced MLB is tackling a real problem. But if the problem is real, I am even less convinced of its specific proposal, because the premise that the wild card is inherently inferior is dubious.
* Arguably, lengthening the Division Series would be the most straightforward approach, on the gounds that the inferior team is less likely to beat the superior team four times than it is to beat it three times. However, I rather like the current format of a best-of-5 followed by a best-of-7, and apparently so do MLB and its broadcast partners. Moreover, the underlying problem with a change in the series length is that the assumption that the wild card is, in fact, inferior, may be flawed, as I argue in this discussion.