2nd Wild Card and Impact on the Trade Deadline

I’ve loved the wild card from its inception in 1995 and I love the addition of a 2nd wild card even more. The new playoff format rationalizes the postseason for MLB—it provides appropriate playoff advantages and disadvantages based on regular season performance. Coupled with a schedule that has more uniformity (beginning in 2013) for teams competing in the same division, it’s a better system. Under the old format (1995-2011), it’s fair to say a postseason berth was a 1-in-8 lottery ticket to a world championship. (In fact, of the 34 wild card teams, 5 have won the World Series). In the new two wild card system, the teams with the best regular season will have a decided advantage. Since the two wild cards in each league will meet for a one-and-done play-in game, this cuts the probability in half that a wild card team will reach the final eight teams. The wild cards are disadvantaged even further by needing to use their ace starter for the all important play-in game, leaving the wild card winner to potentially face a #1 seed, with one (pitching) arm tied behind their back. For example, imagine a wild card winning Angels club having to start their 2, 3, 4, 1 against the Yankees 1, 2, 3, 4. Not only is it a decided disadvantage for the wild card entrants, but also a boost for the #1 seed in each league. At this point I don’t know enough about how the new format will play out to have the conviction to place odds on each seed, but the old “1-in-8” could range from a 15% to 20% chance for teams in each league with the best regular season record, to a 5% chance for the 2nd wild card qualifier. That’s a big shift from the former egalitarian playoff format.

What are the implications for trade deadline deals? Since we know the real financial payoff for a team’s performance results from a run through the postseason—the deeper the run, the richer the pot of gold—teams will need to shift their mindset to not treat all postseason qualifying positions as “equal”. In the new system, it may make more sense to fortify your ballclub when your playoff status is assured, but being anointed a division winner is still in question—think Texas or even the Angels. However, a team fighting for a wild card berth should think twice before they go all-in for the privilege of potentially extending their season for one more day. This is the exact opposite of the old mindset—do everything you can to qualify for the playoffs, but don’t worry too much about winning the division.

Will there be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the team that loses the wild card play-in game and is home watching after its 163rd game? Over the last 17 seasons we have seen fans reward their home teams in the year(s) following a playoff appearance by stepping up their season ticket commitments, absorbing aggressive increases in ticket prices, spiking their viewership of telecasts, and increasing their sponsorship dollars. The deeper the run into October, the greater the fan enthusiasm and spending. A playoff team immediately became a World Series contender and fans wanted to be part of the action. Are the days of ignoring the path a team took to reach the playoffs over? Will the media and fans treat the wild cards as true playoff teams, or will they anoint only the play-in game winner as a playoff team? I suspect that by mid-October, fans of wild card teams will be bemoaning their fate and the rough road they will need to ride to reach or win the World Series. For those teams, the answer is simple, even if the quest is challenging—win your division.


  1. Pingback: Are the Wild Cards Now a Trap? | FanGraphs Baseball
  2. commenter

    “the new system, it may make more sense to fortify your ballclub when your playoff status is assured, but being anointed a division winner is still in question”

    I disagree. Only those teams that are close to catching their division leader, or those teams that already division leaders should seek to fortify their clubs.

    The purpose of exploring the trade market should be to win the division, not merely to gain a WC spot.

    Thus, even if a team was ‘guaranteed’ a WC spot, but was too far behind their division leaders, it would be better to avoid the trade market.

    Example: 2012 AL East. July 22, 2012.
    New York
    Baltimore GB 6.0
    Tampa Bay GB 8.5
    Toronto GB 9.0
    Boston GB 9.5

    All AL East teams are in contention of a WC spot, and even if they were somehow to be ‘guaranteed’ a WC spot, it would be foolish to fortify their club. It would only make sense for New York to explore the trade market.

  3. Vince Gennaro

    I’m not sure what we are disagreeing about. If I understand you correctly, we’re essentially saying the same thing. Securing or fortifying Division winner status is worth trading for, but making a major move for a wild card berth is ill-advised.

  4. Analyst

    I highly agree with your viewpoint, Vince. Not only are teams less likely to win from the 2nd Wild Card spot, but let’s not forget that (in some years) 2nd Wild Card teams may be 86-87 win ballclubs. Is it worth giving up significant pieces to upgrade to the slight chance to win this year while potentially being average next year? I don’t think so. If the teams trying for the 2nd Wild Card spot make moves, I think it has to be a truly significant upgrade that isn’t a rental.

  5. Kenneth Matinale

    The WC team will be at a HUGE disadvantage, even more than suggested. It may need to use its 1, 2 and maybe even three starters to reach round one against what will probably be a rested one cede. This because the WC may need to play hard just to get to the play-in game. Its number one starter may not pitch until game three of the first round when the WC may well already be down 2-0 in games.

    The one cede will then play in round two against a team that battled to win round one. The one cede should have the inside track on reaching the Major Baseball League (MBL) tournament finals. That’s a good thing.

    • Doug Rubin

      During the 14 times in MLB history that a team had to play an “extra series” of (best -of-1 or best-of-3) games to get to the first/next round of playoffs . . . 1908, 1946, 1948 . . . . 2007, 2008, 2009 . . . the team that emerged from this extra round of games won its next series 8 out of 14 times. This doesn’t indicate a disadvantage.
      A caveat is that until the 3 Div winners + WC format began, the teams tied for the lead in the NL/AL/East or West Division weren’t structurally likely to be worse than the team awaiting them in the playoffs (e.g. 1948 Indians-RedSox; 1978 Yankees-RedSox; 1962 Giants-Dodgers; 1980 Astros-Dodgers).

      In the new structure, at least one of the WC teams is likely to be worse than the Div Winners.
      Still since 1995, 5 out of 6 extra-game play-in teams, typically for the WCard or a Division with a worse record than the WCard winner, won their next (Division) Series.

  6. athomeatfenway

    The second wild card is a meaningless bauble. When great business minds meet, they brainstorm how to squeeze every last penny from a financial model. It’s possible that the 2nd wild card was conceived like that. Perhaps we’ll someday see the Series played in a warm weather (or domed) neutral site a la the Super Bowl so that we can fit in a full week of wild card only play.

    That will make the cash register ring.

    I doubt fans will reward a 2nd wild card team for losing the play-in game unless that team adds talent to the roster in November and December.

    We aren’t that easily fooled. Are we?

    • Vince Gennaro

      Aside from the “cash register ring” aspect of this, it presents a playoff system that is considerably more “fair” and reflective of a team’s regular season accomplishments. The second wild card was necessary in order to diminish the value of the the first wildcard. From that standpoint, I love it!

  7. Pingback: An Extra Wild Card Spot, Sure, but What Does it Mean?
  8. Doug Rubin

    Having the WC’s play each other lowers their Exp{WS Win} to the 5~7% level (maybe lower when the required use of the best pitcher is considered), vs. the 10~15% level as you observe. It returns value to the Division “Pennant” winner – the supposed best team over 162 games, and puts the WC playoff spot on a more appropriate diminished status. For a 3-Division League, kind of necessary with 15 teams, it’s a good solution.
    We don’t see it in the AL right now, but it will completely change the situation during the last week when 2 (or more) teams in a Division are ~95~60 and both assured of a playoff spot. Winning the Division (as it was during the 12-team 2-Division days) will once again be a significant prize.
    I think the MLB pooh-bahs got this one right.

  9. Pingback: The Payoff for Winning Comes from the Postseason: Part 2 « Diamond Dollar$

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