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.