We knew baseball’s new playoff system, with the addition of a third wild-card team, would create quirks. In space, this works because all division winners are considered equal. But in reality, where people play games, they are not very many. It’s difficult for teams to be judged solely on their records, as each division winner plays such a different schedule (something that will be partially rectified next season with a more balanced schedule). But the idea is that if you’re the last wild-card team, your “punishment” is to play the third-best team in the league, on the road.
It’s not really working out that way this season.
Rob Mainz of Baseball Prospectus And Joe Sheehan has been saying this in his newsletter for a while now, but in both leagues it seems like it would be better to finish in the last wild card spot than the second wild card spot. And that’s because MLB isn’t looking again after the wild-card round — something they want to see after this season.
In the American League, the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Rays are all within half a game of each other, and a full 5.5 in front of the Orioles. Thanks to the Yankees actually being ambulatory and waking up for a couple of games this weekend against Tampa, those three are almost certainly going to be your wild card teams, barring some sort of historic collapse that Theo Epstein. will push back. In a gorilla suit.
The beauty of the AL is that the sixth seed could have an easy path to making some serious noise. That seed will play the winner of the AL Central, likely to be either the White Sox or the Guardians, both headed for 85- or 86-win seasons, perhaps. Meanwhile, the two remaining wild card teams are going to play each other, both on pace for 90+ win seasons.
Now you can get into the weeds here, and really debate whether to stay on the road for a maximum of three games and see Dylann Seas for one of them and have a terrible streak. Reviving Kyoto or Lance Lynn is either kind of a favorable matchup. . So is looking at Shane Bieber and Cleveland’s bullpen, which has been dark for hitters of late. But neither will Tampa’s staff, nor Toronto’s lineup if it heats up, and Seattle also has Luis Castillo and Logan Gilbert and Robbie Ray lying in wait. Any team can be anything in just three games, but we have 162 games of evidence that both Cleveland and Chicago have some pretty big flaws.
If the last seed in the playoffs manages to overcome the winner of the AL Central, hardly a miraculous outcome, they’ll be looking at the Yankees instead of the Astros. Now, the Yankees aren’t really the crash test dummies they’ve been pretending to be for a few months now. Or at least they shouldn’t be. But this is a lineup with holes, and a pitching staff that is either hurt, bad, throwing more innings than ever, or Jarrett Cole, whatever makes sense to you. And they could still win 100 games in a division that would have two more playoff teams and the first team to skip a third (Baltimore). But they’re not the Astros. A sixth-place finish could give the team an easy matchup in the divisional round, as well as in the first round, if they get there.
In NL, it’s a similar story. The third wild-card team will face the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of the three-legged, quarter-brained race that is the NL Central. Yes, yes, “Cardinals Devil Magic,” which would only reach MacBeth levels with Pujols and Molina in his final season. But the Cards certainly aren’t the Mets or the Braves, who will get the 5th seed — a better team than the 6th seed — as their “reward.” And should the 6th seed fall to St. Louis. I St. Louis (still have my heart), they don’t draw the Dodgers again. Sure, the Mets or Braves, whoever wins the NL East, is no picnic, but the Dodgers are the best team in the league.
Again, you can get into the weeds here, taking a peek at the Dodgers staff and with Craig Kimbrel in frail health always waiting to go to Three Mile Island in the pen, perhaps facing them. Nothing is more annoying than dealing with a grom. And Scherzer three times in the five game series. But we play 162 to determine who’s better, and strictly by record posted over six months, the sixth seed becomes the easy way out.
And most seasons will look like this. There is always one division that lags behind the other two, which will always be on tap for the third wild card team. There is always a division that has two of the best teams in the league, and the division that falls short of winning will be a much tougher opponent than the one that wins the remedial division. The Dodgers last year, the Nationals in 2019, the Cubs in 2018, and the Yankees in 2018 were all teams that didn’t win a division better than the wild card teams in the season by some margin. Here’s how it works when you’re divided into six parts.
The only real answer is to eliminate the division, completely balance the schedule, and take the top six teams, which will never happen. Recovering after the wild card round is only half the solution. Another solution is to seed the lowest division winner and the three wild cards after the regular season, but any team that wins the division would have to travel to play a team that didn’t. And again, because schedule makeups are so different between teams in other divisions it’s not exactly fair either.
We can come back and laugh about it when it ends up being a Cardinals-White Sox World Series and I have to go to the moon.
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