In the American League this season, 98 wins would guaranteed a team home-field advantage until the World Series as a reward for dominating the competition throughout a grueling regular season. In the National League, it guaranteed the Pirates a one-game playoff against a pitcher with the best second half in Major League Baseball history. You’re right, Pittsburgh: We have a problem, and it’s the current Wild Card Game format.
Opponents of the system in place now have their most concise argument to date: Jake Arrieta. The lineup-crushing Cubs ace laid waste to Pirates fans’ hopes and dreams with nine crisp innings in the 2015 NL Wild Card Game. Yet a spectacular Pittsburgh campaign warranted a more significant opportunity in the postseason. Despite playing in MLB’s most stacked division, the Pirates beat everyone back except a Cardinals team that won 100 games. And then the team made plans to go fishing one game into the postseason.
What this says to the world is winning big in the MLB regular season gets you little in the way of postseason opportunity. Granted, one of the great things about baseball is it’s not the NHL or NBA, where nearly every team goes to the playoffs and no one cares until the semifinals. We don’t want to see another three- or five-game series making the MLB postseason interminable.
We’d just like to see the teams with the best records in each league guaranteed a division series. The game can manage that by making the teams with the worst records among playoff teams play in the Wild Card game against one another. This way, you make not just the division win but every win in the regular season valuable. Lose a few games and face sudden death against Arrieta, Jacob deGrom, or Clayton Kershaw. Teams would do everything in their power to avoid that fate.
If it seemed like deja vu all over again for Pittsburgh this year, it was. Madison Bumgarner delivered the exact same punishment to Pirates hitters across nine innings of the 2014 NL Wild Card Game. In that case, however, the Pirates quite fairly had their season on the line in a do-or-die playoff after winning 88 games. (The Giants won just 87.)
All just examples aside, we realize that would put the division-winning Mets (NL East) and Dodgers (NL West) in a winner-take-all scenario in 2015. There is no evidence this setup would be more unfair. The winners of weak divisions should have no advantage over the best teams in the league. As luck would have it, we would also get deGrom versus Kershaw — LA versus New York — in what might be the highest-rated playoff game ever. (The Yankees-Astros Wild Card showdown was ESPN’s top-rated MLB game since 2003.)
Any longer Wild Card playoff would make the highest seeds wait too long to play, so that option doesn’t fly. We can see the argument that usually the system works fine, as in the case of the Astros versus the Yankees (with the two worst records, a fair outcome either way). But Pittsburgh deserved more from its 2015 postseason than a one-and-done Wild Card.
Let’s get the best teams on the field for more of the MLB postseason. It will up the ante for every regular season game and make the stretch run that much more dramatic. All it takes is a simple rule change.