Major League Baseball’s wild card system, as presently constructed, has done little to infuse added drama into the postseason chase, and the one-game playoff severely diminishes the value of the 162-game regular season.
The wild card isn’t the incentive it was meant to be
When MLB implemented the second wild card spot in 2012, the logic was that more teams would be in the playoff hunt later in the year, and therefore would be incentivized to make moves for a chance at a postseason berth. Based on the stagnant deadline market this season for potential wild card teams, that is not really happening. Some teams out of the running in their division but in the wild card hunt, like the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants, even sold off at the deadline. It seems the do-or-die nature of the one-game wild card playoff has general managers thinking twice about risking prospects for postseason rentals.
“You’re putting a lot of your future on playing one game,” one National League executive told The Athletic’s Jayson Stark. “If you made the wild card (round) two out of three, I bet you’d see more teams willing to do something. At least that’s a series. But who’s going to make a big trade for a chance to play one game?”
The wild card places too much importance on a single game
The league has inadvertently made the postseason chase worse, as GMs only appear to care about winning a division and ensuring an appearance in the divisional round and a best-of-five series. As exciting as a one-game playoff can be to the casual fan, those who have a rooting interest are liable to feel cheated if their team is abruptly eliminated in one game following a 162-game regular season. One bad call (such as the controversial infield-fly ruling in the 2012 Cardinals-Braves wild card game) or one bad pitch (like Mets reliever Jeurys Familia’s to Giants third baseman Conor Gillaspie in 2016) should not define an entire season for a club.
The time has come to expand the wild card into a three-game series
It’s not in the nature of any major sports league to scale back anything, because of the money at stake, so the only logical solution is to expand the wild card round to a three-game series. There would still be plenty of drama, as the loser of Game 1 will be facing elimination in Game 2, and the losing team would still have a chance to overcome a slow start and advance.
Nearly every baseball team’s front office has embraced analytics, and the math majors in charge are typically risk averse. Taking away from the high-stakes nature of a one-game playoff, and giving two other teams at least one postseason home game, seems like a perfect compromise.