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Wild Card Playoff: MLB's Version of Adding Plus/Minus Grading

Let me preface this by saying I conceptually like the new Wild Card format. Why? Because someday I want my Cleveland Indians to be in the driver’s seat like the 2013 Boston Red Sox currently sit. The onus is now back on winning the division, the way MLB was for decades. Should the Tribe ever do that again, I want them to be rewarded for their efforts. I want my guys to be tweeting the outcome of a casual intrasquad scrimmage, while other teams are playing a stress-filled one-and-done game. The new Wild Card scenario serves up a sleep-deprived, jet-lagged ball club — down a starting pitcher — to this rested top seed. In theory, this all works fine. 

Through the course of time, and several playoff changes, MLB has always said: If you have a problem with it, a 162-game regular season is plenty long enough to do something about it. This was true when there were 20 teams and only two postseason members. It is still true today. The sample size is the largest in sports, so teams that are on the outside looking in have no one to blame but themselves. 

While I agree with that sentiment, I point to manner in which Wild Cards of the past were treated. In 1994, Commissioner Bud Selig opened Pandora's Box: giving a second-place team full-fledged playoff status. They were treated as equals with all the other contenders, able to prove they belonged in a best-of-five series. Their competitive chances were hardly hindered in any way (hence, the ten Wild Card World Series participants). Now, I argue, we have swung too far. Major League Baseball has hypocritically reduced the Wild Card to a second tier, below all other postseason members. 

We are caught in a grey area where only division winners have a real chance (like pre-1994), but have these other teams still showing up. It is like Selig is admitting the Wild Card was a mistake, so he is throwing more of them out there. Under the guise of expanding "for the fans" he is actually phasing Wild Cards out of the history books. It is a brilliantly evil PR move, subtracting by addition: include more teams but stack the deck so they practically never exist. This last part is where I take umbrage. The lid is off and today's Wild Cards should have the same odds to win as in the past.      

I was in St. Louis, surrounded by Cardinals fans, watching Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS; seeing first-hand what an ace in a short series can do. Having a Chris Carpenter throw twice, against the heavily-favored Phillies, indirectly won the Cardinals that thrilling World Series. Winning the Wild Card was never even a slap on the wrist. Each year, it was like being the fourth division winner. Even better if the league's best record came out of your division; not only were you unaffected by rest restrictions or personnel decisions, but you got to play the two seed in the tournament. It certainly needed a change. 

I found out last year, but especially last night, that a one-game playoff was not the answer. 

Before I get hate mail from some 80 year-old Cubs fan — that my team has it easy these days  let me back up. I am happy with the unexpected success this Cleveland ball club had this year. Furthermore, I understand that you are at the mercy of the format in place at the time. The Indians are lucky to even be considered a playoff team at all. As recent as 1968, the Tribe's 92-70 record would have mathematically eliminated them weeks before the end of the season. The highway to the championship has certainly added more lanes, right or wrong. After one loss to Tampa Bay, I am simply questioning why Cleveland's lane was forced to exit. 

The “modern” Wild Card construct, the format that I grew up with, would have undoubtedly benefited Cleveland. The Indians, the best second-place team in any AL division, would be gearing up for a best-of-five series with Boston. I could not wait for the 24-hour sports media machine to provoke bulletin board material, trying to play up the psychological battle of a fired manager coming back for revenge. There would have also been a 2007 ALCS redemption angle in play. It would have been a great, fair series.

Instead, Cleveland has to pick up the pieces and focus on 2014 far too soon. The Indians may not feel like they were hosed, but I sure do. Hear me out before you say that I am being unjustifiably spiteful to the system. I would not have trumpeted this play-in game even if the Tribe pulled out the win. I wrote a shorter post about this very topic last year, when the Atlanta Braves were the home team whose dream run failed to launch. I denounced the nature of the game, despite its unpopularity among all my Cardinals friends/coworkers who profited from it. My stance is the same as it was; the 2013 version just happens to have a victim with a greater emotional connection. 

I will inject a metaphoric story. In 2005, my alma mater — Kent State University — implemented the plus/minus grading system. Prior to that, students received a full A (and more importantly, a full 4.00 points towards their GPA) for work that was 90% correct/satisfactory. Suddenly, as a sophomore in college, the world changed in an instant. We were not grandfathered out of the system with which we started. Instead, a 90% in year two of the same courses earned us 3.66 GPA points and an A- grade.

Now, my argument is neither for nor against either of these systems. In fact, the plus/minus saved me enough times; granting an extra .33 boost to the GPA on classes where I posted an 88% (or 78%). I am simply crying foul for lack of consistency. Feats should be rewarded in the same vein as they always were.

If Bud Selig wants to award another team a spot in the playoffs, I am for it, but it should not come at the expense of another. The top Wild Card should not have to
prove their inclusion, since they never had to before.

This is the basis for my argument. Major League Baseball  in creating a second Wild Card  has conceded that it is okay for the fourth-best team in the AL and NL to be excluded from their league's "Final Four" (Division Series) before it even starts. It makes no sense. Taking MLB's 162-game rationale and spinning it against them: the top Wild Card made use of their regular season more so than the second. If they did not finish with identical records, the sample size was plenty to differentiate the two. Now, the fifth-best team gets one final crack, as if they are on equal standing, to prove they are in the top four?! Worse, they get this shot in an unpredictable one-game setting — a way baseball never uses to settle who is the superior team. We have gone against 144 years of Major League Baseball tradition, built upon the concept of series, and resorted to a format without a precedent (unless teams finish tied).   

The 2012 Atlanta Braves were six games better than St. Louis in the standings; third-best record in the entire National League. But since they did not overtake Washington in the NL East, their effort was given a 93%. Any other year and this would have been a great score, sending the Braves on to the NLDS (against a two-seed Reds team). Instead, the Cardinals 90% unjustly lumped them into the same A- Club. The flaw is that the new system assumes all Wild Cards are chasing identical-caliber division leaders. Finishing four games back of the best team in the league is far greater than 9 GB of a middle-of-the-pack team. The Braves/Cardinals game should have never been played; they were never on equal footing.

If you cut through the clever labels and catchy names, Selig is simplistically taking the 93% A effort of the past and branding it an A-. Then, he goes on to say “only teams with a solid A are guaranteed the safety of a series in the playoffs.” This decision robs deserving people the opportunities of those that came before. 

The Wild Card saw its first playoff action in 1995, and with that, certain privileges incurred. You, the Wild Card, got a state-issued best-of-five series, for you to prove you should advance in the playoffs.

The Major League Baseball postseason schedule has not shrunk in 91 years. That year, 1922, the World Series scaled back from a brief, experimental nine-game series. Other than that, it has always been build, build, build. Include more, travel more, create more, celebrate more, and sell more. 

The playoffs expanded in 1969 to a four-team playoff, allowing two division winners per league to duke it out in a semifinal. Those first League Championship Series were best-of-five. In 1985, we got up to a seven-game LCS. 

1981’s strike-shortened season notwithstanding, the first-ever Division Series was played in 1995. Those remain best-of-five, as they always have been. But, as history has shown us before, growing this playoff round to seven games is not far-fetched. There is nothing more inevitable than change. It took 16 seasons for the LCS to expand. This year marks the 20th annual NLDS and ALDS, so we shall wait and see. 

Last season, we were introduced to an “exciting new round of playoff baseball.” The Wild Card would expand to include one more team. Okay, right there I was on-board; Selig had me at “hello.” 

It keeps more teams alive, for longer. It adds drama to already-exciting September baseball. It prevents wholesale roster dumps at the Trade Deadline. On-and-on I went, thinking this is a fantastic move. 

But then it hit me. The league was trying to cut the odds of Wild Cards winning it all to 0%. That is what has me upset this morning, and not just because it is my beloved Cleveland Indians who were affected. Major League Baseball is retracting its postseason offerings for the first time since 1922, but in a psychological way. It is like adding a plus/minus system right in the middle of a student’s academic career. The best second-place team in any division is now guaranteed one game… one game. For 18 years straight, the team that met this identical qualification was promised three.

That is the injustice; on par with Cam Newton taking a $56 million pay cut to that of Sam Bradford, just because of a rule change from the year prior. It gets ugly when you give athletes an "in" and it snowballs to a place you never wanted it to go. Selig is conceding that he gave past Wild Cards (especially the five World Champions) too much leverage. It was not where he wanted this to go. But people get accustomed to the scenarios those who came before were afforded. It is human nature to want the same deal as the guy ahead of you in line. Putting that lid back on Pandora's Box gets messy. 

Prior to 1919, the World Series was a best-of-seven match-up. Thus, the only time baseball ever rescinded the volume of potential playoff games, it was simply reverting back to the old way. Now the whole system has lost its historical context. 

Forget the fact that, if Cleveland won last night, they would get their chance at a guaranteed three games. This is not about what a team could do with their playoff opportunities, it is about the bare minimum that Major League Baseball provides. Currently configured, that safety net surrounding one bad game is non-existent. That is where I cry foul. 

This season was the first time the Cleveland Indians ever won a Wild Card spot  and it was the “true” Wild Card; the best second-place team in any division. All that and they do not get to play under the same format as if they were the Wild Card in 1994 or 2000? The Tampa Bay Rays had all season to prove they were better and they did not do enough. Period. But, there they go to continue the postseason ride that should belong to Cleveland.  

How many of the five World Champion Wild Cards would have lost in a similar fashion  before the Division Series in the contemporary bracket? With the volatility of only one game to decide it, you cannot say with certainty. Likely one or two would have tripped up, ending the ride before it ever began. They would be left wondering what might have been, just as Cleveland is today. That is what hurts; you want what they had, what it used to be. It is not playoff expansion at all.  

There is something so karmic and reciprocal about baseball. It is the reason statistic nerds like me love the game. We speak of “baseball gods” and laws of averages that regress players to the mean over time. We spend all season trending data, but never dwelling on the anomalies of just one game. Then suddenly, that one game means everything. The umpiring alone has proven far too suspect to leave it up to one game. You get a perfect storm of wrong plate ump for the wrong pitcher, and your team could be grabbing the fishing gear three days after throwing champagne around in the clubhouse. There is no do-over; no chance for the baseball gods to right a wrong. 

Every level of baseball, from Little League to college, has a double-elimination structure. Where does Major League Baseball, the crème de la crème, get off booting someone after one poor performance? After 162 games, a scenario of being one-and-out is reserved for tiebreakers, not playoff contenders. There have now been ten such single-elimination (non-Wild Card) games. They have given us iconic images: Matt Holliday sliding headfirst into home in the 13th inning to send the Rockies to the NLDS, or Bucky Dent's improbable home run over the rival Red Sox in 1978. 

But these contests were required to separate two teams that were deadlocked; a coin-flip difference, tied in the standings of the same division. That is what made the concentrated intensity of a one-game playoff so much fun. The same does not work for Wild Cards with different records. It makes the regular season meaningless if the resumes get Etch-a-Sketched clean when the games matter the most. 

One or two games difference in the standings? Oh well, they're both the same... Wild Cards. The better one will get home-field advantage.

Gee thanks. Including the four Wild Card Games in MLB history, only six of the fourteen home teams have ever won a one-game playoff. We should take a page from yesteryear. When teams tied atop the standings in the '50s and '60s, a three-game series was implemented. This gave us moments like Bobby Thompson's famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World". His Giants needed the decisive third game, at home, to settle the tie with Brooklyn. 

This new format becomes a tough sell to fan bases when the Indians are better than the Texas Rangers, but exit in a similar fashion. There is no justification for a tiebreaker and Wild Card game being the same number of games. We earned the right to prove ourselves over a course of, at minimum, two games. Turning into soccer and using a two-match aggregate score makes more sense than this.    

An irritating sidebar to this is the merchandise. The new game looks bad, like a typical MLB cash grab, when New Era and Majestic litter the players with “POSTSEASON” patches on everything under the sun. It invites fans to spend hard-earned money on celebratory gear, only to kick one team to the curb after nine innings of said "POSTSEASON" play. I want all sales of such merchandise to be refunded to any Cleveland fan.  

And they spun all of this “second Wild Card excitement” in a way to make all of us fans feel better. I do not feel better; I feel robbed or cheated. I feel like baseball is apples all year long, and when the moments of October importance come around, baseball becomes oranges. What team is built for such a switch in tactics? Why carry a full roster into this silly one-game playoff? Ultimately, a total of fifteen guys decided the entire fate of both team's long season. They say experience is key to log for a future run in the playoffs. Can the Indians even count that? Some postseason experience for those starting pitchers that never even got to throw.  

If I am Tampa Bay, I have to feel like I stole something. Two years ago, they would be on a golf course with the record they posted. Even if the Indians and Rays finished with reverse records, and the Wild Card Game was in Tropicana Field last night, I would feel like Cleveland should have to “prove it”  a la the final shot in a game of “H-O-R-S-E.” You cannot walk into somebody’s house, challenge a superior opponent, win once, and claim total victory. Where is the rebuttal? In a sport predicated on coming back the very next day to enact revenge (sometimes hours after a gut-wrenching loss), where is this opportunity when the games matter the most?

How do we fix this? My sources tell me that it could theoretically be done for 2015, without creating too many waves. Logistically speaking, however, there are some undeniable preventative obstacles. Namely, travel distances and that pesky other Division Series that is forced to idly sit, without any chips in the Wild Card Game. The Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers earned their rest, but awaiting the outcome of a Wild Card five-game series, and then an ALDS five-game series, would be too much.    

So why not take a page from the regular-season itself? Throw Tampa Bay and Cleveland into the gauntlet in the same way they would meet in mid-May: a three-game series.  

Owners need to take a small hit to their bottom line, in order to get the integrity of postseason baseball back in balance. Take a “loss” at the turnstiles on holidays, and return baseball back to its glory days of Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day double-headers. It is relatively easy to condense the 2015 schedule enough to squeeze in a Wild Card best-of-three series. 

End the season on a Wednesday, instead of a Sunday. Leave Thursday open for a tiebreaker (in this case, Tampa Bay vs. Texas) and start the Wild Card Series on Friday afternoon. Put the start time at 4:00 p.m. local time, and allow the lesser Wild Card (i.e. Tampa Bay) to host game one. Charter a flight to Cleveland after the game, where game two and — if necessary  game three will be played. Saturday is a night game, with a chance for a sweep in primetime. Sunday moves to a day game, which is typical. The whole model better emulates the natural ebb and flow of the MLB schedule. The early start time on Sunday also buffers in travel time that night for the winning team in the decisive third game. The ALDS could then begin on Monday (for Oakland and Detroit) and Tuesday (for Boston vs. Wild Card Winner). 

Major League Baseball would get exactly what it had this year: playoff baseball every single day, from the last day of the season to the start of the Division Series. The only difference with my proposal is Boston receives one extra day of rest.  If that is the trade-off to ensure better playoff integrity, I feel it is a no-brainer for the competitive committee to adopt. 

2013 Wild Card Redux, Rays 2-1 series winners. Major League Baseball is happy; they get more postseason cash, from two different cities hosting games. They get more opportunities to sell all this garb that they branded with “POSTSEASON” logos. The Tampa Bay Rays (winners of this hypothetical scenario) are happy; even though they spent some bullets, they get to advance. What more could any team ask for? Even the Cleveland Indians are happy (or at least I sleep better); they now understand that winning the division is extra important in this new playoff system. But at least they had a shot as a Wild Card, not a coin-flip outcome. The Boston Red Sox (in this contemporary example) are happy; they get to face a team that uses up more than just Alex Cobb. 

The last piece of that equation was the real reason for the second Wild Card to begin with. If a casino dealer has to burn a card, the Wild Card has to burn an ace. Using up only Danny Salazar would have done nothing to hinder the Tribe’s chances if they advanced last night. You need at least a two-game sweep to effectively put the Wild Card at a pitching match-up disadvantage.   

So, as I embark to Busch Stadium this afternoon, to watch the Cardinals battle the Pirates, I sheepishly grin. Must be nice for Pittsburgh, the “true” NL Wild Card. They get to settle in, reshuffle the deck, and prep for a best-of-five series against a division winner. I want Major League Baseball to explain to me, and all of Cleveland, why they get to do that and the Indians do not. The body of work was ultimately the same in their respective leagues. Should MLB get back to me, their answer better be something more calculated than “they [the Pirates] showed up to play on their Wild Card night.”  

This is not Any Given Sunday. This is not the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Requiring one baseball team to put the hopes and dreams of their entire city on the table, all-in, is asinine. It is as foreign to the nature of the regular season as an NFL coach, from a cold-weather town, gearing up to play in the league’s freshly-minted “Super Bowl Series”  a best-of-three championship played indoors in New Orleans.

When did sports leagues stop caring about how you got to the playoffs? Should those last games of the season not be the pinnacle test at whether the regular-season results were a fluke? In the contemporary sports landscape, with its gimmicky postseasons, it feels like we throw our title fights to chance. 

And Pirates fans, of which I have many friends that are diehard variety, you should be just as agitated as I am about this topic. Your first taste of the postseason since 1992 and Bud Selig wants to put it all on one game. A game you did win, but a little too risky to have your decades of despair to hinge upon. After the season you had, the last thing you needed was another test. A multiple-game series should be granted to all those who achieve such seasons.   

Ultimately, I am just sad. I did not want to switch to woefully optimistic 2014 mode for at least another two weeks. But time will pass, and I will look fondly on this exciting year for Cleveland baseball. I will, without a doubt, look back on the season series with my detested Tigers, wishing we could flip the script just once. Doing so would put us in Oakland. Ugh. 

Living in St. Louis now, I "had to" listen to each game instead of watching. Now, I prefer it. It really made me fall in love with the team all over again. Tom Hamilton is, bar none, the best in the business. I wanted too hard for them to be the team of destiny; play the Cards, so I could see an Indians World Series Game. Perhaps I wanted it too much. 

Call this online venting sour grapes; pass judgment that I am just bitter because they lost. I do not care. Take away from this article whatever you would like. I will never stop caring about this team, nor this game, as the passion I write with challenges both to be better in the future. 90+ wins immediately after a season of 90+ losses; I like where Terry Francona and Chris Antonetti have this thing going. In a perfect world, Major League Baseball listens to such proposals as mine. In a real world, I hope this is some other fan’s problem to deal with next year.   

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