We knew the new baseball playoff system, with the addition of a third wildcard team, would create quirks. In a vacuum, it works because all division winners are considered equal. But in reality, where people play the games, they very much are not. Teams are hard to judge on just their record, because each division winner plays such different schedules (something that will be partially rectified next season with a more balanced schedule). But the idea is that if you’re the last wildcard team, your “punishment” is that you’re supposed to play the third-best team in the league, on the road.
It’s not really working out that way this season.
Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus and Joe Sheehan in his newsletter have been all over this for a bit now, but in both leagues, it looks like it would be better to finish in the last wildcard spot than in the second wildcard spot. And that’s because MLB isn’t reseeding after the wildcard round — something they may want to look at after this season.
In the American League, the Blue Jays, the Mariners, and the 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 awake for a couple of games this weekend against Tampa, those three are almost certainly going to be your wildcard teams, barring some kind of historic collapse that will put Theo Epstein back into a gorilla costume.
The quirk of the AL is that the sixth seed might have the easier path to make some serious noise. That seed will play the winner of the AL Central, likely to be either the White Sox or Guardians, both of which are headed for 85- or 86-win seasons, maybe. Meanwhile, the two wildcard teams left over are going to play each other, both of which are on pace for 90+ win seasons.
Now you can get into the weeds here, and really debate whether being on the road for a max of three games and having to see Dylan Cease for one of them and a scary consistent Johnny Cueto or a reviving Lance Lynn is any kind of favorable matchup. Ditto having to see Shane Bieber and Cleveland’s bullpen that’s been the darkness to hitters of late. But neither would be facing Tampa’s staff, or Toronto’s lineup if it got hot, and Seattle has Luis Castillo and Logan Gilbert, and Robbie Ray lying in wait as well. Any team can be anything over just three games, but we have 162 games of evidence that both Cleveland and Chicago have some pretty huge flaws.
If the last seed in the playoffs is able to overcome the AL Central winner, hardly a miraculous outcome, they would then see the Yankees instead of the Astros. Now, the Yankees aren’t really the crash test dummy they’ve been impersonating for a couple of months now. Or at least they shouldn’t be. But it is a lineup that has holes, and a pitching staff that is either hurt, bad, throwing more innings than it ever has, or is Gerrit Cole, whatever that means to you. And they still might win 100 games in a division that’s going to produce two more playoff teams and a third that will be the first to miss out (Baltimore). But they aren’t the Astros. Finishing sixth could see a team get the easier matchup in the Divisional round as well as the first round, should they get there.
In the NL, it’s kind of the same story. The third wildcard team will get to face the St. Louis Cardinals, winners of the three-legged and quarter-brained race that is the NL Central. Yeah, yeah “Cardinals Devil Magic,” which will only be turned up to Macbeth levels with Pujols and Molina in their last seasons. But the Cards are most definitely not the Mets or Braves, which is what the 5th seed — the better team than the 6th seed — will get as their “reward.” And should the 6th seed topple St. Louis in St. Louis (be still my heart), they don’t then draw the Dodgers. Sure, the Mets or Braves, whichever one wins the NL East, are no picnic, but the Dodgers are the best team in the league.
Again, you could get into the weeds here, squint and see that with the wonky health of the Dodgers staff and Craig Kimbrel always waiting to go Three Mile Island in the pen, maybe it’s no more worrisome to face them than having to deal with deGrom and Scherzer three times in a five-game series. But we play the 162 to determine who’s better, and strictly by records posted over six months, the sixth seed ends up being the easier path.
And most seasons will look like this. There’s always a division that lags behind the other two, which will always be on tap for the third wildcard team. There’s always a division that has two of the best teams in the league, and the one that falls short of winning the division will be a much harder opponent than whoever wins the remedial division. The Dodgers last year, the Nationals of 2019, and the Cubs and Yankees of 2018, were all teams that didn’t win a division that was better over the season than wildcard teams by some margin. It’s just how it works when you’re split into six divisions.
The only real answer is to do away with divisions, balance the schedule completely, and take the top six teams, which will never happen. Reseeding after the wildcard round is a half-solution. Seeding the lowest division winner and the three wildcards after the regular season is another solution, but any team that wins a division is going to be awfully salty about having to travel to play a team that didn’t. And again, because the schedule makeups are so different between teams in other divisions it’s not totally fair either.
We can come back and laugh at this when it ends up being a Cardinals-White Sox World Series and I have to move to the moon.