In an effort to add more teams to the playoffs, create more excitement, and to add more emphasis to teams winning their divisions, baseball introduced the one-game Wild Card playoff in 2012.
In short, instead of one Wild Card team playing a full 5-game series against one of the division champs, two Wild Card teams face each other in a winner-take-all one-game playoff. The winner of that game then gets to meet one of the division winners in a regular playoff series.
The Wild Card is the MLB equivalent of the college basketball first-round play-in games that most fans don’t consider to be part of the NCAA tournament.
The problem with the new playoff format is that four teams, who fought for six months to be one of the top five teams in their respective leagues, now have their entire seasons ride on what is essentially a crap-shoot.
In addition, there is the possibility that one team may be given an unfair advantage simply by luck because of the importance of starting pitching.
Unlike other sports with single-elimination tournaments where teams can use all of their best players in those games, baseball teams devote a large chunk of their payroll to starting pitching to help win as many games as possible during the regular season. The downside is that only one of the starting pitchers will likely be used by each team in the Wild Card game.
The result is that three of this year’s Wild Card teams will have more than 20% of their payroll unavailable to help the team in their most important game of the season.
But the unfairness of the Wild Card system goes beyond just unavailable payroll, something that affects all four teams.
Luckily for the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A’s, both team’s rotations are set up in a way that will allow them to use their best pitchers in the Wild Card game, with Jon Lester of the A’s going against James Shields of the Royals.
The same cannot be said for the San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Giants will be able to start Madison Bumgarner who has been their best starting pitcher this year with a 2.98 ERA and 3.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Meanwhile, the Pirates will start Edinson Volquez, who despite his 3.04 ERA has only been Pittsburgh’s eighth best pitcher this year with a 0.7 WAR.
Certainly these teams are just happy to be in the playoffs. But the playoff runs of two of the teams will be over after just one game and will never be given a chance to use some of their best players.
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