Wild Card isn’t incentivizing teams to improve themselves

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Back when three divisions per league and the Wild Card was adopted it was sold as a way for more teams to compete. Then, when the second Wild Card was added, it was touted as a way for even more teams to compete. The thinking was that the more playoff spots, the more teams in the running, the more incentive everyone would have to improve and try and all of that.

Except it’s not happening. And the second Wild Card  is certainly not incentivizing teams to improve themselves at the deadline. Take this quote from Jayson Stark’s article about the trade deadline in The Athletic today:

And speaking of the wild card, virtually every baseball front office is now populated by smart dudes who understand it makes no mathematical sense to be “all in” at the deadline if your reward is only a one-game Wild Card Game playoff that could end your season in three hours.

“If you do that, you’re putting a lot of your future on playing one game,” said one NL exec. “It doesn’t make sense [to go all in to play one game]. If you made the Wild Card 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?”

This is not just about the second Wild Card team, of course. The teams that, between 1995 and 2011 who would’ve won the one Wild Card are now out of a full playoff too, and thrust into a one-game playoff that, according to the front offices, isn’t worth shooting for. Which means that, realistically, we’ve gone from teams trying hard to make one of four playoff slots to teams only caring if they can be one of three. At least if the guy Stark spoke with is to be believed.

Is that a rational approach for front offices to take? Not necessarily. After all, since the advent of the second Wild Card we’ve had six teams reach the LCS or farther after coming out of the one-game Wild Card playoff. In 2014 two Wild Card teams — the Giants and the Royals — faced off in the World Series. We often hear that the postseason is a crapshoot, but it’s a crapshoot for everyone, division winners included, and it seems odd that the idea of playing in a best-of-five serves is an incentive and the idea of a one-game play-in to make a best-of-five is not. That’s what they’re saying, though.

As Stark notes, there isn’t much of a desire — or even the ability, schedule-wise — to make the Wild Card round a best-of-three. And given what has happened with previous incentives, it’s hard to guess how such a thing might cause teams to react. Maybe a best-of-three isn’t worth it to them either.

Ultimately, though, I don’t know that any postseason structure would change this very much. The fundamental thing keeping teams from trying to improve themselves before and during the season is the disconnect between revenue and winning. Back in the day a team that won a lot of games made a lot more money than a team that lost a lot of games because attendance was a much bigger piece of the revenue pie. Now, long-term TV contracts and various other revenue streams that are independent of team performance (e.g. corporate partnerships, digital initiatives, gambling) are far more significant. Financially speaking, it’s far better for a team to win 82 games with a lower payroll than to win 90 games with a higher payroll.

That’s a much bigger fix. And I have no idea how you go about accomplishing it.