Robert Mayer

Maybe Andrew McCutchen is Right About the Wild Card Format

The wild card format has been a topic of much discussion on the MLB news cycles this week, which got me thinking

When he reported to camp Andrew McCutchen, stated his disdain for the one-game wild card format--a fair stance to have after his Pittsburgh Pirates have been bounced from postseason baseball each of the last two years because they've run into hot pitchers in Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta. Most fans will just see this as unfortunate. Pittsburgh has won 88 and 98 games over the past two seasons, and while the 88 win team could be chalked up to bad luck, the 98 win squad from last season could have a legitimate gripe. If the St. Louis Cardinals, Pirates, and Chicago Cubs were each in separate divisions, they would have each been given a five-game series and a much more realistic chance to move on. Even the Cubs, who finished third in the NL Central with 97 wins, would have finished first in either of the other divisions by a full five games. 

In 1993, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games, but were kept out of the playoffs entirely since Atlanta finished the season with 104 wins. The next season, the one team wild card format was introduced. In recent years, a second wild card berth has been added to each league, which makes for the one-game playoff to determine who advances to the Division Series, and makes for some very compelling television. The common theme following McCutchen's statements earlier this week has been a simple fix. If they are to change anything, then there should no longer be divisions, just the American and National leagues, which would guarantee that the top five teams in each league make the playoffs each and every year. While McCutchen has a very personal reason to dislike the current format, the problem with just one game could go even deeper than that. I present to you the 2014 Oakland Athletics.

The A's backed into the playoffs after being baseball's best team until about July 30th, ultimately finishing with a record of 88-74. The morning of the trade deadline, Billy Beane shipped arguably his most potent bat to Boston in order to land the pitcher he needed to start a one-game playoff in Jon Lester. Yoenis Cespedes was beloved in the clubhouse, and his departure both made the lineup weaker, and brought down the team's morale. Say what you will about team chemistry, but it was real in Oakland for a three year stretch, and Cespedes was a large part of that. 

With a best-of-three format, this trade likely wouldn't have occurred with Sonny Gray and Jeff Samardzija already on board, and Scott Kazmir, despite his struggles, still holding a 3.86 ERA in the second half. The offense is what suffered the most, as Oakland held a 22-33 record from August 1 through the end of the season and even though they were outscored only 199-194, they were wildly inconsistent. That inconsistency still had them finishing the season with an expected win total of 100.

With Cespedes the team was averaging 5 runs per game and giving up 3.49, while without him they scored 3.53 runs a contest while allowing 3.62. The loss of Cespedes accounted for a run and a half per game while the addition of Lester didn't lower the number of runs the team was allowing. The team likely still makes the playoffs, but remains a wild card team as the Angels won the AL West by ten games that year. That game could have potentially been a home game as the A's only finished a game behind Kansas City for the first spot, which would have been a big difference maker. While Beane had the forsight to get a piece he felt he needed for a potential wild card game, it would have been an unncecessary move with a three game format. 

With Gray, Kazmir, Samardzija and a better offense than the one they showed down the stretch, the outcome of a three-game series may have been different for the Athletics. Even if everything stayed exactly the same, and the Royals went on to the World Series, the biggest takeaway from this format change would be that Oakland would still have Cespedes on the roster entering the offseason. Billy Beane has stated since that year that the team was likely going to unload Cespedes that offseason anyway, so they took a shot in acquiring a big-game pitcher. Yet if there is no need for a big game pitcher, and a rebuild is about to begin, Cespedes would have brought Oakland a nice package of prospects in return. Any package of players that were with Oakland beyond 2014 would have been a bigger return than the one they ended up receiving, at least in terms of building for the future. 

With Cespedes traded away and prospects coming to Oakland, there is even a chance that Josh Donaldson remains with the club for at least one more season, which just so happened to be his 2015 MVP campaign. the argument for keeping Donaldson here would be that the club already brought in some talent with the Cespedes trade, so adding to their farm system would have been less of a priority at that point. 

Don't get me wrong--the 2014 AL Wild Card game was some of the most exciting baseball to watch, but the impact of the one game playoff has had a big effect on one of baseball's small market teams. Instead of keeping the little guy down, baseball should be trying to build up the underdog, especially when player contracts are getting out of hand like they have been. While the Cubs are spending $184 million on Jason Heyward, and Arizona lured Zack Greinke with $206.5 million, the A's biggest expenditure this winter has been the addition of reliever Ryan Madson at three years, $22 million. 

Making the wild card game into a series, the players receieve some extra exposure to the masses, which means that the league generates more interest in its product. With the one-and-done format the ratings may be higher, but if one of the two series goes to three games, that last game should have a similar rating, plus the additional two games worth of advertising dollars, concessions sales, and extra merchandising. Financially this can make sense for the league, and if it's what the players want then a new format should seriously be considered when negotiations begin for the new collective bargaining agreement. 

The one hangup with the three-game format is a simple one, but a potentially big one. While the wild card teams are playing, the three divisional winners in each league are waiting at home for their next opponent. In a game where timing is everything, the fewer days off the better. Of course, the teams that are playing will be using their best pitchers in order to advance, so they won't have the luxury of setting their rotation prior to the Division Series, which could counteract the waiting period enough, and it's likely the best that can be done. 


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