Replacing the Wild Card: The "Challenge Round"
There seems to be a pretty general consensus among sabermetric folks that baseball's current system of post-season eligibility and play is seriously flawed. Rich Lederer's post here the other day is one indication, an on-going discussion in the SABR-L listserv is another, and sabermetric hero Billy Beane's famous characterization of the playoffs as a "crapshoot" is a third, but the concerns are hardly new.
Wild card contenders compete with one another based on overall record, but play very different schedules. Small divisions produce frequent runaway champions and many meaningless post-clinching games. First place over 162 games often means little when the wild card awaits a competitive runner-up. Worst of all, an eight-team tournament of seven short series means it has become very unlikely that the best team will actually be crowned World Series champion. Even a team good enough to have a 60% chance of winning a random game against any other playoff team has only a small chance of winning three consecutive short series to be named champion.
The recent, rather nonsensical agonizing over whether Joe Torre should be fired because of three losses after the Yankees finished with the best record in baseball is a symptom of the getting-close-to-random nature of the current post-season system (Joe received too much credit for the four World Series wins and now receives too much blame for the absence of them since). Baseball should have a way to maintain or even increase interest in late regular season baseball, while also giving better teams (better as shown by the large sample of games that is the regular season) a stronger chance of actually winning a World Series. As you might guess, I have a suggestion.
The first step is to return to the four-division structure that prevailed from 1969 to 1993. More teams per division will produce more variation in results year to year (check the AL East standings over the last few years and then look up "ossification" in the dictionary), and more chances of close battles for first place. But of course MLB is never going to return to a world where only four division winners are eligible to play post-season games. The reduction in the number of teams playing meaningful late season games would be too significant to ever get wide approval among the owners. So we need an alternative.
What if the first place team finishes the regular season schedule more than six games in front of the second place team? In that case, the second place team in the Challenge Round would have the opportunity to play the first place team however many games it would take to catch up to first place, but would have to win every game until it caught up - any one loss would end the series in favor of the first place team. If the second place finisher somehow managed to win all the consecutive games needed to tie, a one-game playoff would follow. So again using 2006 finishes as an example, the Red Sox would play the Yankees needing 11 straight wins, and the Phils would play the Mets needing 13 straight wins - though remember, with larger divisions these sorts of runaways become less likely.
The Challenge Round idea would be an unusual approach to organizing post-season play in American professional sports. But baseball is an unusual game in many respects and the proliferation of playoff-eligible teams and very inclusive tournaments decided by a long sequence of short-series elimination rounds, even if they have proven relatively popular in basketball, hockey and football, do not seem likely to reflect a healthy long-term approach for baseball. A tournament that over time appears to be producing champions that seem almost randomly selected will eventually lose the respect of its fans.
The precise details of the Challenge Round concept are certainly subject to tweaking - there is nothing magical for example about the length of the Challenge Round I've suggested, and it could just as easily be set for a different number of games. Nor have I tried to tackle the issue of what sort of regular season schedule four divisions with thirty teams might use - perhaps a topic for a future article. But I hope the basic concept is food for thought on an important baseball issue.
Bruce Regal is a lawyer in New York. His posts and articles on baseball appear on the Mets fan forum site Amazinz.com.