Designated HitterOctober 13, 2006
Replacing the Wild Card: The "Challenge Round"
By Bruce Regal

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.

I propose that instead of going directly to a four-team tournament, each of the four divisions first have a "Challenge Round" in which the second place team in each division would have an opportunity to catch the first place team in a series of head-to-head games. In effect, the regular season would be extended for up to another 6 games between the first and second place teams, until one or the other clinches the division. If they end up tied at the end of 6 games, they play a seventh game in the form of a one-game playoff. To provide a few examples of how this system would work, suppose divisions ended as they did in 2006. In a Challenge Round, Anaheim (second place, four games behind) would play Oakland needing six wins in seven games; Minnesota (first place) and Detroit (one game behind) would play, with the Tigers needing four wins in six games; and LA and San Diego (who tied for first) would play a full best of seven game Challenge Round series.

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.

Such a Challenge Round used in each of four divisions every year would have all the advantages of the wild card system but would avoid many of its disadvantages:

  • As today, eight teams would participate in post-season play.
  • All teams that are within striking distance of second place in each of four divisions remain in contention for the post-season late into September.
  • But teams are only competing for post-season spots against teams in their own division, who will presumably be playing very similar schedules. No more unfair competition between wild card competitors coming out of weaker and stronger divisions.
  • No more meaningless late season post-clinching games for first place, because every extra game of margin ahead of second place will increase a first-place team's chances of Challenge Round success. And similarly, no meaningless post-wild card-clinching games - even after clinching second, a team will know that every game closer to first it can get by the end of 162 games, the better a shot it will have in the Challenge Round.
  • And maybe most important of all, the four winners of the Challenge Round, the four teams who get to the National and American League Championship Series, will have earned that participation based on their actual, cumulative achievement over a full 162+ games, a much more realistic method of evaluating the teams most deserving that position than the current, nearly random, Division Series battles. In short: less "crapshoot," more deserving winners. And all without compromising the desire of the owners for lots of potential post-season spots that many teams can shoot for, and lots of lucrative post-season games.

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


Short of four divisions in each league sending their respective winners to the postseason, I'm for sticking with what is working. The current format has produced some great Octobers, but even more importantly, the format has produced many exciting Septembers.

Interesting thoughts. One consideration: A team that wins the division early loses the advantage of resting its players, setting up its rotation and the other edges from such success. I do not know that that is a killer objection, but it is something to think about.

"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."

There is no such consensus.

I'm suspicious of people who falsely claim a consensus in order to advance their own agendas. I've seen too many disingenuous politicians do the same thing.

There is little evidence that the team with the better record is categorically the "better" team so it seems counterproductive to jury-rig a system designed to produce outcomes more identical to the standings. No rational argument is made as to why this is an end we should be striving for. The 2003 Atlanta Braves had the best record in the NL but were 9th in the NL in ERA, 11th in strikeouts, etc. Why should we engineer an overly elaborate system that basically tries to rig the playoffs so the team with the best record wins? There is no good reason.

It's a petulant reaction to people angered that their flawed teams have been shown up in the playoffs.

The article states that "we need an alternative." Yet if offers no compelling reason why, only blandishments that the wild card team beating the division winner on more or less even ground is somehow evil and must be done away with. No real reason is given. We are supposed to take this as a matter of course. No real reasoning is given to how a team with the best record is the best team. We're simply to ignore Pythagorean records, unequal scheduling, injuries, a team being lucky in meeting teams at their nadir, etc. You look at the 2003 Braves and see a team that stayed healthy and used its lineup to decimate mediocre pitching, and then faltered when confronted with better pitching. Changing the system to help these teams makes no sense to me.

To conclude, the problem with this article lies in three points with me. One, this article and others like it state that something is wrong, but they never explain why it is wrong. Two, it presupposes that the team with the best record is the best team, which is not always the case by far. Three, it assumes that a team with a better record being beaten by a team with a inferior record on more or less a level playing field is an undesirable outcome. None of which I believe to be true.

A small point of order. If Baseball returned to the Pre-'95 divisional setup, then New York would have been challenged by Detroit and Minnesota would ahve been challenged by Oakland, which is exactly what we got. And after the results of the LDS the teams under your systems would ahve been even.

That is if we assume Minnesota would be in the AL West and that Detroit would be in the AL East, which are reasonable assumptions IMO.

In the National League, Philly would have challenged New York, needed a twleve game winning streak agains the Amazins, and San Diego and LA would have battled, meaning LCS participant St. Louis would be watching at home.

A better proposal would be to reatin the Three divisional set up. And institute a play in game among the top two non-first place finishers. A winner take all game to get to battle the best division winner, regardless of division. That would create more playoff possibilities, and give weaker teams, the number five team in the AL for example would be the Angels. Could LA beat Detroit in one game? Absolutely. It places a premium on winning your division, but gives a never say die attitude of hopefulness to what would be ordinarily also-ran teams.

In addition the winner takes all format works so well for college basketball and pro-football, meaning Major League Baseball could end the season mid-week, then set the play-in games for a Saturday night and Sunday Night, guarnateed to get outstanding ratings, which covers the marketing idea.

So many fans remember the drama of games like the famous Red Sox-Yankee 1978 playoff game. That drama would exist in theory every year.

I agree that there is certainly not "Consensus" as this authors states...but there has been enough discussion to merit this discussion.

The whole point of baseball is winning games. Thats it. The best teams win the most games IN THE REGULAR SEASON. Your mentioning of the 03 Braves brings up a good point. Yes historically, the Braves of that year will not be looked upon as the best team of 2003; but the reality is that by winning the most games THAT season, by definition they WERE the best team in the NL that season.

As the author correctly states...the unique nature of baseball does call for a unique play-off system. Personally; I would advocate for returning to the regular season champs of each league playing in the world series. But I know that is not feasible under the current playoff craze. And thats ok because post-season baseball for the most part is great.

However, the current playoff season really is a "crap-shoot" that doesnt measure which team is best, but rather which team is luckiest and hottest. I am not passing judgement on the current system because it does make things very exciting....and makes the world much more equal.

But the system can be improved. Un-balanced schedules are horrible and hopefully baseball will fix that; as well as make interleague play happen only once every 4 or 5 years to keep it special and unique(which is why is worked intially); but with ratings higher for that; baseball will not consider that until fans stop going to interleague games.

More so than post-season shenanigans, I think the unbalanced schedule is by far the biggest issue.

I'd blow up the leagues, expand by two teams, and create four, 8-team, regional leagues: Pacific Coast, Great Lakes, Red State(or, if you prefer, Continental), and Metropolitan. Teams that share the "geographic" rivalries that interleague play advocates love would be in the same league. Teams would play 16 games against each member of their league (112), and every year the teams would play an interleague slate against another league, 6 games against each team (48, total of 160 games). The problem of unbalanced schedule would be eliminated.

This would almost recreate the conference play structure the NCAA uses. Ideally, the sense of identity that college conferences have would be recreated as well.

Anyway, the top two teams in each league have an LCS, with winner advancing to the, well, final four.

Bob R, you said it so well I have nothing to add except that I agree. Well done.

I agree with the post Joe wrote above. The one-game playoff between the 4th and 5th place teams is an incredibly exciting event and avoiding it is a good incentive to win your division.

I like Joe's idea, too. Not only would teams try to win the division to avoid the playoff game, the two wild cards would also have to use their best pitchers in that game, which gives the wild card winner a disadvantage over the division champ it has to play in the DS.

I can't say that I like the Idea. There would be little interest in watching a team attempt to win 11 games in a row to cacth the first place team in their division. I do think that the current first round should be extended to 7 games.

I'm starting to sound like the people who hated the Wild Card before it's existence. There's nothing wrong with the current system and there's no need for extra games. Win your regular season games to make the playoffs, then win your postseason games to be the champion. THE END.

My favorite idea presented here was by jianfu, the idea of adding 2 teams and realigning the divisions. Since we are used to inter-league play and that is set up for regional rivalries, realigning the divisions would be alright with me. I know I and jianfu are part of a minority who thinks there is enough talent to expand the league. The biggest argument against expansion would be the lack of pitching talent, or the supposed lack of pitching talent. I do think there is more than enough pitching talent but this is hidden by the playing environment baseball is currently in, an environment that heavily favors offense. Even with the strike zone change, baseball still favors the offense and this makes pitching look bad. (If I am wrong about this, I would love for someone to point out any studies done contradicting my statements.)

How to deal with the DH? Eliminate it! We won't see this but I am all for it-- I wouldn't miss the AL/NL stuff because that distinction between the leagues was gone when they started inter-league play. This is the change I would like to see be made.

Realignment would open up such a big can of DH worms. I dont know, if it aint broke dont try and fix it. If you want to take the crapshoot element out of it, extend the series. Didnt Boston need 5 wins for the first series anyway? Go best of 9 for the play-offs, or heck, even best of 13 for the world series.

I think the broader point here is that, in Baseball, the margin between the best team and the worst team is relatively small. In baseball, teams with the worst recrods finish with a win% of about .400 while those with the best records usually have win%s around .600, and that's 98-game winner.

This is extremely close relative to other major sports. Consider the NFL: in 2005, there were two teams with 13-3 records (an .813 win%) and a 14-2 team (.875) up against teams with .125 and .250 win%s. In the NFL, the team with the better record is far more likely to win a game than teams with bad records.

Perhaps a more accurate example is the NBA. They, too, play 7-game series to determine who advances in the playoffs. But still, the top NBA teams had win%s of .780 and .768 while the bottom had win%s of .280 and .256.

What all of this means is that the best teams in baseball lose far more often than in other sports. Luckily, they play a helluva lot more games in baseball. The larger sample size allows for a more accurate picture of where teams stands and reduces (but certainly doesn't eliminate) the statistical variance.

However, all of this goes down the crapper when we go to 5- or 7-game series.

On the whole, I like Mr. Regal's suggestion. It rewards teams that do better in the season but still gives us exciting games down the home stretch.

Joe Torre's situation has nothing to do with the current playoff system. He had a better team back when he was winning multiple World Series. He now has a team full of holes including the all-important pitching.

If anything, I would rather see them rework the schedules to balance things out a little more than to mess with the current playoff system, but that is easier said than done. I personally don't like the idea proposed here by the author of this article. I will admit that the idea proposed here is interesting nevertheless.

A tournament that over time appears to be producing champions that seem almost randomly selected will eventually lose the respect of its fans.

Yeah, I agree. This is why nobody ever watches the NCAA tournament. College basketball has totally lost the respect of its fans with that debacle.

I like the four league concept too, and I'd go back as much as possible to the traditional AL & NL, then add American Association and PCL as two major leagues. That puts 4 teams in playoffs. Then you have a playoff series in each league among second place teams - AL vs AA, PCL vs NL, for example (rotate each year) - that lasts five games. The winners of those series enter playoffs (making 6 teams) vs. the top two league winners with the best records. That makes it harder for a wild card to make it, and if it does, it would deserve to do so ...

The best suggestion I've heard is to expand the first round of the playoffs from best of 5 to best of 7. It is ridiculous that the first round is shorter than the next two rounds. Think about it. In the first round FOUR teams get eliminated from the playoffs. Why play a marathon, six month, 162 game season and then let some team that wins 104 games get eliminated after just 3 post-season losses? It makes no sense to me.

I like the idea of playing a shorter season (150 games would be plenty) and making the first round of the playoffs best of 7 just like the other two rounds. Teams woulc come into the playoffs a little fresher and the World Series could be played in early October instead of late October (no more need for portable heaters in the dugouts!)

By the way, the idea of a one-game playoff between wild card teams is dumb. It is apparently based on the assumption that a wild card team is somehow less deserving than a team that wins it's division. That's an assumption which does not hold water. With small divisions you often end up with the 2nd place team in one division winning 5 or 10 more games than the first place team in another division. Does anyone really believe that a first place team that wins 83 games (such as the Cardinals) is more deserving than a 2nd place team that wins 88 games (such as the Dodgers)?

The only completely fair way approach the task of determining which team is best is to do away with the playoffs altogether. Just put all 30 teams into one league and have them play each other 5 times each for a 145 game season. The team that wins the most games is the champion. Period! That way you'd never have to worry about a mediocre team that gets hot during the playoffs knocking off teams that demonstrated their supierority over the course of the long season.

But that will never happen for a multitude of reasons, of course. The reason we divide teams into leagues and divisions in order to generate fan interest, not because it helps determine who the best team is. So just accept the fact that the playoffs are entertainment and not a meana of determining who the "best" team is.

I don't understand what entitles the second place team to a challenge, but not the rest. What if the third place team finishes a half game back of the second place team? Does the third place team play the makeup game to determine if they end up tied for second? Then what?

And forcing a team to use their best pitcher might not disadvantage them for a follow up series. If I remember correctly there was some look in to how if one team sets up their rotation 1-5 with 1 being the best ERA and the ERAs get worse as you go further into the rotation, then using a rotation of the worst ERA guy first, then having the other 4 guys ordered on their ERAs so that the best goes in game 2 and the ERAs get larger in each consecutive start gives the team with the latter rotation the better chance to win, assuming the staffs have generally the same ERAs for their pitchers.

And if the point of the postseason is for the best team to win, then it's not really that exciting, now is it?

Finally, this would never work as it'd be impossible to schedule the playoffs, and it'd be possible for the playoffs to start at the middle of October, leading to possible November baseball, which is not a desirable option in many stadiums.

Beat you to it.

Read "Four leagues, no divisions."

Great idea to get rid of the wild card. Hunter Cashdollar

Well we can all come up with wild ideas that have almost no chance of happening due to the players union, and monopolistic owners. How about ideas that are baby steps?

First off let me say I love the DH how it is, in the AL only, and if you like tradition, then go watch NL games.

With that said, I would split the NL into 4 four team divisions (which has been proposed by Selig before). So in the AL you have DH and wild card, and in the NL, no DH and no wildcard, but still 8 teams in the playoffs.

Maybe if one of those 4 NL division winners has a losing record, then you bounce them for a wild card team.

Then in each league you seed the 4 teams by record and make the first round best of SIX. Seeds 1 or 2 need only win 3 games, seeds 3 and 4 need to win 4 games.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

I love Bruce's idea! There is definitely a consensus (not only among SABR-metrics but the general public as well) that the current system is seriously flawed. You don't hear it said only because people don't realize it, but look at the ratings for the past couple of World Series. MLB has made September more exciting in more cities, but at the expense of October. We are now consistently seeing teams in the LCS and World Series that are clearly not among the best teams in baseball. Of course this idea will never even be considered, but I think it's a very creative system that ensures a champion deserving of the title while also keeping many teams in the hunt through September.