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.
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 Amazinz.com.