The Mets and Red Sox can still pretend they have a shot at the playoffs, but it comes at the expense of a hypothetical four-way divisional race in the NL West. Are the Wild Cards worth it?
The baseball world is abuzz about the A's right now. The baseball world used to be abuzz about the Orioles and Pirates, but we're used to them now. They're not old hat, exactly, but who did they sweep over the weekend? Not the Yankees. The A's swept the Yankees. Chris Pratt hit a walk-off home run yesterday, his first since returning from two broken legs. Or something. Point is, the A's are the talk of baseball.
It adds to the story that the A's would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Well, they'd have a playoff game to see who made the playoff game that decides who's in the playoffs, but that still counts as playing past their 162nd game. That makes the buzz a little louder. If the Wild Cards didn't exist, the A's would still be something of a story, but it would be of the "Hey, did you notice this cute little streak?" variety. They'd still be 5½ back of the Texas Rangers. It would be a curiosity, but one that would need a few more wins to have playoff implications.
So let's take a look at what the standings would look like if the divisions were still set up in the pre-Wild Card format, with two divisions in each league. There are some obvious, glaring problems with this kind of what-if. The records in 2012 are based on an unbalanced schedule that wouldn't be the same in this setup, so the records would almost certainly be wildly different. But let's pretend a team's current record is a perfect approximation of their current talent because there really isn't a better way to do it.
Here's what the standings would look like with the circa-'93 divisions, first with the American League:
The races in the American League wouldn't be over. But they wouldn't be especially exciting without a Yankees or Rangers slump. The Orioles, A's, and White Sox would all be in the middle of a surprisingly pleasant season, but none of them would be serious contenders just yet. The Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Indians -- all teams within four games of a playoff spot right now -- would be effectively out of the race.
The National League:
The Pirates and Nationals would be the tightest race in baseball. In a way, it's a shame that we're missing that. In another, more practical way, the Pirates are probably juuuuust fine with the safety net of two different Wild Cards. The Pirates are 2½ games up on the Braves for the second Wild Card in the real world.
But look at the NL West in our alternate universe. Forget that Atlanta and Cincinnati playing in the "West" was so stupid that the new divisional setup would have been preferable without considering anything else. Look at those standings, with four teams clumped up together at the top, two of them blood rivals.
This would be what the baseball fan would look forward to every day. This would be the topic of conversation around that proverbial water cooler. What'd the Reds do today? Braves and Giants coming up -- what a series! Dodgers don't play the Reds until September, but when they do, boy oh boy, oh boy.
There wouldn't even be a loss of fan interest around the NL, either. The Mets and the Diamondbacks would move from long shots under the current format to out of the race in the hypothetical format. That's it.
There probably isn't much of a point in arguing about whether the Wild Card (at least the first one) is a good idea. It's clearly a good financial idea. Baseball is a regional game more than ever, and there's more money to be made with people in Boston and Toronto not thinking their playoff chances are completely over. That's before you get into the money of an additional playoff series.
But this is about aesthetics. What would excite you more in this thought exercise? The rousing tale of the A's would be mostly lost, at least until they made up a couple more games. The Orioles would be a nice story, but they wouldn't be very close to the playoffs at all. In the '93 format, there'd be ten teams within five games of a playoff spot. In the current format, there are 20 teams within five games of a playoff spot.
That NL West showdown would be compelling. It would make me want to shank the youth of today and take back the word "epic." And the NL East would be a heckuva race in its own right.
The American League would be a little boring, though. Worse, there'd be ten different cities and fan bases checking out right around now. Ten different teams would be packing their playoff hopes into Tupperware and storing them for next year.
But, man, that NL West. That's the kind of race that fans would remember with pride even if their team didn't win the division.
I can't decide. So I'll let the tiebreaker be the money. The more money baseball makes, the less likely there is to be a work stoppage. Maybe the hypothetical NL West would be the best race out of any of the scenarios, but there are still exciting races under the current format. Baseball wanted to engage the causal fan, wanted to make races interesting for a longer stretch of the season. They've done that. The Wild Card is a good moneymaker. The second one probably will be.
So good job, Selig. Good job. The autocorrect on my word processor kept replacing "good" there, and I had to type the rest of this into a text file just to finish the article, but it was worth it. There's a lot of excitement lost with the current setup. But there's probably more of it added, even if that excitement is sprinkled around the league in smaller chunks.