Five years in, the MLB Wild Card Game is a success.
Oh, there are those who quibble with the format and argue a 162-game season should not be reduced to a single winner-take-all contest.
But as FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron put it in 2015, "in terms of theatre and entertainment value, the wild-card play-in games are about as good as baseball gets right now."
That’s been especially true this October. Two of the best postseason games so far were the Toronto Blue Jays-Baltimore Orioles American League wild-card tilt—which went 11 innings and ended on Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off homer—and Madison Bumgarner’s complete-game shutout against the New York Mets in the National League Wild Card Game.
Ratcheting up the drama, though, wasn’t the only goal when MLB tweaked the format in 2012. The league was also looking to give division winners a competitive advantage—to reward teams that finished in first place and make the road bumpier for wild-card qualifiers.
Has it worked? Sort of.
Since 2012, wild-card teams have won five of the 10 division series they’ve played in, including the Jays’ recent sweep of the Texas Rangers and the San Francisco Giants’ heartbreaking four-game loss to the Chicago Cubs.
It’s a small sample, but a success rate of 50 percent suggests advancing via the Wild Card Game isn’t much of a handicap.
You can even argue wild-card status is a plus, if you believe in momentum.
Consider the 2014 season. The San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals slipped in as the No. 2 and No. 1 wild cards in the National League and American League, respectively. After winning their play-in games, each squad streaked to the World Series, vanquishing more well-rested foes along the way.
Madison Bumgarner, Buster Posey and the rest of the 2014 San Francisco Giants won the World Series after slipping in as the No. 2 wild card.
Were they riding a wave? Were their opponents rusty?
This year, the Rangers clinched the AL West on Sept. 24 and had a three-day layoff between their final regular-season game and Game 1 of the division series. Did they suffer because of that against a Jays team that rolled in hot?
"It’s tough to tell," Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre said, per For The Win’s Ted Berg. "Obviously we did have [time] off in between…but that’s not an excuse."
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Even if you accept the momentum theory, there are many advantages to clinching early. You can rest your regulars and alleviate any nagging injuries. You can line up your rotation and make sure your bullpen is fresh.
At best, it’s a push.
Here’s another way to ask the original question: Has the new format been a disadvantage for the No. 1 wild-card team?
Before 2012, the No. 1 wild card advanced automatically to the division series. Other than a lack of home-field advantage, there was no penalty for failing to secure a division crown.
Now, that team has to go into a do-or-die scenario with another club that, in the past, would have been golfing after Game 162.
Again, sample-size caveats apply, but in the 10 Wild Card Games since 2012, the No. 2 team has won seven times. That’s a 70 percent success rate for clubs that wouldn’t have sniffed the postseason under the old rules and only a 30 percent success rate for teams that would have previously cruised to the division series.
Take the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were the NL’s No. 1 wild card for three straight seasons between 2013 and 2015 but won only one Wild Card Game. In 2015, the Bucs won 98 games and owned the second-best record in baseball. But they were out after losing once to the Cubs.
"Sports is hard," Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle said at the time, per MLB.com’s Tom Singer and Carrie Muskat. "Life’s not fair."
After winning the NL Wild Card Game in 2013, Clint Hurdle and the Pittsburgh Pirates lost it at home in 2014 and 2015.
To summarize: There may be momentum mojo sprinkled on some teams that keep the accelerator down until the end of the season and win the adrenaline-spiking, do-or-die wild-card play-in. But that’s nearly impossible to prove or quantify, as Berg outlined:
For some, it may be satisfying to look back over a team’s route through October, connect dots and come up with some distinct reason it succeeded or failed. But given all baseball’s tiny little margins and the myriad potential outcomes they determine, there will never be a single distinct reason a team won a series beyond winning more games than its opponent.
What we do know is that the new format has been a distinct disadvantage for the No. 1 wild-card seeds. Instead of an automatic pass to a best-of-five series, they’ve been sent packing more often than not by their No. 2 wild-card counterparts.
Momentum is fun; just ask the Blue Jays. And the team that wins the Wild Card Game has a solid statistical shot at the Commissioner’s Trophy—or at least a deep run.
Winning your division, however, and sidestepping that one-game minefield remains the safest route to October glory.
All standings and results current as of Tuesday and courtesy of MLB.com unless otherwise noted.