Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Getting the wild card right

I have written several times about baseball's old wild card system, which I argued eliminated the possibility of good division races between top teams. When the top two teams in a league are in one division, there was no real incentive to win the division, because both teams knew they were in the play-offs and being the wild card was not a significant disadvantage.  Otherwise, the real race was between a potential wild card and the other potential wild cards in other divisions or between two weaker division rivals, one of whom will not make the playoffs.

But baseball made two changes this year: 1) they added a second wild card team and 2) the two wild cards meet in a one-game playoff, the winner then playing a division series with the team with the best record in the league. And, at least for this year, these changes prodcued real division races between good teams, at least in the American League: Both the A.L. East and A.L. West came down to the final day of the season, with the Yankees winning 95 games and beating out the Orioles by 2 games and the A's winning 94 games and beating out the Rangers by a game. The difference this year is that both the Rangers and Orioles had a real incentive to catch the team ahead of them on the final day, in order to avoid that one-game playoff.  In previous years, by contrast, the Orioles would not have cared about catching the Yankees in the final two days of the season; they only would have worried about staying ahead of the Rangers, then getting to play in the division series.

So, credit where credit is due--baseball made changes that create the right incentives.

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