Pirates Might Be Victim of 2nd Wild Card Format, but It Is Still a Success

Anthony Witrado@@awitradoFeatured ColumnistOctober 2, 2015

Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle waves to the crowd as he leaves the dugout after the Pirates defeated the Atlanta Braves 3-2 in a baseball game to clinch a playoff berth Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

Major League Baseball and its rules, written or otherwise, bring about the most passionate of sports discussions. Tradition, the "right way" of doing things and one side's self-interest go against new-age, outside-the-box thinking and the other side's self-interest in a carousel of arguments, from the barstools to traditional and social media and even to front offices.

Baseball is inherently unique in that way, but it is also starved for the kind of excitement that attracts casual sports fans and a younger demographic with far more to fill its fleeting attention span than just the sports their grandfathers might have loved.

MLB's addition of the second wild-card playoff berth serves two significant purposes beyond fanning the flames of fanatical debate.

First, it brings teams into contention that would not have been before—and this season is a great example of that, as both leagues' playoff fields could have been determined weeks ago based on how the system altered trade-deadline decisions.

Second, it brings the drama—manufactured as it may be—of a do-or-die, win-or-go-home Game 7 that attracts viewers of varying demographics to an event that's perfect for TV.

But there's a downside related to that second advantage. A six-month season of 162 games is rewarded with one more game for four teams. And in those few hours, any outcome is possible, and we wouldn't even need playoff-caliber teams involved for that to be true.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are going into the playoffs for the third consecutive year as a wild-card team, and with their record being the second-best in the National League this season, we could call them victims of the second wild card since they would have played in the NL Division Series before its implementation.

On the other side, the second wild-card berth could salvage the Houston Astros' or the Los Angeles Angels' year. Without it, their seasons would already likely be cast as huge disappointments.

Stephen Brashear/Associated Press

Strictly going off the reasons the second wild card was put into play, it has been successful. It has created late-season excitement and has been great for television ratings.

"Personally, I think it is a mistake to get caught up in results," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters, including Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com. "I understand what you're saying about Pittsburgh and what has happened to them. I get it. But I think it's a mistake to focus on an individual team as opposed to the system."

The system itself is flawed, though—at least in the minds of many fans, coaches, executives and players, past and present. It goes against the marathon persona of the sport, one that scoffs at small sample sizes and always has a long-term outlook.

The postseason without this one-game play-in was already an act of randomness because of a relatively small sample of games—seven games as opposed to 162 to prove how good you are. The wild-card format boils that down to the smallest of possible samples.

"Yet after 162 games and many more in spring training, after every way to evaluate your opponent and team based on a series, we decide with one game," analyst and former major leaguer Doug Glanville wrote for ESPN.com two years ago. "This makes no sense from a baseball perspective."

There is no simple solution, aside from eliminating the second wild-card berth, which has already been a massive success, considering the San Francisco Giants won the World Series from that position last season.

Making the wild card a three-game series would be problematic for two reasons. It would extend the postseason further into November, pitting the sport against the vastly more popular National Football League, which now plays three days out of the week during the baseball postseason.

It could also leave the team awaiting the winner of the wild-card series without any meaningful baseball to play for nearly a month. And that could happen even if the wild-card series featured a doubleheader, which would severely hurt the all-important bullpens.

Both wild-card eras can be considered successes, and the one-game playoff is going to be here for a while. An anomaly where the three best records in the league all come from the same division, which could happen this season with the NL Central, should not cause the upheaval of a young format.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

The Pirates may be getting penalized this season by having to play the do-or-die game and not going straight into the NLDS, but teams like the Astros and Angels are benefiting.

And because of the second wild card, as many as four fanbases this season, and potentially more in other years, can be legitimately engaged in the races in the final week. Without it, the Pirates and New York Yankees would have ended the drama a while back.

"You look at the interest it draws throughout the season for so many teams," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told reporters, "and the dynamic is pretty special the way it is."

Based on what MLB set out to accomplish, the new wild-card format has been a triumph. Ratings are good, the drama is great and it keeps fans coming to the ballparks at a time when they'd be turning their attention elsewhere without the second wild-card spot. Those are points that not even the most cynical baseball fan can argue against.

The system might not be perfect, but it can still continue to improve the game, as it has already.

All quotes, unless otherwise specified, have been acquired firsthand by Anthony Witrado. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.

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