John Smoltz wants a change to the wild-card playoff system. His two ideas, expressed on the Fox Sports broadcast last weekend, go like this: Either make the opening wild-card series best of three or make the division series against the wild-card team include four home games for the team that won the division.
Both ideas have issues. But, they represent thoughts around the imperfect wild-card system that was born out of trying to package the drama of sudden death with the season-long effort of making fans think their team could slip into the playoffs. Call it the Longoria Effect.
On Sept. 28, 2011, Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays hit a 2-2 fastball into the stands in the bottom of the 12th inning. The hit pushed the small-market Rays into the playoffs as the wild-card team. The chatter and viewership around the game opened the eyes of Major League Baseball. It wondered how that feeling could be replicated in a sport where everything is drawn out until the deciding game of a series?
Less than two months later, the addition of a second wild-card entrant was announced. The winners of the wild-card slots would participate in one game to determine which advances to the division series. Baseball was trying to have a process in place to manufacture excitement.
The structure, like Smoltz’s suggestions, has flaws. Foremost could be the five-day layoff from the end of the regular season until the first game of the division series, a process the Washington Nationals will again go through this season. The gap throws off pitching alignments and takes hitters out of rhythm. But, it also supplies much-needed rest. The second wild-card slot has also failed to capture the drama of Longoria’s home run in the six years since its invention. Though, it has a chance to this season.
In the National League, Colorado was only a game in front of the Milwaukee Brewers for the second wild-card when play began Wednesday. St. Louis is 3 ½ game back. In the American League, the Los Angeles Angels are 1 ½ games behind the Minnesota Twins for the second spot.
Meanwhile, the Nationals wait. Just 12 games remained in the regular season at the start of Wednesday, yet they will not start the playoffs for 17 days when they are likely to host Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday, Oct. 6. Washington is seven games in front of the Chicago Cubs for the No. 2 spot in the NL playoffs and 4 ½ games behind Los Angeles for the top seed. The opening series appears set in the District.
The lag of a day off, then waiting two days for the wild-card games to be played on separate dates, then the National League being the last to start the division round accounts for the five-day gap.
Smoltz’s argument is based in reward. He thinks the division winner should receive a supplemented chance following the 162-game grind. As it stands, the wild-card team absorbs the penalty of losing its best starter for Game 1 of the division series. Bryce Harper said last week that the postseason is “all about pitching.” If that’s accurate, reducing the impact of a top starter is significant.
That’s not enough for Smoltz. He wants the division winner to have a larger reward, hence the suggestion of four home games or the wild-card teams to run themselves down with a three-game series.
Trouble is, the series would extend the wait for the division champion — though not everyone thinks the wait is a bad thing. The four home games in a five-game series would be, to use Matt Wieters’ word, “strange.”
“The wild-card team, I was part of it last year,” the Nationals catcher said. “Wild-card teams fight like anybody to get into the playoffs and you’re going to reward their fans with one home game? I think it’s probably as best setup as it can be right now. I think I would lean more toward the four and one than the best two out of three, even though it’s probably fair to the wild-card teams to do the best out of three, but once again you’re penalizing the team that had the best record. I’m waiting to hear somebody have a better idea for it, but I haven’t heard one that says, ‘That would easily make it better.’”
After spending six months in a crouch and being bludgeoned by baseballs, Wieters is happy for the extended break following the regular season. He’ll pick rest over rhythm. Tanner Roark backed the idea from a starter’s perspective; Ryan Madson was fine with it from a reliever’s view.
“I appreciate the break,” Madson said. “Get a little breather. I think it’s easy for us to lock back in more than hitters. The game doesn’t really speed up on us with a break.”
The thoughts of that trio lead to a new question: Is there actually something wrong? Allowing a second wild-card team has not provided a large influence over which team wins the World Series. Since the second wild-card team was added in 2012, only one wild-card team has won the World Series. That was San Francisco in 2014, when it beat the Nationals in the division series and fellow wild-card entrant Kansas City in the World Series. Overall, wild-card teams are 4-7 in the ALCS and 8-4 in the NLCS since the advent of the wild card in 1994.
“It’s going to be a battle regardless,” Roark said. “I don’t mind it.”
That answer may not work for Smoltz or others who want to change the schedule. For now, the Nationals have no choice.