How Much Excitement Is the Wild Card Draining From Baseball This Year?

Last night, the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays—the two teams with the best records in baseball—played their third close, fiercely contested game in three days. Despite a spectacular bit of cheating by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter , the Rays prevailed, winning the series and taking a half-game lead in the American League East.

But except for confirming that Jeter is every bit as much of a shifty bad sport as his teammate Alex Rodriguez is, the whole exercise was meaningless. This morning, ESPN’s standings give Tampa a 99.6 percent chance of making the playoffs to New York’s 97.3.

In 1994, a corrupt and dysfunctional Major League Baseball decided to make more money by splitting each league’s two divisions into three, adding wild card teams, and expanding the playoffs. The excuse was that the new arrangement would make things more exciting. What it actually meant was that instead of the top teams battling in a winner-take-all pennant race, fans would get to see the top teams cruise through September, while the second-rate teams battled for second place.

This year, five of the eight playoff spots are devoid of drama. The entire American League is settled, except for the near-meaningless question of whether the Rays will win the East and the Yankees will be the wild card, or vice versa. In the National League, there’s a two-team race between the Braves and the Phillies in the East, a three-team race among the Padres, Giants, and Rockies in the West, and a spinoff wild-card race among whichever three teams lose those two divisional races.

And how would things look if there were no third division and wild card to add interest? Besides somebody for Tampa punching Jeter in the face for trying to cheat the Rays out of a playoff spot? Here are today’s playoff standings under the old do-or-die two-division system. I am assuming that the teams’ records would stay the same, rather than being distorted by the difference between an unbalanced schedule and a balanced one. This is a lazy and dishonest assumption, but it is the same assumption MLB uses to justify the current wild-card system:

American League East

Tampa Bay   88-57   –

New York   88-58   1/2

Boston    82-64   6 1/2

American League West

Minnesota   87-58   –

Texas    82-63   5

National League East

Philadelphia    86-61   –

St. Louis   74-70   10 1/2

National League West

Cincinnati    83-63   –

San Diego   82-63    1/2

Atlanta   83-64   1/2

San Francisco   82-64    1

Colorado   80-66   3

So the NL East becomes a dud. The AL West goes from being a dud to being faintly interesting. And the AL East becomes a dramatic head-to-head showdown, while the NL West is a crazed battle royale—instead of five teams fighting for three playoff spots, there are five teams fighting for one. Yes, the fans would miss out on a round of playoffs. All they’d get in return is a whole month of meaningful baseball.