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What's Really Cheapening MLB's Postseason? The 2006 Cardinals.

Yesterday, Jscape brought us up to speed about the likelihood of an additional Wild Card being added to each league, possibly as soon as the 2012 season.

As of now, the plan is for both Wild Card teams to play a short series, the winner of which will meet the owner of the league's best record in the next round. Proponents of this idea suggest that it appropriately penalizes the Wild Card teams, forcing them to use their best pitchers in do-or-die games while the better team gets to rest. After all, winning the division should "mean something", right?

The trouble with this thinking is if you stop to think about how arbitrary the current division/wild card format actually is, it's pretty clear that the wild card teams aren't the ones watering down the aura and mystique surrounding the postseason.

By definition, the wild card can never be worse than the 4th best team in the league, and often, they're much better than that. In the three-division era, eight of the wild card teams have had or tied for the league's second best record while fifteen had or tied for the third best. The 2001 St. Louis Cardinals won the wild card despite tying for the NL lead with 93 wins. If you're adding this up at home, it means that some division winner either ties or has a worse record than the wild card team about 75% of the time.

Ironically, thanks to the unbalanced schedule and the somewhat arbitrary makeup of each league's East, Central, and Western divisions, mediocre teams like the 2005 Padres (82-80 regular season record), the 2008 Dodgers (84-78), and the 2006 Cardinals (83-78) win their divisions fairly often. These aren't anomolies; it happens on average about twice every three years. In the sixteen seasons that the current playoff format has been in use, 11 of the 96 division winners couldn't even muster the league's 4th best record outright.

Somehow, we want to make this discrepancy "mean more"?

The value of a victory depends heavily on the quality of the competition. Finishing first is nice, but that alone can be misleading. Would you say that the team who wins the AAA minor league championship is better than the team who loses the World Series, because they finished in first place? Of course not. But when a team like the 2008 Dodgers wins a mediocre division with an 84-78 record and makes playoffs, while four other NL teams with equal or better records stay home, how much sense does that make?

I want to see the best teams with the most wins competing for the World Series, and I don't really care how they get there. The '02 Angels may have "only" been the wild card, but they did win 99 regular season games, which is a mark of a very good team. The same goes for '04 Red Sox. If giving these good teams a shot at a World Series victory via the wild card somehow cheapens the whole thing, what does giving an 84-78 division winner that same opportunity do?

If MLB has to go to two wild cards and another short playoff series, the two teams with the worst records should face off in that initial series. In the interests of competitive baseball, that's the only plan that makes any sense.