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The Yankees could be victims of the new wild card’s quirks

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A lot of fans are already anticipating the disappointment of dropping the play-in game.

Wild Card Game - Houston Astros v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There was an interesting article in FanGraphs on Thursday by Travis Sawchik discussing the wild card game. Sawchik discussed the flaw in the current wild card system; even though it does improve upon the last by providing a larger incentive to win the division, it ironically provides little incentive to be the first wild card over the second. He says:

“But the new format isn’t without its flaws, the most prominent of which, in the opinion of this author, is this: the No. 1 Wild Card can be a significantly better team than the No. 2 Wild Card but is nevertheless subject to playing in something of a coin-flip game after the grind of a 162-game season. It can be pretty unfair to have, say, a 98-win team lose to an 86-win team in a one-game playoff.”

This is where the Yankees come in, and where fans will likely direct their anger if the wild card game goes south. By FanGraphs projections, the Yankees will likely finish with 90 wins. The second wild card team, likely the Twins, is projected to finish with 84 wins. It’s pretty funny, because that actually hasn’t happened in the American League that often, or else the Yankees would have found their way into that position.

In this new wild card era this would be the first time a team with fewer than 85 wins makes the game. Think about the recent mediocre Yankee teams: they won at least 84 wins in each season since 2013, meaning there’s some alternative reality they could have made it as well. That’s not very intuitive, and this year it could lead to some strange results.

Sawchik does offer an alternative, which is another fascinating idea:

“The solution already exists in the real world, in practice, in the Korea Baseball Organization. In South Korea, the Wild Card round is a best-of-two affair. The lower seed, the road team in both potential games, must beat the No. 1 seed twice. The top seed must win just once to advance... While a best-of-three series reduces the chance of an upset by just a few percentage points, from 46.0% to 44.0%, the KBO format reduces the percentage chance of an upset from 46.0% to 21.1%... It would give the Wild Card round more of an NCAA Tournament feel, it would create more chaos, which is fun for those observing from the outside. It wouldn’t allow one ace pitcher to eliminate a higher-seeded team.”

I kind of like it. As he said, this already exists in the NCAA and it works pretty well, where the lesser ranked team has a slightly more treacherous road before elimination.

Obviously, this isn’t going to exist in 2017. The Yankees are stuck in the position they’re in, and for that one night, they’re going to have to stare down the barrel. They could advance—by back-of-the-napkin math gives them about a 60-65% chance with Luis Severino on the mound at Yankee Stadium, but that means that the odds of he Yankees being bounced is about the same as rolling an even number on a die. That’s not entirely comforting.

Would I like to see the system improved? Of course, just like I wanted to see the last one improved as well. Does this seem incredibly self-serving because the rule happens to run counter my fandom? Again, of course—look at the name of the site. But considering how much better the Yankees are—a 95 Pythagorean win team versus a 78 Pythagorean win team—it definitely makes you wonder.

It also makes you think there were a ton of missed opportunities earlier on; it’s not like anyone forced Joe Girardi to lean on Tyler Clippard, and no one could anticipate Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman forgetting to throw strikes for a few months. These high leverage innings explain a lot of the under-performance in their record, and it could sink them. This was their division to win, and they’re going to have to go through one extra trial to overcome. The format isn’t changing yet, and the only one in control are the Yankees in nine mere innings.