Posted by Andy on August 20, 2011
I just wanted to start a little discussion on wildcard teams--specifically the stipulation that the division winner with the best record cannot face the wildcard team in the LDS if that team is from its own division.
My understanding (which might very well be wrong) is that this rule was put into place to prevent two rivals from playing each other in the first round--for example it would prevent the Yankees and Red Sox or the Giants and Dodgers from meeting in the LDS and instead ensure that any such match up would occur instead in the LCS.
It's interesting to note that in many recent years, this stipulation is, in theory, very helpful to the division winner with the best record. Take this season as an example, assuming that the regular season ended today:
In the AL, the two teams with the best records at the moment are the Red Sox and Yankees. It is extremely likely that one of these two teams will win the wild card in the AL. That means that whichever team wins the division will likely play the winner of the AL Central in the ALDS since they cannot play the wild card team from their own division. At the moment, this would mean that the Yankees would get to play the Tigers (66-58) in the ALDS instead of the Red Sox (76-48), which is a big advantage in terms of strength of opponent. It also means that the Red Sox get to play to Rangers (73-53) instead of the Yankees (76-47), which isn't too big of an advantage, especially considering how the Red Sox have crushed the Yankees so far this season.
In the NL, it's a similar story. The Braves have a virtual lock on the NL wild card, meaning they cannot play the Phillies (the team with the best NL record) in the NLDS. As of today, then, the Phillies would get the Diamondbacks (69-56) instead of the Braves (74-52). And the Braves would get the Brewers (74-52) instead of the Phillies (80-43).
It would seem to be the case that this rule favors both the team with the best league record AND the wild card team, since it applies only when they are from the same division. An exception would be when a team runs away with the division and the second-place team still wins the wild card. Imagine, for example, that Team A has the best overall league record at 110-52. Imagine that Team B is from the same division and wins the wild card with a record of 87-75. Imagine that Team C and Team D are the two other division winners, each with a record of 97-65. In this case, Team A would much prefer to play Team B in the LDS, but can't because of the "same division" rule, and Team B (the wild card) gets a benefit from not having to play Team A.
So, then, the wild card team is helped no matter what? That seems kind of weird.