I've noticed the last few years that major league baseball has produced many very good young players, yet there are many very poor teams, teams that do not seem to be improving and in some cases, bad teams who seem to be getting worse as the seasons continue. What are the reasons for this trend and more importantly, is it good or bad for the sport?
The wild card has created an exciting situation for many fans in many different cities. In the days prior to the wild card, many teams were already looking towards the next season at the end of April, the first month of the baseball season. These ball clubs had already lost too many games throughout the first twenty or thirty games and would be unlikely to qualify for the playoffs. Perhaps they got off to a reasonable start in April but a team in their division had won enough early season games to build a lead which was unlikely to be overcome despite there being five months remaining in the current season.
There have also been seasons wherein a team finished in second place with a record well above .500 but failed to reach the playoffs because the eventual division or league winner had one of those special seasons, finishing twenty or thirty games above .500. If this second place team had been in another division, perhaps any other division, they would have realized their playoff aspirations as they had a record far better than the other division winners.
Before divisional play came to be in 1969, first place overall in a league was the only opportunity to qualify for the World Series. Divisional play gave four teams instead of two, the dream of late October baseball. This increased the odds and afforded the fans more pennant races and kept interest in the team deeper into the season.
With the creation of three divisions in each league came the addition to the playoffs of a “wild card” team, (the team with the best second place record), in their respective league. This has lead to many more meaningful late September and early October games with more and more teams having a legitimate chance at making the playoffs. This has increased attendance and television ratings in many of these cities and enabled those teams which may have had little success early in the season to still have hope for a successful season and a post season berth.
But with this playoff change has come a watering down of major league talent. There are too many pitchers with ERA’s over 5.00 and too many hitters with sub .250 batting averages. Many, if not all, fall into two categories-older players who are realistically 4A players or young players who could use a year or two of minor league experience. Many of these players are not talented enough to play in the majors or are too young to have learned the proper, basic, fundamentals of their craft.
The wild card is directly responsible for this trend. While it is true that baseball has seen barely above .500 teams make the playoffs in years past, this previously occasional bump in the only good teams should make the playoff usual scenario is in danger of becoming common place. Now, a record of .500 or barely above gives a team a very realistic chance at making the playoffs. Where then, is the incentive to spend money on talent and scouting to field a solid, legitimate good team if mediocre will accomplish the same thing? It doesn’t exist.
There is no advantage in finishing first, other than perhaps first overall, as the wild card team has the same number of home game chances as the division winner, again not counting the first overall finisher. There is little reward for a first place finish.
As the season winds down, I find myself glancing not at the divisional races, but at the wild card races. Games between teams in different divisions take on a greater importance than inter divisional rivalries. The series between New York and Tampa Bay was exciting baseball but both teams had already all but made the playoffs making whichever finished first somewhat redundant and the games much less important.
I like the unbalanced schedule but with the advent of the wild card and home field advantage for the first place overall finisher in each league, a return to a balanced schedule is needed. There should also be a “penalty” for qualifying for the playoffs as a wild card team. I think giving the home field advantage to any division winner who is matched up against a wild card team would help fix the problem. If the wild card team is the eventual World series winner, they will have earned it. This would also give incentive to all teams to have the best team possible knowing they would be at a disadvantage in the playoffs.