I recently watched the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics play a listless afternoon of baseball, as what should have been a mildly interesting contest between a playoff contender and an also-ran devolved into a languid slugfest. Both teams trotted out middling starting pitchers with earned run averages over 5.00, and the only real excitement came from learning the players' nicknames during Players Weekend (note to A's shortstop Jed Lowrie: "Jed" is not a relevant nickname if that's what you go by every day). At one point, a friend turned to me and said, "Aren't the Rangers in the race?"
They are — they started the game just three games out of a playoff spot with a month of baseball left to play — but they don't seem to be acting like it. In fact, just weeks earlier, they traded ace pitcher Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers for scraps. All-in they are not.
If you can't feel the excitement around baseball's second wild card spot, you're not alone. Teams are so desperate for this coveted playoff slot that many of the main contenders this year were actively shedding important players from their teams prior to the July 31 trade deadline. Fans are so stoked about the possibility that half the teams fighting it out are in the bottom half of the league's attendance figures.
Something is broken.
Since baseball went to the two wild card system in 2012, only one team has gone from the worst position in the playoffs to a World Series victory — the 2014 Giants. That's because the two wild card teams must face off in a do-or-die one-game playoff, a format uniquely ill-suited to Major League Baseball. More often, teams have correctly assessed the likelihood of moving past that game, and decided that they would be better off husbanding their resources for another day.
Take the Minnesota Twins, for instance. If the season ended today, they would head to Yankee Stadium for a one-night, win-or-go-home playoff. Yet Twins management traded the team's closer, Brandon Kintzler, to the Washington Nationals at the deadline. They traded for starting pitcher Jamie Garcia only to then turn around and flip him to the Yankees, the very team they might play in the wild card game. The fans seem about as jazzed for Minnesota's playoff run as their overlords, since the Twins rank just 23rd in baseball in average attendance, with just over 25,0000 per game. The Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Rays, Toronto Blue Jays, Texas Rangers, and Baltimore Orioles are all floating around the wild card water line like diseased fish, and none of them made a substantial investment in talent to win this year.
The story isn't much different in the National League. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies have spent most of the season as the prohibitive favorites to land the two wild card slots. Both teams made acquisitions, but the teams chasing the Rockies for that second spot — the Brewers, Cardinals, Marlins, and Pirates — all declined to pull the trigger on moves that might improve their clubs. The Marlins, in fact, also sold their closer to a contender and reportedly shopped other significant assets, while the Pirates dealt away late-inning reliever Tony Watson. And while the Cardinals and Rockies are drawing well, the other teams rank near the bottom.
Why is this?
Baseball requires a very long, grueling season — 162 games — to figure out which teams are for real and which teams aren't. In contrast to basketball or football, even the very best baseball teams lose about one out of every three games. Even stretches as long as 20 games don't necessarily mean anything — remember that last year the 103-win World Series Champion Cubs went 5-15 during one period in June and July. That makes a one-game playoff a particularly unattractive prize to fight over, because even if your team is favored, the contest is probably little better than a coin flip.
In fact, analysts think the entire baseball playoff system is functionally random, which is why ever since the wild card era began in 1995, it has been extremely rare for each league's best team to make it to the World Series. Fewer than a third of the 44 teams that led their league in wins actually made it all the way to the Fall Classic. A 100-win team is simply not that big a favorite over an 88-win team even in a five- or a seven-game series, because it takes many more games for randomness and luck to be overcome by advantages in talent or management.
What baseball needs to do to restore excitement and fairness to its wild card system is something it should have done long ago: Reduce the regular season from 162 to 154 games and turn the wild card game into at least a three-game series. Implementing both changes at once would allow the league to add eight desperately needed off-days for teams that right now are manipulating their 10-day disabled lists to give their weary players a break from the incredible grind that characterizes the sport. Owners have in the past been reluctant to shorten the season, since every game is an opportunity to increase revenues, but the overlong season is hurting the sport. And with baseball swimming in an almost biblical ocean of cable TV dollars, the time to take that revenue hit is now, before the sports bubble bursts.
With a three-game series, teams and fans might be more willing to invest resources in teams on the playoff bubble. A longer wild card fight would also remove the indignity of what happened in 2015 when a magnificent, 98-win Pittsburgh Pirates team was dispatched in the wild card game by the Chicago Cubs. If you win 98 games, you should get more than a single playoff game to prove that you belong in the dance.
Maybe nothing could have livened up last Sunday's proceedings in Oakland, where the A's play in a facility better suited for outtakes from The Walking Dead. But if baseball doesn't make changes to its playoff system, it is consigning fans to a long succession of playoff "races" between teams that don't believe in themselves or the payoff. Like the "long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses" that Bull Durham's Crash Davis waxed eloquent about, baseball's first playoff series should last at least three days and, of course, should be played as far away from Astroturf as possible.