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Where have all the playoff chases gone?

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The second Wild Card was supposed to spice up September baseball, but it remains bland for too many fanbases.

National League Wild Card Game: Colorado Rockies v. Chicago Cubs

On March 2, 2012, MLB announced the creation of a second Wild Card spot in each league. The intention was to, “increase the rewards of a division championship and allow two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year, all while maintaining the most exclusive postseason in professional sports,” according to commissioner Bud Selig.

The key words there are “two additional markets.” This means more money, of course, but it’s really supposed to be more than two markets. Theoretically, a second Wild Card should mean more teams in the playoff hunt throughout September, which would lead to greater TV ratings and attendance. Mike Matheny, then-manager of the Cardinals, believed it should lead to “some very meaningful games for some teams who otherwise wouldn’t have had anything going on. It will be fun to watch how it all plays out.”

Fast forward to present-day, and we’ve had several years to see “how it all plays out.” Selig’s vision of the increased benefit of winning the division is certainly true, and MLB’s postseason is still the most exclusive among the big four American sports. Technically, there are two additional markets in the playoffs as well, even though they only last for one day.

What about the increased meaningful September baseball? Where did that go? With ten playoff spots available, there are eight teams this year with playoff odds greater than 75 percent as of September 2nd according to FanGraphs. The only legitimate race is between Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Oakland for two Wild Card spots. (Sorry Mets and Brewers fans; you’ve each got just a 12.8 percent chance at the playoffs.)

How about those coveted division titles? Not much competition there, either. The Yankees, Twins, Astros, Braves, and Dodgers all have at least 88.2 percent division odds. Only the NL Central race is competitive. The Cardinals have a 63.3 percent shot, and the Cubs have 34.6.

It appears that many of those juicy, eyeball-catching playoff chases Selig envisioned haven’t materialized. Nineteen teams are essentially out of the playoff picture, five are mostly guaranteed to win their division, and the Nationals have one Wild Card Spot spot pretty much sewn up. That leaves only five teams playing meaningful September baseball.

This seems pretty tame, considering what the second Wild Card was supposed to portend. It turns out this is actually pretty normal. FanGraphs has playoff odds going back to 2014. Here’s how many teams were in the 25-75 percent range for either a playoff spot or division title on September 2 of each year:

In the past six years, we’ve never had more than five teams in a close playoff race, and in 2015 it was just the Rangers. On average, just 3.5 teams per season have playoff uncertainty. Divisions have been even less competitive. There are only 2.2 teams per season in a division race. there have never been more than four, and in 2017 there were none at all!

Those averages are a near match for what we’re seeing in 2019. Generally, five teams have cause to check the standings over the final month, and 25 do not. With an average of two teams in a division race—usually against each other— five of the six divisions are not competitive.

This problem was not caused by the second Wild Card. There are much more sinister factors at play. Tanking is rampant across the sport, causing fewer teams to try to be competitive every year. Clearly, neither the Orioles, Royals, Tigers, Marlins, nor several other teams had any intention of making the playoffs this season. Attendance and regional TV deals are a smaller part of the revenue pie than ever before, meaning more money comes from streams that are divorced from on-field performance. Franchise values are exploding at an enormous rate, increasing 11 percent every year.

The upshot is that winning is no longer necessary to make truckloads of money. When fewer teams are capable of contending, we lose out on playoff race drama. The second Wild Card was created as an artificial way of enhancing playoff races. It was supposed to prevent us from noticing that winning baseball games was no longer the main objective. With so few teams in playoff contention, it clearly hasn’t worked.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. Tweets @depstein1983.