The Brewers lost both their split squad games yesterday, but Elvis Costello already wrote a whole song about what spring training records mean, so I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to talk about one of the changes to the MLB landscape this season—the addition of an extra wild card team. This is a move that has been criticized in several quarters for introducing more luck to the already watered down postseason, and making it less likely that the best team in baseball wins the World Series. I don’t think this criticism is factually incorrect, but I do think it misses the point, so I’d like to offer up a few notions in defense of the move.
1. The World Series isn’t about recognizing the best team.
Or at least it hasn’t been for decades now, since divisional play was introduced in 1969. In case there was any confusion over the matter, yes, 162 games against every other team does a better job of revealing a team’s true talent than 5 or 7 games against another good team. It’s not even close. When it comes to trying to identify the best team in baseball, the postseason is both inadequate and unnecessary, because the regular season generally does as good of a job identifying the best team as we can reasonably expect. The real value added from the postseason comes not from determining better teams, but from its entertainment value. It’s just plain fun to take the top few teams in any sport and toss them in a battle royale to see who comes out the other end (cf. March Madness). What’s more, it better allows for an underdog story; David actually stands a chance against Goliath in a seven game series, whereas Goliath will steamroll given 162 games to work with. Speaking of this:
2. Parity in baseball depends on a postseason with some randomness
Let’s take a glance at what the last ten World Series would have looked like with the pre-1969 system, where the pennant automatically went to the league leader in wins:
In six of the ten years, the AL would have been represented by the Yankees. Meanwhile, the NL would’ve thrice had back to back representatives. Obviously, people can disagree about this sort of thing; some of you undoubtedly would prefer a system like this that properly reflects the Yankees’ dominance over the past decade. But personally, I find it way more enjoyable when a more diverse group of teams is making and winning the World Series. And, of course, there’s one particular team in this list I’d like to see with a chance:
3. Without a doubt, an extra Wild Card helps the Brewers
I am a Brewers fan. I would like to see them win the World Series, and it is unlikely they will be the best team in baseball any time soon, so honestly, it’s hard for me to be against something that gives weaker teams a chance in the postseason. The fear, I suppose, is that the World Series title loses its luster in this way. If it no longer actually recognizes the best team in baseball, why do I care if my team wins it? Because I want that moment of euphoria when the title is clinched. It’s less about what the title means and more about the joy of watching. As much as we mythologize this game, it is, in the end, a pastime. It’s meant to be an enjoyable diversion. We created the postseason for the thrills, and those are what keep us watching. I will fully admit my argument is extremely susceptible to a reductio ad absurdum, and could justify all sorts of bizarre machinations in the interest of making the World Series more entertaining. However, I do think there is a balance to be had, and I don’t think anything that introduces more luck is necessarily bad.