Situations differ in NL, AL this season, but system has stood test of time
By Mike Bauman
You can't generalize about the Wild Card races, because they appear to be from different planets, possibly different galaxies.
The National League Wild Card picture is tidy in the extreme. The two primary Wild Card contenders have the second- and third-best records in the Senior Circuit. You cannot argue with their value. The club holding the second NL Wild Card spot now has a better record than four of the division leaders.
In the American League, on the other hand, the only clear winner to date would be parity -- or as it is more politely named, competitive balance. There are seven clubs in contention, if you include everybody who is no further than 5 1/2 games out a Wild Card spot.
You could expand the criteria to include all clubs within 8 1/2 games of a Wild Card berth, but then you'd have 14 AL clubs in contention for the postseason. As we come to the doorstep of September, as much as we are all thrilled about this show of parity, equality and workplace democracy, there aren't really 14 clubs in contention. With three division leaders and seven clubs as Wild Card possibilities, 10 out of 15 AL clubs still alive for a shot at the postseason should be enough.
What does this prove? Two things. Some of these clubs are as good as anybody, as long as the "anybody" doesn't include the St. Louis Cardinals. The two current leaders for the NL Wild Card spots, the Pirates and the Cubs, have the third- and fourth-best records, respectively, in the Majors. The Bucs have baseball's record since the end of May. The Cubs struggled a bit last week, but their last public appearance included greatness, Jake Arrieta's no-hitter against the Dodgers on Sunday night.
So in the NL, the value of the Wild Card is established. In the AL, meanwhile, the Wild Card is doing what it is supposed to do as part of an industry offering entertainment. The idea behind the Wild Card was to maintain more interest among more fans in more places, carrying that excitement as late into the season as possible..
If you're pulling for the Yankees, Rays, Orioles, Twins, Indians, Rangers or Angels, this is currently a workable proposition for you. It beats the alternative, which is coming to Labor Day with little or no hope of your club qualifying for the postseason.
And so the Wild Card -- albeit in completely different ways in the two leagues -- is doing what its proponents thought it would when it was introduced 20 years ago, at the insistence of then-Commissioner Bud Selig.
When the Wild Card came into effect in 1995, there was, from some quarters, vehement opposition on the grounds that the Wild Card teams would dilute the quality of the postseason, that this whole idea was sacrilege being performed on the altar of October baseball.
Two years later, the Florida Marlins, a Wild Card team, won the 1997 World Series. That tended to undercut the dilution argument.
When the Wild Card field was further expanded by one in each league for the 2012 postseason, there were echoes of the same argument, not as vociferous as previously, but still audible.
Two years later, two Wild Card teams, the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals, met in the 2014 World Series. Again, the dilution argument didn't seem all that convincing. It might be reasonable to point out that the Giants, the '14 World Series champions, started the postseason as the NL's No. 2 Wild Card team.
Two decades into the Wild Card, baseball's balance of competition has been good enough to sustain a system that now makes room for five postseason teams in each league. The Wild Card races are dramatically different in each league, but they are each serving the purpose of the Wild Card concept.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.