The Wild Card Game Was a Perfect Argument Against a One-Game Playoff

PITTSBURGH — The biggest argument against the one-game Wild Card format is that it leaves way too much to chance. This means a great 162 game season can be ended with an off-night by a pitcher, a tough strike zone from an umpire, or a key hard-hit ball that goes right to a fielder. Last night’s Wild Card game was a perfect example of this.

Heading into the game, it was slated as a potential classic. Jake Arrieta had a historic second half, and Gerrit Cole was one of the top pitchers in baseball this year. The matchup was slated as one of the best pitching matchups in playoff history. Unfortunately, those tend not to live up to the hype, and this one was definitely one-sided, as Gerrit Cole didn’t have his best stuff — specifically against two Cubs hitters.

As noted above, Cole was one of the best starters in baseball this year. Only eight starters had a higher fWAR than him. Those pitchers? Clayton Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, David Price, Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Zack Greinke, and Corey Kluber. That’s not a bad group to follow.

Coming into the game, the Pirates were talking about how aces still lose 40% of the time, and it shouldn’t be shocking over the idea that an ace would lose. Unfortunately, those comments were about the potential for Arrieta to lose, and they ended up applying to Cole.

I wouldn’t make much of this one outing in regards to Cole’s future. But this does highlight one of the downsides of the Wild Card game. If one of the best pitchers in baseball only gives you a historical 60% chance to win a single game, then why would you have a playoff based on just one game? A three game system still makes it random, although it’s a bit less random. And you can recover if your ace has an off-night. We’ve seen that many times this year, where the Pirates lost the first game of a series, only to take the next two.

Then there’s the umpire situation. Both Wild Card games featured an umpire that had a very specific strike zone tendency that ranged on the borderline of the zone at certain areas. In both cases, the pitcher who won was the pitcher who could hit that part of the zone most often. I wrote about the strike zone in detail last night, pointing out that we’re not quite ready for robot umpires due to the inconsistency of the Pitch f/x presentation across different platforms.

The “human element” aspect is frustrating, and it’s something that needs to be changed. It would be ideal if this process could be automated, but right now that would require a uniform strike zone across those different pitch tracking platforms. For now, it’s part of the game, and it’s incredibly frustrating to see an umpire’s tendencies dictate how a game goes, even if he is calling the game the same way for both sides.

Finally, there’s the luck factor, which Sean touched on in his article last night. The Pirates finally started getting to Arrieta in the sixth inning, with a lot of hard hit balls. In fact, three of the hits were clocked at 107 MPH or harder off the bat. Coming into the playoffs, Arrieta had just 12 pitches hit 107 MPH or harder all year long. This was probably the hardest that any team hit Arrieta in a single inning all season. And it led to zero runs, all due to poor luck.

Gregory Polanco was the first victim. He smoked a 107 MPH line drive right into the glove of a drawn in Kris Bryant. The ball was hit so hard that Bryant couldn’t come up with it initially, but followed through well and made the catch. If that ball is hit a few inches to the right, and not directly into Bryant’s glove, you’ve at least got runners at first and second with no outs.

There’s no guarantee that the next two batters play out in the same way with this scenario, but let’s just say they do. Josh Harrison got hit, and Andrew McCutchen had a hard hit ball to Addison Russell. This was another 107 MPH shot to a fielder, but this time Russell couldn’t come up with it. If Polanco’s shot gets by Bryant, then it’s 4-1.

The next at-bat was the most heart breaking. Starling Marte hit a 109 MPH shot off Arrieta, which was one of the hardest hit balls of the year of the ace. Once again, it went right to Bryant, who turned a 5-4-3 double play. But just like Polanco, a few inches to the left and that might be extra bases to the corner, with the potential to clear the bases and tie the score due to McCutchen on first. And there would still be no outs.

The Pirates did nothing wrong in the sixth inning, and everything right at the plate. They teed off on Arrieta in the one moment he gave them a chance. But that inning was the definition of bad luck on a baseball field, and two of the hardest hit balls off Arrieta all season led to the three outs that kept the Pirates off the board.

This is something that can happen in any game. If the Pirates hit the ball hard like that throughout a three game series, they probably take the series. If they hit the ball hard throughout a 162 game season, it’s probably going to lead to one of the best records in baseball. But in just one game, anything can happen, and we saw the downside of that last night.

The Cubs saw the upside, as their first run came on a well placed hit by Kyle Schwarber that was hit at 88 MPH. Dexter Fowler’s single that led to Schwarber’s two-run homer was hit at 88 MPH, and was another well-placed shot. And then Fowler’s home run was 103 MPH, which was a hard shot, but softer than any of the sixth inning hits.

A one game playoff can be impacted by so many factors other than the skill of a team. A guy can have an off night. An umpire can play an impact in the game. Or you could have one team catching all the breaks on hard hit balls, while seeing all of their own hits dropping in, even if they’re not hard hit. All of these things happened to the Pirates last night, and they’re all reasons why the playoff system needs to be changed. At the least, it needs to be changed to avoid this situation where a 98 win team gets bounced after one game.

After the game, the Pirates were mostly accepting the system for the way it was.

“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Tony Watson said. “It’s fun to play these one game playoffs. The crowd’s into it. The energy is in it. I just wish we had come out on top.”

Josh Harrison had a similar reaction, pointing out how reactions were different when the team won in 2013.

“It’s the post-season,” Harrison said. “After losses you ask, and it’s like ‘oh man, it sucks’. But when you talk to a team that’s won, it’s never ‘it sucks’. I remember 2013, happy as can be. Past two years, ‘man, we lost on the Wild Card game’…They made the rules, whatever the Wild Card is, and you live with it.”

A.J. Burnett definitely didn’t want to see his career end this way, but was also accepting of the system, and was hoping to see the Pirates win the division to avoid this next year.

“That’s the downside to a one game playoff,” Burnett said. “You win the division, you don’t have to worry about that.”

Add Jared Hughes to the list of players who accepted the system, although Hughes was more open about how frustrating this situation can be, especially for a team as good as the Pirates.

“It’s immensely frustrating to win 98 games and to have your playoffs be over in one,” Hughes said. “At the same time, I understand it’s exciting for the fans, and it’s a one game playoff. It’s all on the line, right then and there. The last two years have been tough. We faced a couple of the hottest pitchers in baseball at that time. Right now it’s just super frustrating to be done in one game after winning 98.”

This system is also unfair to the Cardinals, who had the best record in baseball, and now have the most difficult matchup in the division series. And if the Cubs would have lost, it would have been unfair to them as well. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy fix to this situation, as Hughes pointed out.

“It’s tough, but is there any perfect way to do it? I don’t know,” Hughes said. “You just have to win the division. It didn’t work out for us this year. But I tell you what, we’re going to work our tails off and get back at it next year.”

The easy solution would be for the Pirates to do just that and win the division, avoiding this problem. But the NL Central will be difficult, and there’s no guarantee they win the division, even if they put up a record that would win any other division. We saw that this year. Hopefully MLB can come up with a solution this off-season, because the system as it stands right now leaves way too much to chance and outside factors when determining who advances beyond the one-game playoff.

  • Does anyone know the Pirates BA with the bases loaded ? It had to be under .100.
    I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the wild card next year. St. Louis won 100 despite a ton of injuries. Cubs will have Bryant and Schwerber for a full year and will spend to get the top free agents. And does anyone think the Pirates will go 11-1 again next against LA and NY?

  • So on top of this playoff system that favors division winners with records worse than the wild cards teams is the fact that the amateur draft is based on record. This means we get to play in a one game playoff and draft next to last. If there is such a premium placed on winning a division, then shouldn’t the wildcard team draft ahead of the division winners. Getting penalized once is OK I guess; getting penalized twice makes no sense. This really needs to get fixed.

  • I don’t necessarily like the format either but it’s not going to change and it shouldn’t. I think there are too many games being played as it is. The regular season is about a month too long in my opinion and the World Series is already creeping into November. What’s next? Thanksgiving baseball?

    The system is the system. No one on this discussion board would care about this “issue” if the Pirates won the game. The Pirates had their opportunities the other night and they just couldn’t score. They put themselves in that game to begin with by coming up short in MANY divisional games. Moreover management could have done more to improve the roster along the way to give them a better chance to win the division. MLB didn’t screw the Pirates. The Pirates needed to do better themselves. This seams like “sour grapes” to me.

  • In light of David Price losing yet another postseason start last night (career 1-6, 4.79 ERA, 1.7 HR/9), maybe he’s not the guy we want either 🙂

  • Once again, there’s a simple solution to the mess MLB created this year in the NL. The top three teams in the NL get a bye while the Wild Card game is played by the two lowest winning teams, i.e. the Mets and Dodgers this year! Pray tell, what is wrong with that as a fix to the current ridiculous set up?

    With all the games played out of one’s division and out of one’s League, this would be a better solution than the current one game Wild Card, which just eliminated, possibly, the 2nd best team in all of baseball!

    The WRONG fix is to further jam up the system playoff by extending the Wild Card to, say, three games. We don’t need any more “games” added to what is now a Winter playoff (used to be the Fall season).

    • This is the incredibly obvious solution that I was surprised Tim didn’t even mention in his “fix the playoffs” article.

  • Lost in all of this is the fact that the Cardinals won more games than either the Pirates or the Cubs….

    Want to go directly to the playoffs – win more games.

    The Pirates have done a very good job filling the seats and making money – and I suspect that will be their strategy going forward. Et others overpay for what it takes to make the actual,playoffs (like Toronto and Texas) we can enjoy a great new lounge at Seven Springs

    Those of us who want to win a World Series will probably have to become Cubs fans.

    • Exactly. If only the Pirates would have paid to win nine less games like the Rangers they’d be playing in the LDS tonight.

      #logic

  • Waaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!

  • I wish SRod could have five minutes alone with the Gatorade cooler in the article pic.

    • More solid contact in five seconds with that cooler than he had the first five months of the baseball season.

  • It occurred to me during the game that perhaps the best Wild Card Game strategy would be to use no starting pitcher at all, at least in the NL.

    We could have come out with Bastardo or Blanton to start the game, let them pitch (as long as they were getting outs) until their spot came up in the order, then pinch hit for them and gone to someone else. We have enough multi-inning arms in our bullpen to cover the first six to get to Soria/Watson/Melancon to finish the game, and it would be been like having a DH to have the luxury of pinch-hitting for each pitcher when their spot came up. Against the Cubs, who do platoon a couple spots, it would have held an added benefit, as well, changing pitcher handedness unpredictably (or predictably, I guess, as the situation demanded). No hitter would see one of our pitchers more than once.

    Would it have made the difference? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But it does have the benefit of having all our starters ready to go for game one of the NLDS if we won.

    • Yes, making the game a bullpen game is the best strategy.

    • Jackwagon Maddon would do something like that.

      I’m interested how Lester does in the NLDS if it goes 5. They may miss Arrieta, since they only get him for one. Maybe.

    • Hurdle was soooo close, too, getting arms loose in what, the 2nd or 3rd. He knew Cole didn’t have it, just couldn’t pull the trigger.

      It’s tough to 3+ decades of ingrained conventional baseball wisdom.

    • I thought the best strategy was actually to skip Happ’s start on the last day of the season leaving him ready to piggyback Cole once Maddon’s lefty-heavy lineup was set.

      Does anyone really think Fowler/Schwarber wouldn’t gone 5-6 with all the runs against Happ?

  • A one game playoff has always been a horrible idea. That is why Bud Selig chose this format. Give him any number of options and he always chose the stupidest one.

  • The only way to make this any different is going to be to tie it to overall schedule change. Season is way too long – pare it back to 150 to 155 games…

    Addicting two teams – Cuba and Mexico would be awesome. then each league could play a balanced schedule against the league of 135 games – playing each of the other 15 teams 9 times. Then you could have 15 to 20 interleave games. Having an even number of teams avoids the need to have at least one interleave series going all the time.

    At the end of the year you seed each league…

    Shortening the season could get you the days to do move up the end of the season a week and do a best out of three play-in TWH with the first round of the playoffs starting Friday.

  • We’ve also seen the Pirates lose two in a row to Philadelphia and Milwaukee, the two worst teams in the league. A three game series does little to change the randomness of a one game playoff. Baseball just doesn’t work like that.

    We can pretend that would be an improvement right now, but you can guarantee it wouldn’t take long until another situation would come up that has everyone crying.

    Think about what the reaction would be if this year’s Pirate club faced last year’s Giants? Eleven game spread in the standings, yet you take a loss in Game 1 to the best pitcher on the planet and *still* find yourself in a toss up situation where luck could easily send you home in Game Two. You’re lying to yourself if you think the losing team would be satisfied with the “fairness” of the new system.

    The only way to make the wild card system “fair” is to go back to the old way.

    • A one game playoff isn’t really baseball, but any expansion of the Wild Card round would require more off time for the other playoff teams, and five or six off days isn’t really baseball either.

      • Its been said elsewhere, but its possible to extend this WC format to 3 games without increasing days off for the division winner. Im not a huge fan of changing it unless we go big and get rid of most of the divisions and have 2 “conferences” if you will. Call it old school i guess, but having this many divisions never makes sense to me.

        • Yes but then a wild card victory would prove pyrrhic, because the wild card winner would be severely disadvantage in games 1 and 2 of the DS.

          • Exactly. On all points.

          • I think that line of thinking has more basis in theory than fact.

            Baseball players are used to a daily grind. There’s an advantage for hitters who have been plying their trade as usual over those practicing and sitting for the better part of a week. Second, SP’s can pitch on 3 days rest effectively. See Kuechel, Dallas as proof. The WC winner doesn’t have to pitch their #4 & 5 SP’s in game 1-2.

            • Your first point may be true to a point, but rest helps.

              http://mglbaseball.com/2013/12/09/pinch-hitter-dh-and-other-penalties-revisited/

              The “penalty” for playing at least 8 days in a row is 4.0 wOBA points in 92,287 PA…. I also looked at players who played in fewer days in a row (5, 6, and 7) and found penalties of less than 4 points, suggesting that the more days in a row a player plays, the more his offense is penalized

              http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21090

              Your second point is an anecdote.

              http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/giving-a-questionable-start-to-baseballs-best-starter/

              Below, you’ll see statistics for two groups, in postseason play between 1995-2013. The first group is starters who went on three days’ rest. The second group is starters who didn’t. Understand that the first group should be selective for better arms, because you don’t put mediocre starters on short rest in October, or ever. Typically, it’s aces who go on three days’ rest, and the numbers are telling:

              Short-rest group: 4.66 ERA, 5.13 RA
              Other group: 3.99 ERA, 4.30 RA

              On short rest, starters have faced fewer batters, on average. They’ve posted worse game scores, on average. And — maybe most importantly — teams with starters going on short rest have won 33 times and lost 52 times.

              • Scott Kliesen
                October 10, 2015 9:15 am

                Actually, the point is moot. If MLB instituted a 3 game WC round starting on Monday, the advancing team’s #1 SP could pitch in NLDS game #2 on regular rest on following Saturday.

                The #2/3 seeds would begin play on Thursday and #1/WC winner series would begin on Friday.

                The one and done game adds a level of excitement, but it is done at expense of identifying best team.

                • You cannot start the Wild Card the day after the regular season because you need a day for potential tie breakers. A three game series in one city would require the DS opponent to have a break longer than the All-Star break which goes back to my original point.

                  • MLB can break ties without playing an extra game. As a matter of fact, it would be much more fair than a one game playoff round.

                    • But the MLB has always broken ties this way. You are all over the place, if you don’t want to admit you hadn’t thought it through that is fine.

                    • So you’re going with the old sacred cow defense of your position? And you’re accusing me of not thinking it though!

          • Not really game 2, since your ace would be on enough rest to go that game. You’d be at a disadvantage in game 1, much like you are currently. It’d be a bigger disadvantage, but with a different dynamic in the WC situation.

            Again, i dont love the idea overall but its not without its merits. It can be silly to see 2 of the 3 best teams in baseball in that game, and it wouldnt be a huge season extender to make it a 3 game series.

    • When you get through an entire hockey season and your team drops the series in the first round, it feels unfair, like you put your emotion behind the team all year for nothing.. Losing in the playoffs is always gonna suck.

      That said, if the goal is to make sure the best teams win most often, there are ways to do that better than this system. e.g. best of 7 first round, more home games for the top seeds, double elimination tournament, etc. The season does a better job of showing which team is the best team. The post-season tournament is really just a showcase of those teams with almost arbitrary outcomes.

  • Glad you focused on the 6th. That was my take too–I’m sure it will be overlooked by most analysts but this game came down to some BABIP luck.

    Need to win the division next year, but if we don’t I’m not going to worry too much whether the WC game is in PNC or elsewhere–whether it’s focus or randomness (likely), road teams are now 5-1 in WC games.

  • I would be OK with a three game series that starts on Monday and and ends on Wed.If Doubleheaders are needed so be it. You can’t ask the team who wins the division to take a week off waiting for this thing to start. I actually think it would be pretty awesome to have a double header for a playoff game.

  • Marte’s ball went to Addison Russell. It was Ramirez’s the next inning which Bryant made the extra-base saving play on.

  • I like the current system, because I think you should reward winning the division. But I totally agree the wild card has to be at least a 3 game series. However, I really don’t think they are going to change the system after this year, simply because its the Pirates that got screwed and mlb has a bunch of big market teams still left in the playoffs, so they’re happy. I’m starting to just expect that the Pirates will get screwed by the system (Draft rule changes, no salary cap, etc). But we’ve been so good, I believe we can overcome all the obstacle. That said, we absolutely to find a way to win our division. Maybe that’s a big money move, maybe not. Get a legit 1B and another front-line starter, who knows? Hard to argue with 98 wins and our slew of “value” moves, though- pretty incredible. What a fantastic season though, wow. Not really obvious how we can get too much better, but we have to figure it out or we’ll get stuck in this wild card game forever- it’d be like a bad twilight zone episode…

    • Agree–reward the division winners but require more for the wildcards to advance than simply having a dominant starter. A 3-game series would do that.

      Or take the soccer model–play a home-and-home and if the teams end up tied 1-1 use the aggregate score to decide who advances. Can you imagine the strategy that would go into Game 1? Or play home-and-home and if tied 1-1, then go into sudden-death “extra” innings (with the whole roster again available)–first team with a lead after a complete inning wins. Either of these models would provide plenty of drama while making it more likely that the deeper team is rewarded. And both cities would get to host a game.

  • It’s heartbreaking to watch your team lose like that after all the time and energy you spend watching and rooting during an incredible season. While the future of this team looks bright, you can’t take the playoffs for granted, as you never truly know when you’ll be back. I thought this was our year and that’s why it’s extra disappointing. I’m not sure how or what, but I hope something happens to amend this system.

    • The simplest way to amend the system is to expand WC round to a best of 3 starting on Monday after season is completed. Play game 1 at #5 seed park, travel to #4 seed and play games 2 and 3 if necessary there on Tuesday and Wednesday.

      The only downside to this is travel. But let’s face facts, baseball players are used to flying and sleeping odd hours. Not anything more burdensome than they’ve dealt with for last 6 months.

  • Please change this picture to another Ron Burgundy picture.

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