The Philadelphia Phillies are National League champions? The same team that finished in third place in the National League East?
According to Major League Baseball, they are. MLB, in its infinite wisdom, expanded the baseball playoffs this year to three wild card teams in each league, to join the three division champions, up from two wild cards in previous years.
Wild card teams are made up of the three best teams in each league that didn’t win their divisions. It was originally designed when first implemented in 1997 to reward the best second-place team but was then expanded to two and now three in each league. It’s designed to create and prolong fan interest as the season goes along in cities whose teams are not in a division race, and in that regard it’s working.
They are, literally, wild cards, mixed in with the division winners in the playoffs, and, as in poker, they can create chaos and havoc with the established order of the universe. That’s what happened this year.
The Phillies were the 6th and lowest seed in the National League. To get to the World Series, they beat the NL Central Division champion St. Louis Cardinals in a best-of-three series, then beat the NL East champion Atlanta Braves in a best-of-five, then beat the 5-seed San Diego Padres—another wild card team—in the National League Championship Series. The Padres, by the way, finished an astounding 22 games behind the LA Dodgers in the NL West, a very, very distant second place. They then got hot and beat the Dodgers in a short best-of-five series and the regular season was rendered moot.
The problems here are legion. First, as I pointed out in a previous post, baseball’s season is 162 games long, roughly 6 months, the longest of any major North American sport. After 162 games, you know which teams are the best. There aren’t any secrets in MLB. After 162 games, the Phillies finished firmly in third place in the National League East, 14 games out of first place. In other words, not even close to being division champs. As their seeding suggests, they were the 6th best team in the entire league over 6 months.
But they were just good enough to secure that 3rd and final wild-card spot, and they made the playoffs. Then they got hot and beat teams in a short series that were much better than they were in the regular season, and here we are.
And as often happens in the playoffs, teams that weren’t hot during the season can get hot in a short series. Other hot teams suddenly can’t hit or pitch. Some teams’ bats go cold, their pitching misfires, the bullpen melts down. (See Braves, Atlanta.)
Other teams who languished along for 6 months barely winning more than they lost can get into the playoffs now, get hot for three weeks, and win a championship. This has happened for years in pro hockey (the NHL) and basketball (NBA and WNBA), and now it’s happening in Major League Baseball.
No doubt this creates interest in cities like San Diego and Philadelphia, both of which city’s teams were nowhere near first place for most of the season. But it’s also made the regular season irrelevant, it seems to me, as it is in those other leagues. Now you just have to be good enough to grab that 6th seed, and anything can happen, in part because you don’t have to win a best-of-seven series in every round.
Unencumbered by the thought process, here’s what I would suggest to baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred when he calls: the wild card teams should start the playoffs by playing each other—6 vs. 5 in a one-game playoff—with the winner advancing to play the 4-seed in a one-game playoff. (I would make this round a best-of-seven, but that would keep the division winners on ice for too long.) The winner of the wild card tournament then moves on to play the highest-seeded division winner in a best-of-seven. There should be some reward for winning your division, and the road should be extremely hard for a wild card team to get to the World Series. No way should the Championship Series have not one but TWO wild card teams. They didn’t earn an easier path through all those 162 games when they had infinite opportunities to show they belonged. If a wild card team is going to win, it shouldn’t get away with getting hot in a very short series against higher-seeded division winners.
There are those who will say this is sour grapes, that I’m just unhappy that my beloved Braves got beat by a team that finished 14 games behind them in the regular season. That this is a classic case of, if you don’t like the outcome then attack the process. And they’d be absolutely right. The same thing happened in 1997, the first year of the Wild Card, when the second-place Florida Marlins beat the division-winning Braves and eventually won the World Series. What was the point of the regular season if a second-place team was actually champion? The wild card teams have gone on to win the World Series 6 other times in the 25 years since then—the Angels in 2002, the Marlins again in 2003, the Red Sox in 2004, the Cardinals in 2011, the Giants in 2014, and the Nationals most recently in 2019. Those teams were at least the best of the second-place teams.
And I’m well aware that the Braves won just one more game last year than the Phillies did this year. The difference, of course, is that last year’s Braves were NL East division champions, not 3rd-place finishers. Beyond that, though, their stories are remarkably similar—nobody picked the Braves to win anything last year or to get past the mighty Dodgers or the Astros, but they got hot just when they needed to. It all came together in the playoffs, as it has this year for the Phillies. Clearly getting hot for a few weeks is more productive than killing yourself to win a division title that is relatively meaningless in the new baseball universe.
It would be very unsporting of me to say that I hope that the American League champion (and AL West division winning) Houston Astros destroy the third-place Phillies in the World Series that starts on Friday, just to maintain the order of the baseball universe. Very unsporting. So, I’ll just leave it to your imagination as to what I might be wishing for in this series. If the Phillies win, they will indeed be World Series champions, if not the best team in baseball. I’ll leave it at that.
Waiter, I’ll have one order of grapes—and please make them very, very sour.