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Wild Card Game format is rewarding division champs

Road to World Series gets much tougher for play-in game winners
October 15, 2018

As the League Championship Series roll on this week, four supremely talented teams are battling for spots in the World Series. But something is noticeably missing: The four Wild Card clubs.Wild Cards were shut out of baseball's final four for the second straight year, and as the game closes toward

As the League Championship Series roll on this week, four supremely talented teams are battling for spots in the World Series. But something is noticeably missing: The four Wild Card clubs.
Wild Cards were shut out of baseball's final four for the second straight year, and as the game closes toward the first decade of its new double-Wild Card era, the message is becoming clear: It's more important than ever for teams to win their divisions if they want a serious shot at the title. Placing more emphasis on regular-season performance was Major League Baseball's intent when it introduced the second Wild Card in 2012.
"This change increases the rewards of a division championship and allows two additional markets to experience playoff baseball each year," said then-Commissioner Bud Selig when the change was made, "all while maintaining the most exclusive postseason in professional sports."

Seven years into this new format, here's a statistical look at a few ways in which the thrilling winner-take-all Wild Card Game has changed the postseason dynamic:
Wild Cards are severely hampered in the Division Series

Only two non-division winners have reached the Fall Classic since the win-or-go-home Wild Card Game was implemented in 2012, and both of them came in '14 when the Giants beat the Royals in seven games. In fact, Wild Card Game winners are even having a tougher time making it to the League Championship Series.
Wild Cards who made it to the LCS
Wild Card Game Era (2012-present)
Six of 14 WCG winners -- 42.9 percent
Single-Wild Card Era (1995-2011)
18 of 34 Wild Card teams -- 52.9 percent
The road should be tougher, of course, considering that Wild Card clubs typically burn their best starters in a winner-take-all contest before hitting the road to face their league's best regular-season team. We've also seen the ripple effect it can have on the rest of a Wild Card winner's pitching staff as managers stand closer to the bullpen phone. Luis Severino's short outings in the past two American League Wild Card Games have forced the Yankees put a combined 13 2/3 innings on their bullpen before even beginning the LDS, while D-backs manager Torey Lovullo had to bring starter Robbie Ray out of the bullpen in last year's NL Wild Card matchup -- a move that seemingly put Arizona behind the 8-ball in their DS loss to the Dodgers.
Win totals have remained constant, but higher seeds are moving on

It may seem like recent "superteams" like this year's 100-win Yankees and 97-win A's are suffering tougher luck, but that's not altogether true. The Wild Card Game is eventually churning out roughly the same percentage of 95-plus win teams as the previous format did. Yes, more teams are getting a shot now, but the cream is still generally rising to the top.
Percentage of Wild Card teams in DS with 95-plus wins
Wild Card Game Era (2012-present)
Five of 14 Wild Card Game winners -- 35.7 percent
Single-Wild Card Era (1995-2011)
12 of 34 Wild Card teams -- 35.3 percent
The first six years of double-Wild Card action have also produced the exact same average win total (95) for World Series participants as in the 17 years before. But the new format has yielded more "heavyweight" fights.
Percentage of World Series featuring two division champions
Wild Card Game Era (2012-present)
Six of seven World Series -- 85.7 percent
Single-Wild Card Era (1995-2011)
Eight of 17 World Series -- 47.1 percent
It wasn't that long ago that a 95-win Wild Card team could hold its head high knowing it was on equal playing ground with division winners. But that's not the case anymore, and that fact could make upcoming Hot Stove seasons and midsummer Trade Deadlines more competitive than ever. The Wild Card still exists as a security blanket, but a growing sample size is showing that it's not the launching pad it used to be.

Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB.