THE BLOG
09/11/2014 08:35 am ET Updated Nov 11, 2014

NL Wild Card Race Exposes Potential Downside of Playoff Expansion

The MLB season is winding down, and it feels like a September tradition to fret about what controversy might become a potential embarrassment during the playoffs. This year it's not mid-season instant replay implementation, or a suspended PED user returning for the postseason, but the home plate collision rule, which MLB attempted to clarify this week.

But if you've only been focused there, you may be missing the fascinating NL Wild Card freefall. It's not a scandal, and not yet an embarrassment, but if somebody doesn't go on a hot streak soon, it might not be great for baseball.

Here are the gory details:

On August 25, the Brewers led the NL Central at 73-58. Fangraphs.com gave them an 87.9 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. Milwaukee lost 13 of their next 14 games before winning Wednesday.

The Braves were 10 games above .500 and tied for the NL East lead at the All-Star break. But they haven't had a winning month since June, and started September 2-6 before winning Wednesday.

The Pirates swept their first series after the All-Star break to get six games above .500. They've jumped into the second Wild Card spot, despite playing just a game better than .500 since.

The field has been so underwhelming, we've found ourselves reading and writing previously preposterous statements like, "Wow, the Marlins are only 3.5 games out." And the similarly shocking, "Boy, the Mets are within 5.5." Somewhere somebody nearly finished the sentence, "You know, if the Phillies sweep this four game set from the Pirates..."

This plunge is more noteworthy than many pennant nosedives before it, of course, because playoff expansion added that second Wild Card in each league in 2012.

Before that season, I wrote a column for HuffPost neither supporting nor rejecting playoff expansion, merely arguing it should at least wait until 2013.

At the time, expansion was controversial. Two years later, it feels like it's been mostly accepted by the general public.

The last two years have highlighted the second Wild Card's benefits.

More teams are in the race, so more fans have reason to buy tickets or tune in on TV. Fewer teams punt the season by selling off prime parts at the trade deadline. Teams are battling to win their divisions and avoid the one-game Wild Card round.

This is the good. The NL pennant race is showing us -- for perhaps the first time in three seasons -- the bad. Let's revisit the two main sticking points for those against playoff expansion back in 2012.

First, the thought that an entire season would be decided by one game. Yes, there have been celebrated one-game playoff moments, from Bucky Dent's homer to Matt Holiday's slide at home. But many felt (and some probably still feel) that didn't mean we should force two of those games every year.

The second point -- the one most relevant to this year's NL Wild Card chase -- was the idea that a bad team could win the World Series. Or, the related twist, that a bad team could knock out a great team.

We already know the best team doesn't always win the World Series. The playoffs are too much of a crapshoot, heavily dependent on random occurrences and small sample sizes. The ball is small, the field is big and sometimes weird stuff happens.

But we grew comfortable with the idea that, as I pointed out in 2012, Theo Epstein once somewhat counterintuitively said Boston's goal was to build a 95-win team year-in and year-out, rather than a 110-win juggernaut. A playoff berth is a lottery ticket, and may he who has the most tickets win.

The difference is that with playoff expansion, it opens doors for less and less deserving teams to go on a run. A concept that may have felt comfortable, to many now feels less so.

This brings us back to the NL Wild Card race. The 2006 Cardinals, poster boys for the argument against expansion, won the World Series on the heels of 83 regular season wins and a run differential of only +19. If nobody heats up, this year's NL Wild Card winner could finish at or below those marks.

The second Wild Card has around a 50-50 shot of escaping the one-game playoff, which wouldn't be a travesty. But the mediocre fifth seed could go on to beat the much better Nationals, who are on pace to win around 92 games and already have a run differential greater than +100. You might say the Wild Card would deserve to move on if they won the series, but you could also question if they deserved to be in the series in the first place.

To be fair, this is still probably far from the ultimate nightmare scenario. Fans might not feel outraged until the day when a 104-win behemoth loses to a second Wild Card. But I'd bet Nats fans, who've only seen one playoff series in the team's first decade in D.C., would still have gripes. So would the Dodgers' ownership group, if they spent more than $230 million on payroll to position themselves in the top spot, only to lose to a fifth seed.

Sure, more fans are watching games now, in markets like Seattle, Toronto and Cleveland, which are chasing a higher barrier to entry over in the American League. But if a team like the Nationals or Dodgers gets wiped out by a team that backed in with 83 wins, fans of the best teams might start to wonder why they invested time watching so many regular season games.

In 2012, I wanted to wait and see how playoff expansion played out before deciding if it was good or bad. We've mostly seen the best of playoff expansion so far. We'll have to see how we feel when we've seen the worst of it.

And it could be coming this October.