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The wild card and the unbalanced schedule

There's been a lot of noise lately about how the unbalanced schedule is affecting the AL wild card race.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For those unfamiliar with the unbalanced schedule, here is how it works now:

  • Each team plays the other teams in their division 19 times
  • Each team plays the teams in the other divisions (in the Indians' case, the AL East and AL West) 6 or 7 times
  • The teams in one AL division plays all the teams in an assigned NL division 3 or 4 times (this rotates from year to year)
  • Each team plays their designated NL "rival" 4 times

So each team within a division plays by and large the same schedule, but the schedule between teams in different divisions varies quite a bit because of how many intradivisional games are played.

MLB used to have a balanced schedule (with all teams in a league playing each other the same amount of times), but that was scrapped to cut down on travel times and to also reduce logistical costs. The Indians used to go to the West Coast 4 times a year because they would go to Seattle, Anaheim, and Oakland two times each. And vice versa. MLB went to an unbalanced schedule in 2001 in order to make division races more exciting, as well as cut down on all the travel times and odd start times. If you are going to have divisions, then an unbalanced schedule is the way to go. With an unbalanced schedule, it would be extremely hard for a division winner to have a bad intradivisional record, and it creates more late-season head-to-head matchups. And let's face it, having an unbalanced schedule creates more Boston-New York matchups, which the network executives love.

But MLB also has a Wild Card, and an unbalanced schedule by its very nature makes it tougher for a team in a difficult division to win it. For many years MLB had only one team qualify as a Wild Card, and that team went straight into the Divisional playoff round. Now granted, there are usually terrible teams distributed quite evenly across divisions, so it didn't matter too much unless the division was exceptionally strong or weak in comparison to the other two divisions.

MLB fixed some of the schedule imbalances with a couple changes in the past couple of seasons. In 2012, they added an additional Wild Card team, and had the two Wild Card teams play each other in a one-game "series" in order to advance to the Divisional playoff round. This placed even more emphasis on winning your division, and you can see this new dynamic at work in the NL Central: the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are all going to make the playoffs, but because winning the division gets you a "bye" into the Divisional round, they are going all-out to win the NL Central. And this year they've mostly standardized Interleague play within divisions, so that a weak Interleague schedule won't end up deciding a division race.

With all that in mind, let's take a look at Ken Rosenthal's most recent column on the wild card race. It is titled: "AL wild-card race not a fair fight." A picture of Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Lonnie Chisenhall is at the top of the page. You know where this is heading, right?

(The fact that the Indians finish with an easy schedule is not a relevant complaint. They had a brutal schedule in May and June, and they have an easy schedule in September. No national writer was penning articles about the Tribe's tough schedule in the spring.)

But let’s not pretend this is a fair fight.

Through Saturday, the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays had the third, fourth and 10th most difficult schedules based on the records of their opponents, according to STATS LLC. The Royals ranked 11th, the Indians 17th and the Rangers 26th.

Rosenthal's argument is essentially this: because two of the four worst teams in AL are in the AL Central, and the other two are in the AL West, that puts the Rays, Yankees, and Orioles at a disadvantage when it comes to the Wild Card race. Well, yes, but having wild cards with a divisional format AND an unbalanced schedule is always going to create advantages and disadvantages between the teams fighting it out for those wild card spots. MLB has in recent years de-emphasized the wild card by making it less lucrative to make the playoffs in this way. If you have an unbalanced schedule, then making the wild card less lucrative than winning your division matches up the playoff benefits with the schedule format. In other words, MLB is telling clubs that winning the division should be your main goal, with the wild card to be viewed only as a fallback. And MLB is also telling clubs that if you don't win your division, you may not make the playoffs even if you're the "better" team than the club that actually gets one of those wild card spots.

The only real way to make sure the top five teams makes the playoffs would be to go to a balanced schedule AND scrap all divisions. Have a 15-team American League, and a 15-team National League, with the top 5 teams in each league making the playoffs. But again, the logistical problems inherent in a league with teams in four different time zones necessitates an unbalanced schedule. If you want to complain that the sports leagues are choosing revenue (more prime-time games, more "rivalry" games) over fairness, then you'd be justified in making that argument, but that wailing will fall on deaf ears.