Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What To Think About The Second Wild Card, An Unwanted Yet Invited Guest: Part I


We have about two weeks left to go before we see the end results of the Second Wild Card for the first time ever in Major League Baseball.  Some anticipate an indelible end to the regular season, while others prepare to lament for what excitement might be lost with the addition of a fifth team in both leagues.  What both sides can agree on is that we don’t quite know what to expect.

Or do we?  What would happen if we retroactively applied the 2nd Wild Card to each season back to 1995, the first year of the First Wild Card?  That’s just what I did.  And I have to say I kind of geeked out about doing this research.  Not only was I able to re-access memorable finishes of baseball seasons past, I also got to make tables on Excel – I even got to use color, which I have never done before – and paste them onto this column.  It’s a great excuse to practice desktop publishing.  But I digress.

For each year I have included a table of relevant teams in both league’s playoff races.  Here is the key:

·         The actual Wild Card teams and their records are shaded in green.  Any team with a number in the Games Behind Wild Card (GB WC) column shows how many more losses/fewer wins they wind up with behind this team.

·         The team shaded in red is the next-best team, and thus would be the Second Wild Card team if this year’s playoff rules were in effect for that year.

·         I listed all other teams who finished five games or less behind this 2nd WC.

·         Also, I listed any division winners if they finished five games or less ahead of any team that was in the Wild Card race.  Please don’t be jarred that some of the lists below are not in order by wins; I put the division winner directly above the second-place team so it’s easier to see the final gap between the two rivals.  I did that to try and paint a more complete picture of the postseason races; for example, a team fighting for both a division crown and a Wild Card probably had a hell of a season.  Those winners obviously did not need the Wild Card, so under the “GB WC” column I put down “N/A.”  Also, I put that team in both bold and italics to differentiate them from the teams that did figure into the Wild Card race.

·         The blurbs after each yearly table have the facts about the end of that season – which team ended on a winning streak, which one a losing streak, etc.  I try to give what the race would be like for a Second Wild Card.  And I also give general information about the year that might jog your memory.  If you see a year and say to yourself, “Hey, wasn’t that the time so-and-so team crapped the bed and missed the playoffs?” hopefully I confirm your suspicion with my research.

·         Finally, I hand down a verdict about what effect a Second Wild Card would have on each league’s race compared to how it really played out.  I am using my own criteria of “exciting,” mainly based on how tight the teams finished from each other when it was all said and done.  One could say that adding a fifth playoff team would create more excitement because more teams would be in the hunt come September.  But we logical people know that cannot be true all the time.  Sometimes it makes things less interesting.  Sometimes it doesn’t affect things either way.  So, for each league and each year I put the extrapolation into four categories: Makes a boring race exciting; Makes an exciting race boring; No effect on an exciting race; and No effect on a boring race.

We have 17 years of data, so we have 17 tables listed below.  I will get to my conclusions later in the week, hopefully.  But I’m certain that almost two decades’ worth of results can show patterns and not just trends, and that together they can answer the question on many peoples’ minds: Second Wild Card or not Second Wild Card?  (I have another question, by the way: Is “Wild Card” capitalized?  Also, is it two words or one?  Wonder if the Associated Press answers that in its Style Book.  Is “Style Book” capitalized?  Is it two words or one?)

And once I answer that question to the best of my ability, I will give you my final verdict on the Second Wild Card … one only somewhat relying on all the tables you see below.

1995

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

New York

79

65

X

Los Angeles

78

66

N/A

Seattle

78

66

N/A

Colorado

77

67

X

California

78

66

1

Houston

76

68

1

Texas

74

70

5

Chicago

73

71

4

The first year of the Wild Card was supposed to be 1994, but obviously the players’ strike wiped that out.  That, along with using scabs, delayed the start of the ’95 season and reduced it to 144 games.

That still didn’t decide the AL West.  The Mariners, who were at one point 13 games behind the Angels in early August, came back and forced a Game 163 in Seattle, which they won 9-1.  That thrilling finish, along with a comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit to beat the Yankees in the AL Division Series, is credited with the city building Safeco Field and keeping the Mariners is Seattle.

But that would be a moot point if the Second Wild Card were in place.  Both teams would reach the postseason, and in fact California (gosh that’s weird to say now even though I grew up knowing them as the “California Angels”) would win the division just because they won the season series.  Similarly, the Rockies just outlasted the Astros, but there would be no oh-so-close finish there, either.

American League: Makes an exciting race boring

National League: Makes an exciting race boring

1996

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

New York

92

70

N/A

San Diego

91

71

N/A

Baltimore

88

74

X

Los Angeles

90

72

X

Texas

90

72

N/A

Montréal

88

74

2

Seattle

85

76

2.5

Colorado

83

79

7

Chicago

85

77

3

Boston

85

77

3

A 2nd WC would have been epic in the AL.  Three fan bases would be riveted to the end of the regular season, but Major League Baseball would have a heart attack if the Mariners lost a game at Cleveland they did not play.  It would have set up that weird three-team scenario where one team would have to play twice but at home, and, for example, the White Sox would have gone from Chicago to Seattle and then to Baltimore for the Wild Card Game.  But who cares what the players have to go through; I don’t think we fans have experienced such awesome scrumptiousness.

Nothing like that in Senior Circuit; although they finished two games behind the Doyers, the Second Wild Card would go to – put up your lighters – the Montréal Expos.  Maybe a miraculous comeback would have saved them like the one that saved the Mariners the year prior.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting

National League: Makes an exciting race boring

1997

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Baltimore

98

64

N/A

Florida

92

70

X

New York

96

66

X

San Francisco

90

72

N/A

Anaheim

84

78

12

Los Angeles

88

74

4

Chicago

80

81

15.5

New York

88

74

4

Detroit

79

83

17

Colorado

83

79

9

The NL West would be nip-and-tuck through the final week of the regular season; the NL East mildly intriguing through September.  But the Dodgers and Mets would meet in a play-in game of two legendary clubs.  The Second Wild Card would be kind of an embarrassment in the AL, though.  The Yankees had absolutely no trouble getting to the playoffs.  Opening up a spot for a fifth team would create another race with some drama between the Angels, White Sox and Tigers.  But traditionalists would have a field day comparing the 96 wins the Bronx Bombers had versus the 84 of the Angels – not to mention the other contenders finished below .500.

American League: No effect on a boring race

National League: Makes a boring race exciting

1998

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Boston

92

70

X

Chicago

89

73

X

Toronto

88

74

4

San Francisco

89

73

X

Texas

88

74

N/A

New York

88

74

1

Anaheim

85

77

7

This was the year of The Greatest Baseball Team of the Modern Age, the 114-48 Yankees that, after its 11-2 postseason record, averaged five wins every seven games it played.  But a Second Wild Card would be given to a third AL East team, the Blue Jays.  Its playoff berth would rectify another complaint by people who have never liked divisions: A team with a record as good or better as a division winner not reaching the postseason.

In the National League, the Cubs (who faced the following this season: Sammy Sosa’s steroid-fueled home run chase against Mark McGwire; Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game; and the death of Harry Caray) won a play-in over the Giants.  Both would make the playoffs under the rules that start this year (the Wild Card game, as was Game 163, would be played in Wrigley Field because the Cubs won the season series) but the race still would not lack for excitement because they and the Mets had an incredible stretch run.  All three teams were tied as late as September 25, but the Amazin’s dropped their last five games (sweeps by Montréal and Atlanta) to finish one game behind, a heartbreak that would repeat itself even with the introduction of a Second Wild Card.  (By the way, the manager of those Mets?  Bobby Valentine, for-now manager of the Boston Red Sox, who were officially eliminated Sunday.)

American League: No effect on a boring race

National League: No effect on an exciting race

1999

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

New York

98

64

N/A

New York

96

66

X

Boston

94

68

X

Houston

97

65

N/A

Oakland

87

75

7

Cincinnati

96

66

X

Toronto

84

78

10

There were no competitive Wild Card races, so dipping down for a fifth team means a mild three-game victory by the A’s over the Jays despite having seven more losses than the Wild Card Red Sox.  The Reds scored the most runs in franchise history in ‘99, but they followed a six-game winning streak by losing three of their last four games, thus putting them behind the Astros for the NL Central title.  They then played the play-in at Riverfront and promptly turned in a dud performance, 5-0, to miss the playoffs altogether … but neither they nor we would have had to sit on pins and needles to see who would be the odd team out if there was a Second Wild Card.  The next-best team in the NL?  The 86-win Giants.

American League: No effect on a boring race

National League: Makes an exciting race boring

2000

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Oakland

91

70

N/A

Atlanta

95

67

N/A

Seattle

91

71

X

New York

94

68

X

Cleveland

90

72

1

Los Angeles

86

76

8

Boston

85

77

6

Cincinnati

85

77

9

Arizona

85

77

9

Colorado

82

80

12

A year where the second-best team in the closest division race in both leagues won the Wild Card.  The Mariners outlasted the Indians in a choppy end-of-season, so allowing Cleveland to also get in renders the American League race pointless.  But the National League race … hoo-boy.  Despite the Mets being at least eight games better than who they would meet in a Wild Card Game, it’d be one hell of a stretch run, featuring three teams from the NL West.

American League: Makes an exciting race boring

National League: Makes a boring race exciting

2001

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Oakland

102

60

X

Houston

93

69

N/A

Minnesota

85

77

17

St. Louis

93

69

X

Chicago

83

79

19

Arizona

92

70

N/A

Boston

82

79

20

San Francisco

90

72

3

Toronto

80

82

22

Chicago

88

74

5

Philadelphia

86

76

7

Los Angeles

86

76

7

In the NL, the two teams that would make it in as Wild Cards are closer to the division winners they finished behind than the other teams competing for the Second Wild Card.  The main excitement comes from the Cubs, which actually led the Cardinals for the NL Wild Card through early September, but suffered losing streaks of five and four games relegated them to watching their fierce rivals from home.

Things would be close in the AL – but in a dreadful way.  The Twins would survive three other teams that would finish five games or fewer behind them.  But for God’s sake, the Athletics won the Wild Card with triple digits!  Hell, I’m a Twins fan and even I would think it’s kind of difficult to justify them making the playoffs as a Second Wild Card.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting (said through gritted teeth)

National League: No effect on an exciting race

2002

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Oakland

103

59

N/A

Arizona

98

64

N/A

Anaheim

99

63

X

San Francisco

95

66

X

Boston

93

69

6

Los Angeles

92

70

3.5

Seattle

93

69

6

In reality a stultifying WC race for both leagues, unless you’re a part of the heated Giants-Dodgers rivalry.  Adding a Second Wild Card means both NorCal and SoCal get in; the next-best NL team was the 84-78 ‘Stros.  There would be a Game 163 between the Sawx and M’s in the Emerald City.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting

National League: No effect on a boring race

2003

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Boston

95

67

X

Florida

91

71

X

Oakland

96

66

N/A

Chicago

88

74

N/A

Seattle

93

69

2

Houston

87

75

4

Philadelphia

86

76

5

St. Louis

85

77

6

Los Angeles

85

77

6

Arizona

84

78

7

Montréal

83

79

8

The teams finishing behind the Mariners are the Blue Jays and White Sox, both with records of 86-76.  In that light, is it fair that Seattle did not make the playoffs this year?  (They would have been the Second Wild Card at least twice up to this point, both with 90+ wins.)

But good gracious, great balls of fire, look at the National League!  In reality the Astros would be an also-ran to the (eventual World Series Champion) Marlins, which won six of their last seven regular season games to pull away for the real Wild Card.  But with the addition of a 2nd WC, six teams would finish within four games of the last spot.  The Astros and Phillies had made it a three-team race with Florida for that Wild Card spot, but Houston ended the season 1-6 while Philly went 3-9.  This was a case of a playoff race being a race because the leaders backed up to the pack.  But that’s still a good thing.

American League: Makes an exciting race boring

National League: Makes a boring race exciting

2004

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

New York

101

61

N/A

Houston

92

70

X

Boston

98

64

X

Los Angeles

93

69

N/A

Anaheim

92

70

N/A

San Francisco

91

71

1

Oakland

91

71

7

Chicago

89

73

3

Texas

89

73

9

San Diego

87

75

5

Philadelphia

86

76

6

The Second Wild Cards would nonetheless have some drama on their way to clinching a playoff spot: Both Bay Area teams finished a game behind their SoCal rivals for the division and two games ahead of their nearest competitor.  The Astros won their last seven games to take the Wild Card.  The Cubs would have been the 2nd WC, but they lost five of their last six and seven of their last nine to cede that to the Giants.  More drama at the Cubbies’ expense, but it would be drama nevertheless.  In the Junior Circuit, the A’s held the AL West lead, but the Angels finished the year with a 7-2 record to make up a three-game deficit.  Under our current conditions, however, that collapse wouldn’t be punished with playoff elimination.  Oakland still would have gotten in, beating by two games the Rangers, who, like the Athletics, traded wins and losses to finish the regular season.

American League: Makes an exciting race boring

National League: No effect on an exciting race

2005

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

New York

95

67

N/A

Houston

89

73

X

Boston

95

67

X

Atlanta

90

72

N/A

Cleveland

93

69

2

Philadelphia

88

74

1

Oakland

88

74

7

Florida

83

79

6

New York

83

79

6

The Indians in September had winning streaks of four, six and seven games, and once had a stretch where they went 17-2 to get in the AL Wild Card race.  But then they finished the season losing six-of-seven, including getting swept at home to Chicago in the last weekend, to finish behind the Red Sox.  That roller coaster ride would have been enough to be rewarded with a playoff spot.

Things are closer in the NL.  With about ten games to go, the ‘Stros led the Phils by two games.  Philadelphia also led the Marlins by three games.  The order of that trio didn’t change, although the Fightins went 7-3 in that stretch (and the Fish went 4-6) to stretch what would be the race for the Second Wild Card to the final margin of five wins.

American League: Makes an exciting race boring

National League: Makes an exciting race boring

2006

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Minnesota

96

66

N/A

San Diego

88

74

N/A

Detroit

95

67

X

Los Angeles

88

74

X

Chicago

90

72

5

Philadelphia

85

77

3

Los Angeles

89

73

6

Houston

82

80

6

Toronto

87

75

8

Cincinnati

80

82

8

Boston

86

76

9

This would be the first time three teams from the AL Central would make the playoffs.  The addition of another Wild Card would inject some late-season excitement where there wasn’t any; the White Sox were flailing in the month of September, and as you can see there were three other teams that had a chance to take advantage.

With a week to go, the Phillies led the Dodgers for the Wild Card by a game.  But L.A. won their last seven to take the Wild Card.  The Astros made a late run, but what was a close race with a week left in 2006 was just a skirmish to see who would host whom in the NL Wild Card Game in 2012.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting

National League: Makes an exciting race boring

2007

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Boston

96

66

N/A

Arizona

90

72

N/A

New York

94

68

X

Colorado

89

73

X

Detroit

88

74

6

San Diego

89

73

X

Seattle

88

74

6

Philadelphia

89

73

N/A

Toronto

83

79

11

New York

88

74

1

Atlanta

84

78

5

This was the year the Rockies made that holy roll at the end of the season, winning 12 of their last 13 games of the season, winning the play-in game over the Padres in 13 innings, then sweeping their Division and Championship Series (before getting swept themselves by the Red Sox in the World Series).

The National League race would not want for drama even if the Padres were given a hypothetical Wild Card.  The Mets led the NL East by seven games over the Phillies as of September 12.  They then lost 12 of their last 17 games of the season to cough up the division to Philadelphia and the Wild Card to both Colorado and San Diego, both by a game.  That would not change even with a Second Wild Card.  The Metropolitans – go-to team for schadenfreude.

The Yanks whipped ass on their way to the Wild Card, but the introduction of a second one would have resulted in a play-in game on the American side, with the Tigers hosting the Mariners.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting

National League: No effect on an exciting race

2008

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Tampa Bay

97

65

N/A

Milwaukee

90

72

X

Boston

95

67

X

New York

89

73

1

New York

89

73

6

Houston

86

75

3.5

Chicago

88

74

N/A

St. Louis

86

76

4

Minnesota

88

74

7

Florida

84

77

6

The AL featured two very tight division races in the East and Central; the latter went to a Game 163, a 1-0 classic whose only score was a solo shot by the White Sox’s Jim Thome.  There was no Wild Card race, however; in a rare instance it’s the Red Sox which dusted the rest of the field and the Yankees in fact not making it to the postseason.  Not only would that change with a 2nd WC, there would be a very intriguing double race from the Twins’ perspective – one that would result in double heartache.

The season was another excruciating one for the Mets; they were eliminated from the playoffs on the very last day for the second year in a row.  They skidded to a 3-6 finish while the Brewers won six of their last seven games to eclipse them in the end.  The race behind New York is deceiving; the Astros and Cardinals got hot very late in September, and the Marlins are really only on this list because they were the ones that beat the Mets two-out-of-three in the last series of the year.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting

National League: No effect on an exciting race (marginally)

2009

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Boston

95

67

X

Los Angeles

95

67

N/A

Texas

87

75

8

Colorado

92

70

X

Minnesota

86

76

N/A

San Francisco

88

74

4

Detroit

86

76

9

Florida

87

75

5

Seattle

85

77

10

Atlanta

86

76

6

Tampa Bay

84

78

11

Although they ended the season 8-15, the Rangers would have started their ascension to being one of the model franchises in MLB a year early if the 2nd WC were around four years ago.  The Tigers would’ve tied the Rangers if they had won one of their games between October 1 and 3, but instead they had the drama of a play-in game against the Twins, an extra-inning poop-maker that I had the pleasure to watch (even if it was from a TV in the concourse of the Metrodome because I couldn’t handle the tension of seeing the game with my own eyes).  Although the Mariners and Rays finished with slightly better records down the stretch, it was too little, too late to make it a truly grand race.

However, the National League would become a barn-burner.  The morning of September 29, the Braves had a three-game lead on both the Giants and the Marlins.  But Atlanta would end the season on a six-game slide to wind up behind both squads.

Meanwhile, San Francisco and Florida both were tied going into the last day of the regular season.  As the Giants won at San Diego in ten innings, the Marlins lost in Philadelphia in ten, giving the G-Men the Second Wild Card.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting (although I am being generous)

National League: Makes a boring race exciting

2010

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Tampa Bay

96

66

N/A

Atlanta

91

71

X

New York

95

67

X

San Francisco

92

70

N/A

Boston

89

73

6

San Diego

90

72

1

Chicago

88

74

7

St. Louis

86

76

5

In the real world, the Wild Card race in the American was a walkover.  It would be slightly different with a Second Wild Card; the White Sox went 9-2 to finish the regular season, but they had dug too deep of a hole to catch the Red Sox for a proverbial playoff spot.  These teams actually met in Comiskey for the penultimate series of the year.  And Chicago won three of the four games; the only loss was a boring 6-1 defeat that may or may not chap the hides of the White Sox faithful.  They instead might point to a 6-5, ten-inning loss to the Yankees in the third-to-last game of the year as The One That Got Away.

The Padres actually led the Braves by a game with eight to go.  But the Dads went 3-5 while the Bravos went 5-3.  Squandering the Wild Card lead compounds the pain of losing the NL West as well; they were tied with the eventual World Series champion Giants before they too went 5-3 to end the year.  By most statistics it was one of the best Padres teams in franchise history … and they would have gotten into the playoffs as the 2nd WC by four games over the Cardinals, who had to win their last five to make the margin you see even respectable.

American League: Makes a boring race exciting

National League: Makes an exciting race boring

2011

American League

National League

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Team

Wins

Losses

GB WC

Tampa Bay

91

71

X

St. Louis

90

72

X

Boston

90

72

1

Atlanta

89

73

1

Los Angeles

86

76

5

San Francisco

86

76

4

AKA The Best Final Day of the Regular Season in Baseball History:

·         The Braves, 80-55 and holding an 8 ½-game lead in the Wild Card race, loses a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth and gives up Philadelphia’s winning run in the 13th, completing a collapse with a double play to end the game and their season;

·         The Cardinals go 18-8 in the month of September to clinch the NL WC … which they parlayed into another World Series title;

·         The Rays, who were losing 7-0 to the nothing-to-play-for Yankees , erupted for six runs in the bottom of the eighth and completed the comeback with a Dan Johnson home run in the bottom of the ninth (with two outs and two strikes, no less), and then completed the comeback to reach the playoffs with an Evan Longoria homer that just cleared left field;

·         The Red Sox, nine games clear of the Rays as of September 3, go 6-18 the rest of the way, the final loss coming when Jonathan Papelbon failed to cash in a 3-2 lead, giving up back-to-back-to-back hits to Baltimore in the bottom of the ninth for a come-from-ahead defeat that brought to light a culture of the inmates running the asylum and may have started a death spiral for the organization.  By the numbers, Atlanta and Boston have the dubious distinction of the worst collapses in the history of their respective leagues.  (Braves, the Mets still thank you.)

And none of that would have mattered because all four teams in these heated races would have been playoff teams anyway, and easily.

American League: Makes an exciting race boring

National League: Makes an exciting race boring

So, what does it all mean?  I will draw some conclusions from the tables above – then throw some of those conclusions away – in Part 2 of this essay.

Posted by WilliamSou at 11:35 PM

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