Earlier this month, the Baseball Hall of Fame released its Expansion Era ballot, a collection of six players, four managers and two executives who made their mark in baseball from 1973 to the present. The stars of the show, in case you haven’t heard, are the managers. Their names are as follows:
- Tony La Russa
- Bobby Cox
- Joe Torre
- Billy Martin
The first three on that list are absolute no-brainers. La Russa is third on the all-time wins list and has multiple World Series rings. Cox only has the one championship, but he skippered the Braves to 15 straight division titles and won over 2,500 games. Joe Torre has the fewest wins under his belt of the three, but his Yankees won four world titles. Even if you don’t think he should be in for his managing alone, he’s arguably Hall-worthy as a player, and combining the two careers makes him a slam-dunk choice.
The fourth manager is Martin, a fascinating candidate in his own right, though not one I’m terribly qualified to discuss. The executives are longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller, both of whom also have strong support.
As I write this, the Red Sox are two games into the World Series, which is awesome. What’s even more awesome is that this comes on the heels of one of the worst seasons in franchise history. It’s almost as though 2012 never happened.
While it seems so distant given the disaster that was last year, it wasn’t at all long ago that the Red Sox were really, really good. Between 2002 and 2011, they won 90 or more games eight times, went to the postseason six times and (of course) won it all in ’04 and ’07. For that matter, they were pretty good for several before that stretch; the last time the Sox had had a losing season was all the way back in 1997. Even given how badly 2011 ended, that was still a 90-win season.
Their 69-win campaign in 2012 was a collapse of epic proportions.
It was so epic, in fact, that I’m given to wonder how other teams in similar situations have done. As best I can tell, there were 15 teams in the last 25 seasons that suffered implosions at least somewhat comparable to Boston’s last year. How did they happen, and what happened afterward?
Let’s take a look.
Right off the bat, I’ll acknowledge that I don’t mind what the second wild card has given us in the AL. Just one win separated three different teams. The team with the most wins gets a significant advantage, the other two play a tie-breaker. If the Rays win tonight and make it to the ALDS, no one will be able to say they didn’t earn it.
The NL is a whole different story.
This past Friday, the Pirates led the Reds by one game going into the final weekend of the season. Now, one game isn’t a huge lead, but it’s a lead nevertheless. The Pirates and Reds played in the same division, which means they faced almost exactly the same opposition. In head-to-head play, they were 8-8. That’s about as close as two teams can get without actually being tied, but the fact remains that the Pirates were just a little bit better.
In that final series, the Pirates won all three games. It didn’t matter, of course. Even though they were playing the same team that they were going to face in the Wild Card playoff, the Pirates could do no more than secure home-field advantage in that one game. In particular, the last game of the series was completely, totally, utterly meaningless.*
*Yes, I realize that many teams play a meaningless game 162 every year. What bothers me is that the Pirates played a meaningless game 162 against the same exact team that they’d play in a very very meaningful Wild Card game two days later.
They finished the season at 94-68, well ahead of the Reds at 90-72. In fact, the Pirates had a better record than the NL West champion Dodgers, at 92-70.
Nevertheless, the Reds have a shot to knock the Pirates off with a single win in the Wild Card game. According to MLB, victory in that one game trumps a four-game advantage over the entire regular season.
It makes for exciting baseball, sure. Still, if the Pirates’ run this year comes to an end because they lose one game to a clearly inferior (by record) Reds team, a team that they just swept in Cincinnati, I won’t be happy.
Get rid of the second Wild Card already.
The Reds are four games back in the Central with three to play; in other words, they’re out of contention. They’re going to be in the one-game Wild Card playoff no matter what happens; the only question is whether it will be at home or on the road. The Reds are also playing the Pirates, who still have a theoretical shot at winning the division, in their final three-game series of the season.
Addendum: The more likely issue that bothers me about this situation is that, unless the Pirates and Reds split the first two games of the series, the final game will be meaningless. If either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh takes the first two, Game 162 will be absolutely pointless. The Wild Card spots will be set and neither team will be particularly trying to win; instead, they’ll both be resting up for the winner-take all rematch in game 163.
What’s the point of that?
I find myself thinking about 100 wins today because the Red Sox just lost their 63rdgame of the season. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not likely to mean much; the Sox still have the best record in the league. However, it means that for the second straight year, no team will win 100 games.
*That’s Johnson’s WAR in his 11 games as an Astro. Including his pitching for the Mariners earlier in the year, he posted a 5.8 mark on the season.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about my views on some traditional statistics, and I touched several times on the philosophies behind those stats. Most critics of newer stats, as far as I’ve seen, argue that things like WAR and FIP are not rooted in the realities of playing and observing baseball in the same way traditional stats like ERA and BA are. However, if you take a closer look at some of those newfangled stats, you’d find a lot in common with the ways that players, coaches and fans have been talking about the game for generations.
Let’s take that closer look.
Quality Starts (QS): I tend to call less familiar statistics new rather than advancedbecause some of them aren’t terribly advanced. Quality starts aren’t advanced at all. In fact, they’re significantly simpler than the stat they’re designed to replace: pitcher wins.
- That’s the bare minimum for a quality start. The average across all quality starts is less than half that.
- A 4.5 ERA isn’t good, but it’s not terrible either. The league ERA for all starting pitchers is about 4.2, so we’re talking about a difference of three tenths of a run per nine innings.
- Put another way, a hypothetical pitcher who pitched exactly six innings and gave up exactly three earned runs every time out would end up with 192 innings pitched (in 32 starts) and a 4.50 ERA. Most teams would take that from a fourth or fifth starter.
- In fact, our Mr. (Just Barely) Quality Start would have outperformed at least one starter on eight of the last 10 World Series champions.
If an outfielder loses a ball in the lights and it falls out of his reach, that’s a hit.
If an outfielder loses a ball in the lights, catches sight of it at the last moment, reaches out to make a catch and has the ball bounce out of his glove, that’s an error.
If a shortstop fields a ground ball cleanly but hesitates before throwing, allowing the batter to reach safely, that’s a hit.
If a shortstop fields a ground ball cleanly but makes a high throw that pulls the first baseman off the bag, allowing the batter to reach safely, that’s an error.
If a third baseman reaches out to catch a ball that slips under his glove, that’s a hit.
If a third baseman reaches out to catch a ball and then bobbles it on the transfer to his throwing hand, that’s an error.
Runner on first
Runner on second
Runner on third
Runners on first and second
Runners on first and third
Runners on second and third
There’s a lot more to understanding a player than his WAR (or, for that matter, any other statistic), but every one of these tools makes our picture a little more complete.
Yesterday, I suggested realigning both leagues into two divisions each as a means of making the playoffs fair. I went back through the last 12 seasons to see what would have happened if they were aligned that way.
Since we’re looking at a time before the Astros moved to the AL, the alignment I used is a little different than the one I suggested in yesterday’s post. Here’s the breakdown:
AL East: BOS, NYY, TBR, TOR, BAL, DET, CLE
AL West: LAA, TEX, OAK, SEA, KCR, CHW, MIN
NL East: NYM, PHI, PIT, ATL, MIA, WSN, CIN, MIL
NL West: COL, SDP, LAD, SFG, ARZ, HOU, STL, CHC*
*I put the Cubs in the West mainly to have both Chicago teams in the same region, and also to preserve the long-standing Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. It would make just as much sense, geographically, to switch them with the Brewers.
Obviously this is an imperfect exercise because realignment would have changed every team’s strength of schedule. Still, I think it gives us an idea of what to expect.
AL East: NYY (95-67) and BAL (93-69)
AL West: OAK (94-68) and TEX (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, OAK and DET (88-74), plus a one-game playoff between TEX and BAL
Well, that’s about as fair as it gets. The four best teams in the league would have been the four teams in the playoffs. The 88-win Tigers would have missed the postseason entirely in favor of superior teams.
NL East: WSN (98-64) and CIN (97-65)
NL West: SFG (94-68) and STL (88-74)
Actual playoffs: WSN, CIN and CIN, plus a one-game playoff between STL and ATL (94-68)
Okay, that one didn’t go as well. The 94-win Braves would have finished third in the East and out of the playoffs.
AL East: NYY (97-65) and DET (95-67)
AL West: TEX (96-66) and LAA (86-76)
Actual playoffs: NYY, DET, TEX and TBR (91-71)
Under this scenario, the Rays and Red Sox would have missed the playoffs despite having better records than the Angels. It’s certainly not egregious, but it’s less than ideal.
NL East: PHI (102-60) and MIL (96-66)
NL West: ARI (94-68) and STL (90-72)
Actual playoffs: PHI, MIL, ARI and STL
On the other hand, the NL gives us a playoff featuring the four best records in the league. This is the first case in which the realigned playoff teams would be the same as the actual playoff teams.
AL East: TBR (96-66) and NYY (95-67)
AL West: MIN (94-68) and TEX (90-72)
Actual playoffs: TBR, NYY, MIN and TEX
Those four teams had the four best records in the league. That’s exactly what I’m looking for, and it’s what the old system gave us as well.
NL East: PHI (97-65) and either CIN (91-71) or ATL (91-71)
NL West: SFG (92-70) and SDP (90-72)
Actual playoffs: PHI, CIN, ATL, SFG
We have our first (or last, since I’m going in reverse order) one-game playoff under the proposed system, as the Reds would have faced the Braves in a fight for second place in the East. Again, the five postseason teams would have been the five best teams in the league.
AL East: NYY (103-59) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: LAA (97-65) and TEX (87-75)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, LAA and MIN (87-76)
We would have seen an exciting race for that last playoff spot, as Seattle, Detroit and Minnesota all finished within two games of the Rangers.
NL East: PHI (93-69) and FLA (87-75)
NL West: LAD (95-67) and COL (92-70)
Actual playoffs: PHI, LAD, COL and STL (91-71)
This realignment would have left out both the Cardinals and the Giants even though they had better records than the Marlins. Again, that’s bad but not egregious.
AL East: TBR (97-65) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: LAA (100-62) and CHW (89-74)
Actual playoffs: TBR, BOS, LAA and CHW
In real life, the White Sox beat out the Twins in a one-game playoff for the AL Central. In this scenario, they would have played for second place in the AL West. The Yankees would have missed the playoffs with a better record than either team (as they did in reality), but only by a margin of one game.
NL East: PHI (92-70) and MIL (90-72)
NL West: CHC (97-64) and either HOU (86-75) or STL (86-76)
Actual playoffs: PHI, CHC, MIL and LAD (84-78)
This is a weird one. The NL West was pretty terrible in 2008, as the Dodgers won the division with that meager 84-78 record. My proposed realignment would give the division three superior teams in the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals.
Now, the actual 2008 Astros only played 161 games because of Hurricane Ike. Since they finished the season in third place and out of the Wild Card race, they didn’t bother making the odd game up. Under my proposed realignment, though, they would have finished just half a game ahead of the Cardinals for second place in the reimagined NL West.
The Astros would have had to make up that last game. With a win, they’d be in the playoffs with an 87-75 record. With a loss, they’d end up tied with St. Louis, and they’d play a one-game playoff for that final spot in the Division Series.
Either way, realignment would have kept the 84-win Dodgers far, far away from the postseason. So much for Mannywood.
AL East: BOS (96-66) and CLE (96-66)
AL West: LAA (94-68) and SEA (88-74)
Actual playoffs: BOS, CLE, LAA and NYY (94-68)
Realignment would have left the 94-win Yankees out of the playoffs while letting in the 88-win Mariners. As a Red Sox fan, I’m good with this. Objectively, I’ll admit that it isn’t terribly fair.
NL East: PHI (89-73) and NYM (88-74)
NL West: ARI (90-72) and COL (90-73)
Actual playoffs: PHI, ARI, COL and CHC (85-77)
In this realigned NL, we still would have had that thrilling Game 163 between the Rockies and the Padres; it just would have been for second place in the West rather than the Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the 85-win Cubs would have been pushed aside, and the 88-win Mets would have been in. It’s a small improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.
AL East: NYY (97-65) and DET (95-67)
AL West: MIN (96-66) and OAK (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, DET, MIN and OAK
Other than differences in first-round matchups, the AL playoffs would have been exactly the same in a realigned league as they were in a three-division league.
NL East: NYM (97-65) and PHI (85-77)
NL West: SDP (88-74) and LAD (88-74)
Actual playoffs: NYM, SDP, LAD and STL (83-79)
The 83-win Cardinals infamously won their division and went on to win the World Series. In a realigned NL, they would have finished third in the West and out of the playoffs.
AL East: NYY (95-67) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: CHW (99-63) and LAA (95-67)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, CHW and LAA
As with the 2006 AL, these are the four teams that actually made the playoffs in the old three-division system. Even the first-round matchups would have been unchanged in this case.
NL East: ATL (90-72) and PHI (88-74)
NL West: STL (100-62) and HOU (89-73)
Actual playoffs: ATL, STL, HOU and SDP (82-80)
If the ’06 Cardinals were the worst world champions in recent memory, the ’05 Padres were the worst playoff team in recent memory. Realignment pushes them out in favor of the 88-win Phillies.
AL East: NYY (101-61) and BOS (98-64)
AL West: MIN (92-70) and ANA (92-70)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, MIN and ANA
Every now and again, I’ll still hear someone say that the ’04 Red Sox weren’t legitimate world champions because they didn’t win their division. To this, I’ll always point out that the Sox won 98 games that year, giving them the second-best overall record in the league by a wide margin. It’s not their fault that the one team with a better record happened to be in the same division.
At any rate, the playoff teams in the realigned AL match the playoff teams in the actual AL for the third straight year.
NL East: ATL (96-66) and PHI (86-76)
NL West: STL (105-57) and LAD (93-69)
Actual playoffs: ATL, STL, LAD and HOU (92-70)
Adding the Reds, Pirates and Brewers to the East in a year that all three teams were terrible certainly doesn’t look like a great move in hindsight. Four teams (HOU, SFG, CHC and SDP) would have missed the playoffs despite better records than the Phillies.
AL East: NYY (101-61) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: OAK (96-66) and SEA (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, OAK and MIN (90-72)
Here, realignment essentially swaps out the 90-win Twins for the 93-win Mariners. That seems like a good move.
NL East: ATL (101-61) and FLA (91-71)
NL West: SFG (100-61) and CHC (88-74)
Actual playoffs: ATL, FLA, SFG, CHC
The best four teams made the playoffs under the old rules. The best four teams would still have made the playoffs with the proposed change.
AL East: NYY (103-58) and BOS (93-69)
AL West: OAK (103-59) and ANA (99-63)
Actual playoffs: NYY, OAK, ANA and MIN (94-67)
In this case, realignment exchanges a 94-win team for a 93-win team. That’s not good, but it’s fairly minor, especially given that the Twins played in an awful division that year.
NL East: ATL (101-59) and MON (83-79)
NL West: ARI (98-64) and STL (97-65)
Actual playoffs: ATL, ARI, STL and SFG (95-66)
Okay, this is the biggest strike against realignment we’ve seen. The change replaces the 95-win Giants with the 83-win Expos. (On the plus side, the poor Expos could use the break.) Two other non-playoff teams had better records than Montreal.
AL East: NYY (95-65) and CLE (91-71)
AL West: SEA (116-46) and OAK (102-60)
Actual playoffs: NYY, CLE, SEA, OAK
Even the first-round matchups would have been exactly the same. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
NL East: ATL (88-74) and PHI (86-76)
NL West: HOU (93-69) and STL (93-69)
Actual playoffs: ATL, HOU, STL and ARI (92-70)
Man, the NL East was terrible back in the early aughts.
In this analysis of 24 league-seasons, we’ve seen the following:
Realignment would have made the postseason pool stronger in the 2012 AL, 2009 AL (just barely), 2008 NL, 2007 NL, 2006 NL, 2005 NL, 2003 AL
On the other hand, realignment would have made the postseason pool weaker in the 2012 NL, 2011 AL, 2009 NL, 2007 AL, 2004 NL, 2002 AL (just barely), 2002 NL and 2001 NL.
The postseason pool would have stayed the same in the 2011 NL, 2010 AL, 2010 NL (mostly), 2008 AL, 2006 AL, 2005 AL, 2004 AL, 2003 NL and 2001 AL.
In all, we have seven league-seasons in which realignment would have made a stronger postseason pool and eight in which it would have made a weaker postseason pool. The remaining nine league-seasons would have seen no difference other than the addition of a one-game playoff in the 2010 NL.
You’d get slightly different results by realigning the league in different ways, but the point is that the two-division system is more or less a wash with the old three-division system. I still prefer the two-division setup, though, because it eliminates all of the most unqualified playoff teams of the last 12 years: the ’05 Padres, the ’06 Cardinals, the ’07 Cubs and the ’08 Dodgers. The worst team to make the postseason in my reimagined league: the ’02 Expos in an insane down year for the non-Braves members of the NL East. The second-worst: the ’06 Phillies, who replace the aforementioned Cardinals.
Compared to the issues introduced by the second wild card, though, this realigned setup looks pretty excellent.
AL East: BOS, DET
AL West: OAK, TEX
NL East: ATL, PIT
NL West: LAD, STL
Really, the only race worth watching in a realigned league would be the fight for the NL East. The Reds would trail the second-place Pirates by just one game, and both would have a legitimate shot at the first-place Braves. Out West, the Dodgers and Cardinals might flip-flop at the top, but both would go to the postseason; the same could be said for the A’s and Rangers in the AL. As far as the realigned AL East is concerned, the Tigers could make a run at the first-place Red Sox, but even that is a long shot, and both teams would make the playoffs either way. It would take a pretty impressive run for the third-place Rays to get in.
Such a league wouldn’t be terribly exciting in September, but we’d be guaranteed to see the best eight teams in the playoffs, which makes for excellent October baseball.
Look, there’s only one perfectly fair playoff system. Eliminate divisions entirely, have every team in each league play all of the other teams the same number of times and pick the best X teams to go to the postseason. Since baseball is never going to use such a system again,* we have to find a way to work with divisions and keep things mostly equitable.
*I say again because this was exactly the system used in the pre-expansion era. There were two leagues, and the best team in each league went to the World Series. I like that the current playoffs include more than two teams, but I think the intent there was good.
In realigned leagues with two divisions each, we’d create a more balanced schedule while keeping the big geographic and historic rivalries (Yankees/Red Sox, Cardinals/Cubs, etc.). Interleague play would be easy to manage as well, either throughout the year as it is now or as a short stretch in the middle of the season as it was previously. Finally, it would require expansion, which means more baseball. Who doesn’t want more baseball?
Of course, we could also just go back to the old rules. Just please get rid of the second Wild Card.
So, we’re a week into September, and there’s not a ton of drama left in the 2013 season. I’ll acknowledge right off the bat that what little drama we do have comes largely from the second wild card.
First, let’s define exactly how the second Wild Card works. Right now, the playoffs in each league include three division winners, all of which go straight to the best-of-five Division Series (ALDS or NLDS). Before that kicks off, the two best non-division winners in each league play each other in a one-game playoff, the Wild Card game, with the winner joining the division winners in the Division Series. Under the old rules, there was just one Wild Card team that advanced straight to the LDS; the one-game playoff was only used to break ties.
Because there are now two Wild Card spots, quite a few American League teams are still in contention. If there were just the one spot, as we had before the 2012 season, only the Rangers, A’s and Rays would really still be in the race (the Tigers and Red Sox have more or less won their races), and even the A’s would be more or less assured of a playoff spot by division title or Wild Card. Sure, the second Wild Card has made things more interesting.
In the National League, we’d still have the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds slugging it out, but it would be a fight for two guaranteed spots instead of one guaranteed spot and two spots in a play-in game. I suppose one could argue that the current format makes that race marginally more interesting than it would be with just the one Wild Card.
The thing is, I’m not sure we should pick our playoff system in terms of what provides the most drama. I’d rather see the best teams in the postseason, and the second Wild Card does nothing to make that a reality.
Here, as I see it, are the three main issues with the second Wild Card as currently constructed.
A) Lopsided matchups. If the two Wild Card teams have wildly different records (say 95 wins versus 85 wins), it seems unfair that the weaker team has a chance to knock off the stronger team in a one-game playoff. I’m aware that the Division Series often features lopsided matchups as well, but at least it’s a series. In one game, anything can happen. Martin Perez can out-pitch Felix Hernandez. Josh Reddick can belt three home runs (he has just 10 on the year). In a best-of-five, anything can happen, but the more talented team is more likely to rise to the top.
B) Intradivisional matchups. Okay, it’s not exactly fair to compare records across divisions. A team that wins 87 games in the stacked AL East may well be better than a team that wins 90 in the weak AL Central. When both Wild Card teams come from the same division, though, we can unequivocally see which team played better all season long. Why should we have a winner-take-all game when one team has clearly beaten the other already? It’s a bit like that kid who yells “next shot wins!” when he’s down 30-20 in a pickup basketball game.
C) Unfair advantages. The whole purpose of seeding in the playoffs is to give stronger teams a better shot at the title; after all, they’ve earned it! The team with the better record, for instance, usually has home-field advantage. In theory, the second Wild Card helps the stronger teams because, as division winners, they don’t have to play in the one-game playoff. In some scenarios, though, the Wild Card game can actually give a team with a lesser record some significant advantage.
That’s theory, though. In practice, how do these issues shake out?
Let’s take a look at the only season we’ve got in which the second Wild Card was actually used, then retroactively apply it to every other 21st-century pennant race, 2001-2011, and see what would have happened. I’ll note here that we obviously can’t KNOW what would have happened because certain aspects of each season (especially deadline trades) could have gone down quite differently if more teams were in contention. Still, I think it’s a useful exercise.
Division Winners: WSN (98-64), CIN (97-65), SFG (94-68)
Wild Cards: ATL (94-68) and STL (88-74)
Issues: A (Lopsided)
Right off the bat, we see a case in which one Wild Card team had a substantially better record than the other. Despite being outplayed by six games during the regular season, the Cardinals had a shot to knock the Braves out of the playoffs with a single win. That, of course, is exactly what they did.
Division Winners: NYY (95-67), DET (88-74) and OAK (94-68)
Wild Cards: BAL (93-69) and TEX (93-69)
On the other hand, the American League gave us a perfectly fair matchup; the two Wild Card teams finished with identical records. The second WC didn’t make a whit of difference here, as Baltimore and Texas would have played a one-game playoff under the old rules, too. The real travesty is that the Tigers had one of three guaranteed spots in the ALDS even though they were, by record, the seventh-best team in the league.
Division Winners: PHI (102-60), MIL (96-66), ARI (94-68)
Wild Cards: STL (90-72), ATL (89-73)
It’s funny that the year before the second wild card was implemented, the NL looked like the Platonic ideal of a season under the new rules. The three best teams in the league would have gone to the NLDS, and the play-in game would have featured two teams with almost identical records from different divisions. So far, the second wild card doesn’t look so bad, but it won’t stay that way for long.
Division Winners: NYY (97-65), DET (95-67), TEX (96-66)
Wild Cards: TBR (91-71), BOS (90-72)
Issues: B (Intradivisional)
I’ll grant that the two Wild Cards in this matchup were only separated by one game, but it still seems a little silly to have a one-game playoff between teams that finished with different records in the same division. Much as it pains me to say it, the Rays beat the Sox out fair and square during the regular season. Why should they have had to beat them one more time in the Wild Card game?
Division Winners: PHI (97-65), CIN (91-71), SFG (92-70)
Wild Cards: ATL (91-71), SDP (90-72)
The 2010 NL looked remarkably similar to the 2011 NL. I’d point out, though, that the Reds would have made the playoffs outright while the Braves, with an identical record in a stronger division, would have been stuck in a one-game playoff.
Division Winners: TBR (96-66), MIN (94-68), TEX (90-72)
Wild Cards: NYY (95-67), BOS (89-73)
Issues: A, B
Well, the current rules would have made a royal mess of things. The Yankees had the second-best overall record in the league. They missed winning their division by a single game. The second WC would have given the Red Sox, who finished well behind New York in the same division, a chance to knock those Yankees off in a one-game playoff.
I hate the Yankees, but even I have to point out that this scenario would have been completely unfair.
Division Winners: PHI (93-69), STL (91-71), LAD (95-67)
Wild Cards: COL (92-70), FLA (87-75)
This isn’t the worst matchup we’ll see, but it’s bad. The Rockies actually had a better record than one of the division winners, yet they would have had to face a clearly inferior Marlins team in a one-game playoff.
Division Winners: NYY (103-59), MIN (87-76), LAA (97-65)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), TEX (87-75)
Here we have our first dual one-game playoff scenario. The Twins and Tigers played an actual one-game playoff to decide the Central, and Boston and Texas would have played a one-game Wild Card playoff. This would have been even more lopsided than the NL matchup; the Red Sox finished eight games ahead of the Rangers.
Division Winners: PHI (92-70), CHC (97-64), LAD (84-78)
Wild Cards: MIL (90-72), NYM (89-73)
Well, this Wild Card game would have been pretty fair. I would be (and was) far more upset about the Dodgers’ sneaking into the postseason with 84 wins.
Division Winners: TBR (97-65), CHW (89-74), LAA (100-62)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), NYY (89-73)
Issues: A, B
This certainly would’ve been a wild one, as the White Sox and Twins played an actual one-game playoff to go with the hypothetical one-game playoff the Sox and Yankees would have played. Again, one of the Wild Cards beat out the other by a substantial margin, yet the Yankees would have had a chance to knock off a clearly superior regular-season team by winning one game.
Division Winners: PHI (89-73), CHC (85-77), ARI (90-72)
Wild Cards: COL (89-73) and SDP (89-73)
Like last year’s AL, the 2007 NL would have proceeded exactly the same way under the new rules as it actually did under the old rules. The Rockies and Padres tied for the single Wild Card and faced each other in a play-in game for a spot in the NLDS. Under today’s rules, one team would have been the “first” Wild Card, the other the “second,” and they would have played a one-game playoff for a spot in the NLDS.
Division Winners: BOS (96-66), CLE (96-66), LAA (94-68)
Wild Cards: NYY (94-68) and either DET (88-74) or SEA (88-74)
With identical records, the Tigers and Mariners would have played a one-game playoff for the second wild card, with the winner facing the Yankees in the actual Wild Card playoff game. Of course, the Yankees were clearly superior to both teams.
Division Winners: NYM (97-65), STL (83-78) and either SDP (88-74) or LAD (88-74)
Wild Cards: Either SDP or LAD and PHI (85-77)
Issues: C (Advantage to Lesser Team)
’06 wasn’t exactly a banner year in the National League, as only one team won more than 90 games. The second wild card, however, would have made things decidedly more interesting.
Under the old rules, the Padres were awarded the division title and the Dodgers the Wild Card based on head-to-head records. It didn’t especially matter, since the Wild Card team went to the NLDS anyway. Under the new rules, though, the Padres and Dodgers would have had to face each other in a one-game playoff, with the winner taking the division and the loser hosting the Phillies in the Wild Card game.
Here’s my biggest issue with the second Wild Card: In a scenario like this, a team with an inferior record gets the upper hand. The Phillies, with their second Wild Card spot already sewn up at the end of September, would have had the opportunity to rest their starters and re-set their rotation in the last few regular-season games. Then they would have had an additional day off while the Padres and Dodgers faced each other, likely burning their best pitchers in the process. The Wild Card game would’ve featured the well-rested Phillies and their ace against a fatigued Dodgers or Padres squad.
Even though the Phillies would have played that last game on the road, it’s easy to see a scenario in which they’d knock off a better team in a single game.
Division Winners: NYY (97-65), MIN (96-66), OAK (93-69)
Wild Cards: DET (95-67) and CHW (90-72)
Issues: A, B
In yet another season, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the actual division winners would have had to face a challenger with a clearly inferior record from the same division.
Division Winners: ATL (90-72), STL (100-62) and SDP (82-80)
Wild Cards: HOU (89-73) and PHI (88-74)
Okay, this Wild Card matchup would have been pretty fair, though both Houston and Philadelphia were much better teams than division-winning San Diego.
Division Winners: NYY (95-67) or BOS (95-67), CHW (99-63) and LAA (95-67)
Wild Cards: NYY or BOS and CLE (93-69)
Here we have essentially the same scenario as the 2006 NL. The Yankees and Red Sox would have faced each other in a one-game playoff (with admittedly awesome ratings) for the AL East, with the loser taking on the Indians in a second one-game playoff. The same advantages enjoyed by the Phillies above would have gone to Cleveland here.
Division Winners: ATL (96-66), STL (105-67) and LAD (93-69)
Wild Cards: HOU (92-70) and SFG (91-71)
The NL gives us nothing to be upset about under the new rules. Two strong teams with comparable records from different divisions would have played in the Wild Card game. That’s fair enough.
Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN (92-70) and ANA (92-70)
Wild Cards: BOS (98-64) and OAK (91-71)
On the other hand, this is the sort of Wild Card matchup that I really don’t want to see. The Red Sox were an elite team that year. They had the second-most wins in the entire league, well ahead of the Central and West division winners. The 91-win Athletics were very good, sure, but it’s dumb that they would have had a chance to knock off the Sox in a one-game playoff.
Just in terms of the strength of the two Wild Card teams, I think this is the second-most egregious matchup. It’s a distant second, though, to one that’s coming.
Division Winners: ATL (101-61), CHC (88-74) and SFG (100-64)
Wild Cards: FLA (91-71) and HOU (87-75)
In what’s becoming a familiar refrain by now, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the division winners would have had to play a team with a lesser record from a weak division.
Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN 90-72) and OAK (96-66)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67) and SEA (93-69)
The eighth AL season we’ve retroactively examined is the first in which the Wild Card matchup would have been especially fair. Both teams were likely superior to the AL Central champion Twins.
Division Winners: ATL (101-61), STL (97-65) and ARI (98-64)
Wild Cards: SFG (95-66) and LAD (92-70)
This is another intra-divisional Wild Card matchup, and those are always fraught with issues. The Dodgers were a good team, but the Giants were three and a half games better over a full season. Why should Los Angeles have had a chance to erase that by winning one game?
Division Winners: NYY (103-58), MIN (94-67) and OAK (103-59)
Wild Cards: ANA (99-63) and either BOS (93-69) or SEA (93-69)
Like the 2007 AL, this season would have seen a one-game playoff for the right to participate in a one-game playoff. Both second Wild Card teams were quite a bit worse than the 99-win Angels.
Division Winners: ATL (88-74), HOU (93-69) or STL (93-69), and ARI (92-70)
Wild Card: HOU or STL and SFG (90-72)
The whole point of the second Wild Card is to make winning one’s division meaningful. The downside, as we see here, emerges when we have a tie for the division lead. Despite having tied for the best record in the whole league, Houston and St. Louis would have had to play a one-game playoff. The loser would then have had to play a strong but inferior Giants club in a second one-game playoff.
Division Winners: NYY (95-65), CLE (91-71) and SEA (116-46)
Wild Cards: OAK (102-60) and MIN (85-77)
The 2001 Athletics were a fantastic team. They won 102 games, which easily gave them the second-best record in the league (the Yankees were third with 95 wins); it just so happened that an incredible 116-win Seattle squad played in the same division. If anything, the A’s were even more impressive because they won all those games despite facing Seattle 19 times. The Mariners beat the living daylights out of every other team in the American League that year, but they went “only” 10-9 against the Athletics.
Under the rules at the time, Oakland went to the playoffs as the one and only Wild Card. Under current rules, Oakland would have faced 85-win Minnesota in the Wild Card game. The second-best team in the Majors would have faced the 14th-best in a single elimination contest while teams with much weaker records went straight to the Division Series.
That should not be possible in any sport that makes sense.
Over 24 league-seasons, we have:
11 cases of issue A – the Wild Card game would have been an especially lopsided matchup because the first team was at least four wins better than the second. This includes the absurd case of the 2001 AL.
5 cases of issue B – the Wild Card game would have included two teams with different records in the same division.
3 cases of issue C – the Wild Card matchup would have given an advantage to a team with a lesser record.
8 cases in which the Wild Card game introduced none of those issues.
The problems I’ve identified with the second Wild Card, then, aren’t just hypothetical scenarios. They seem to come up more often in the AL than the NL, but they’re common to both leagues. Every single season in the past 12 would have seen at least one of these issues in at least one league.
Moreover, even in the seasons with no issues introduced specifically by the second wild card, there were issues with the playoff system in general. Teams like the ’06 Cardinals, the ’05 Padres and the ’12 Tigers really had no business being in the postseason at all, let alone getting a free pass to the Division Series. An 85-win team in a weak division is not more playoff-worthy than a 95-win team that happens to share a division with an even stronger team.
How can we fix these issues?
My first proposed solution requires no real changes to the current structure. Keep the three divisions in each league, the three division winners and the two Wild Card teams. Put all five of those teams into one bucket and seed them in order of overall record.
The #1, #2 and #3 teams go straight to the Division Series. The #4 and #5 teams face off in a one-game playoff to get the final spot in the divisional round.
If there’s a tie for the #5 spot, play a one-game playoff see who is in and who is out. If there’s a tie at any other point in the seeding, use the following tiebreakers:
- Division winner over Wild Card
- League record
- Head-to-head record
Under these rules, last year’s NL playoffs would have been the same, with the Braves facing the Cardinals in a one-game playoff. The AL, however, would have pitted the Tigers against the Rangers in that one-game playoff, as Baltimore outplayed Texas against other AL teams.
A more extreme version of this same system would be to ignore division winners entirely (except for tiebreakers) and just take the five best records in the league. Under this system, the Tigers would have missed the playoffs entirely, with the Rays taking their place in the play-in game. I actually prefer this option because it eliminates clearly unqualified teams like the ’05 Padres, but I understand that baseball wants to see every division represented. Either option is better than what we have now.
AL West: LAA, TEX, HOU, OAK, SEA, KCR, CHW, MIN
AL East: BOS, NYY, TBR, TOR, BAL, DET, CLE
NL West: COL, SDP, LAD, SFG, ARZ, CHC, MIL, STL
NL East: NYM, PHI, PIT, ATL, MIA, WSN, CIN
Of course, the divisions are unequal sizes in this setup, so the league would need to expand* to include two more teams. Right now the open slots are in the East, but it would make geographic sense for the Brewers, Cubs or White Sox to switch to the East and open up slots in the West instead if necessary. (Either way, we’d have more baseball!)
*The alternative, I suppose, would be to contract two teams. I don’t think too many fans would miss the Marlins, but I can’t really see a good contraction candidate in the AL right now.
The new playoffs would just feature the top two teams in each eight-team division. In the first round, we’d have the first-place team in the West play the second-place team in the East and vice versa. With such large divisions, strength of schedule wouldn’t vary as much, so actual records would be more representative of team strength. Sure, it would mean fewer Red Sox-Yankees matchups, but the league would more than make up for its loss by adding 162 games to the season for the two extra teams. (Again, who doesn’t want more baseball?)
This isn’t a system built to produce drama, but that’s OK. MLB is not the NFL, where “any given Sunday” is king. In baseball, there are more than enough games to separate the great squads from the also-rans. Giving lesser teams a chance to sneak into the playoffs anyway undermines the whole purpose of playing the games.
Let’s turn October baseball back into what it’s meant to be: a showcase for the best of the best.
Daniel Nava walks on seven pitches.
A few quick facts about the Pirates’ last postseason appearance in 1992:
The last pitcher to record a playoff win for the Pirates is Tim Wakefield. Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal given that Wakefield was still active just two years ago, but in 1992 he was a 25-year-old phenom wrapping up a season that put him third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He hasn’t pitched for Pittsburgh since 1993.
Taking the loss for the Braves in that game was left-hander Tom Glavine. He’ll be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.
The 1992 Pirates’ best pitcher was Doug Drabek, who was then 29 years old. Today, his son Kyle is in his fourth major league season with the Blue Jays.
Their best position player, of course, was NL MVP Barry Bonds.
Bonds led the team with 34 home runs. No one else had more than 14, and only two other players even cracked double digits. The Pirates’ 106 home runs would tie them with the Cardinals for 13th place in the National League today – and that’s 162 games’ worth of home runs for the Pirates against the Cardinals’ total through 137. They finished fourth in the league in 1992.
- Put another way, the Pirates’ .381 slugging percentage would tie them with the Padres for 12th in the NL today. In 1992, that mark was good for fourth place.