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By The Numbers: The Last Wild Card Race

Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays rounds the bases after his game-winning walk off home run in the twelfth inning against the New York Yankees during the game at Tropicana Field on September 28, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays rounds the bases after his game-winning walk off home run in the twelfth inning against the New York Yankees during the game at Tropicana Field on September 28, 2011 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

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By Father Gabe Costa
» More Columns

As our sabermetrics course is winding down, we will have just three more “student” blogs, counting this one by Frederick Heitjan. I think you will enjoy Frederick’s musings.

Frederick Heitjan: This last offseason the MLB Players Union and Commissioner agreed to add a second wild card team to each league. Starting this season, the wild card teams from each league will meet after the season for a 1-game play-in to join the playoffs. There’s quite a bit to be said about the new MLB postseason format and what it means for competitive equity and fairness. I like how winning the division becomes important, but I hate how there is virtually no incentive to finish in 5th instead of 6th place. I’m excited for more diversity for the AL wild card slot, but I want baseball to maintain some exclusivity. So while I haven’t quite decided on whether or not the new playoffs are going to change baseball for the better, I’ve come to terms with the fact we are never going to experience another September 28, 2011.

To trascribe the final hours of the 2011 regular season at this point is redundant. If you didn’t watch any of the matchups that night, you saw the recaps detailing the unthinkable collapses of two perennial powerhouses and the stories of the teams who took their places in the postseason the next day. September 28 will likely be remembered as one of the most, if not the most, exciting day in baseball history. But with the new playoff format, we are struck with the reality that it was probably the last truly exciting Game 162 we will ever see.

September 28 was the amazing finale to what had been an unpredictable month of baseball. On September 4, the Red Sox, preseason favorites to win the World Series, led the AL East and had a commanding 9-game lead over the wild card. On September 5, the Braves had a 9-game lead on the wild card with little hope of catching the dominant Phillies. By 7PM on September 28, not only had the Red Sox lost their lead in the East, but they had fallen even with the Tampa Bay Rays for the lead in the wild card race. Likewise, Atlanta lost four straight games to fall even with the St. Louis Cardinals. Together, Boston and Atlanta went a combined 15-36 in the last month of the regular season, which led to a situation on September 28 where both wild card races were tied.

Thus, September 28was the perfect storm for an exciting season finale. With two 2-way ties at the top of each wild card race, there were four games with playoff consequences in action over the course of the night. But what would the playoff scenarios have looked like under a two-wild card system after Game 161?

Here’s the National League:

Rank Team Wins Losses Status
1 Philadelphia 101 60 Clinch Division
2 Milwaukee 95 66 Clinch Division
3 Arizona 94 67 Clinch Division
4 St. Louis 89 72 Wild Card – 1
5 Atlanta 89 72 Wild Card – 1
6 San Francisco 86 75 Eliminated

And the American League:

Rank Team Wins Losses Status
1 New York 97 64 Clinch Division
2 Texas 95 66 Clinch Division
3 Detroit 94 67 Clinch Division
4 Tampa Bay 90 71 Wild Card – 1
5 Boston 90 71 Wild Card – 1
6 Los Angeles 86 75 Eliminated

 

Instead of creating a dramatic, tense atmosphere for playing baseball where four teams were fighting for the last two playoff spots, the smart move for each wild card team would have been to rest their players in preparation for the upcoming playoff. Division leaders would fight over home-field advantage, but not so much that they would lose a top pitcher in the starting rotation. The most exciting thing that would have happened on September 28 would have been Jose Reyes bunting, and then bench-warming, his way to the National League batting title.

There are, of course, scenarios where Game 162 could be exciting under a two-wild card system. For example, if the second wild card slot were in question, that would provide the same win-and-get-in scenario as with a one-team format, but without actually getting in to the playoffs. If both slots were in contest, presumably through a 3 or 4-way tie for the wild card, we would have a truly amazing night of baseball on Game 162. But the problem is that we’ve never had a three or four-way tie for the wild card before. The fact that we had two two-way ties on September 28 was impressive in its own right, but to have four identical records in one league after 161 games of play would be truly remarkable.

But even in these extreme cases, none of these situations would be comparable to September 28 because none of them would result in a team getting in to the postseason. Would the Rays have had a champagne celebration if they had just clinched an appearance in a 1-game play-in? Or would the Red Sox and Braves have looked so upset if they realized they would have to play a 1-game play-in on the road instead of home? Nobody celebrates the game before they clinch the playoff spot, so why will Game 162 be any different?

My problem with the two-team wild card isn’t that I don’t believe it will increase competitive equity – I’m reasonably confident it will. My problem is that it shortens the grueling 162-game season into a 1-game play-in. There’s something to be said about Cinderella stories and the possibility of the bottom-ranked team winning the World Series, but when you compartmentalize the season and make game 162.5 worth more than any other game, it feels like the league is trying to force the Cinderella story to happen. It’d be amazing if the 2011 Braves were able to recoup, win the play-in, and then go on a World Series tear, but if they couldn’t earn their playoff spot in 162 games, why should they even be considered for the role? And even worse, can you imagine a team winning the wild card by four or five games and not getting into the playoffs because they lost to an inferior team? The September collapse will have to become more dramatic or it will simply fade away. To make the play-in game, winning streaks don’t have to be as long and losing streaks can be even longer; if we want more September drama the winners will have to win more and the losers will have to fall apart.

By implementing the new wild card system, Major League Baseball is trying to return the importance of winning the division, but by creating a two-team cushion, not only has the division race been stripped of its excitement, but winning the wild card race no longer holds any importance. The league is trying to make the division champion more important, but on Game 162 when the Diamondbacks and Giants are tied for the lead in the NL West, I’ll be watching the Nationals and Brewers fighting for 5th place.

References

All season data is from Baseball-Reference.com.

Augenbraun, Eric. “MLB madness in game 6.” The Guardian 29 September 2011. 

Bloom, Barry. “Addition of Wild Card berths finalized for 2012.” MLB 02 March 2012. 

Corcoran, Cliff. “Where collapses by Red Sox and Braves rank among worst ever.” Sports Illustrated 29 September 2011.