The Wild Card playoff berth, since being introduced in 1995 to Major League Baseball, has produced 5 World Series Champions. This includes three straight from 2002-2004 (Angels, Marlins, Red Sox) as well as the 2014 San Francisco Giants. It grew from one wild card per league in its inception to two in 2012; one year too late for the Atlanta Braves in the National League who collapsed for the Cardinals to take it on the final day of the season. In that 2014 World Series the American League Champion Royals were also a wild card winner.
For the most part – it has helped create tremendous drama as more teams have a chance for the post-season later in the season when you have runaway winners like the Astros or Nationals this year in certain divisions. Is it still really working though?
This year – as more teams openly embrace the “full rebuild” model that has helped propel the Cubs and Astros among others to titles you have more mediocrity than I can remember in recent memory. I took some down data about the last 12 years or so of Wild Card Winners, see chart:
So 21 of the 34 teams had 90 wins or more (in red) in that time frame or about 62% of the time. The wild card detractors say that the Wild Card weakens the playoff pool, turning MLB into the NBA Playoffs where it’s almost an open invitation to everyone, which I too am vehemently against. However, if 90 wins is a benchmark, that doesn’t exactly look to be the case.
This year though, the crowd after the two wild card winners sinks very quickly to teams that are just hanging around at .500. A couple of weeks ago the Minnesota Twins were squarely in a playoff hunt in the AL Central. Now, thanks to long 10+ winning streaks by the Indians and Royals, the Twins are 7 games out of first AND sit at 50-52. Yet they too are still a playoff contender, just 4 games out of the second wild card spot. Is that right?
So a team that is in reality just fighting for .500 is turned into a team that is fighting for a playoff spot. Is THAT fair to the team? The fans? Even the players themselves? The danger here is that teams that should be really looking to 2018 mortgage THAT for short term hope that is misplaced. Just in the past week – the Twins were “in the hunt” and traded for Jaime Garcia, then lost a few games, deemed themselves out of the hunt and now traded Garcia again to the Yankees. Sure, Garcia didn’t even have enough time in Minnesota to unpack, but that can’t be good for his health and mental health either.
Meanwhile, in the National League the Rockies and Diamondbacks have been hanging on to the two wild card spots for most of the seasons as the Dodgers have ascended to the top NL record. The first runner up in the National League is the Brewers – who have surprised baseball this season and held onto the NL Central nearly the entire first half while the Cubs floundered. A second half fall has dropped them out of first but still just 5 games out of the wild card at 55-51. After them? The 51-53 St. Louis Cardinals who are 8 games back in the WC race.
If you are sitting at .500 at the start of August – you pretty much know where you stand. You are a mediocre team. Not much will change that, unless you feel like you are missing some key players due to injury that can change your fortunes. The Royals are a good example of this mindset. Their World Series core is hanging on for one more run, so management decided to make a few tweaks instead of selling off to rebuild. The team rewarded them with a great start to the second half to put themselves squarely back in the race. Management in turn rewarded them by trading with the Padres for some relief help in a beleaguered bullpen and today brought back Melky Cabrera who broke out with the Royals before some bad seasons and a PED suspension.
Yet it seems unlikely that any Wild Cards will reach 90 wins this season, and certainly won’t approach 2015 where the Pirates and Cubs finished with 97 and 96 wins respectively – BOTH coming out of the NL Central where the Cardinals won 100 games. By the way the same Brewers only won 68 games that year which speaks to how quickly in today’s baseball teams fortunes can change.
My point to all of this is that mediocrity is not what the wild card was meant to create. If you are the Pirates, can you really justify spending big or mortgaging a future when you can’t even stay at .500? I hope not. That is hanging on to false hope, like when the Padres failed to trade off some of their big names in 2015 because their own pride wouldn’t allow them to realize that the Preller Spending Spree of 2014 was a dramatic and total failure.
When the Oakland Athletics went “all in” in 2014, now we look at that and realize what a big mistake it was – the team traded away Yoenis Cespedes, Addison Russel and more for rentals including Jon Lester who couldn’t protect a 3+ run lead against the Royals in what was one of the best wild card games we’ve ever seen.
This year – winning the division seems a foregone conclusion for several teams, with both the AL West and NL East producing only one team even over .500! Many of the other teams just look at their division and say “Well, better try for next year.”. This is embarrassing.
At this rate, the second wild card or at least the pennant chase of the wild card is looking much more like the mild card.