Be Careful What You Wish for Theo, Changing MLB Wild Card System?
This week I read where MLB is going to consider changes to the Wild card system if the clubs ask for it. Part of this is born out of the fact that the three best teams in the NL are all from the central division and thus, two of them will play a single elimination game to then decide which of them faces the division winner from ironically the central, while the weaker western and eastern winners who are likely the Mets and Dodgers respectably will face off in the other National League Division Series. This will insure that either the fourth or fifth best team in the NL in terms of winning percentage advances to the National League Championship Series. But before you react to all the howling from Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, the Cardinals or whoever wins that division have the biggest gripe because they will face a stronger team no matter who emerges from the Wild card game, but let’s look back at the many other examples of teams being shut out all together because they had the bad fortune of being in a strong division and the lucky ducks who won it all despite being weaker from soft divisions.
I went back and looked at the league standings using Baseball Reference which has a page that organizes the win/loss records by all of MLB, not just the division. In 1969, the top four records belonged to the four division winners, Baltimore, the Mets, Minnesota and Atlanta. Three other teams won 90 or more games and missed the postseason, the Cubs, giants and Tigers. That season produced the highest percentage of 90 game winning teams in the division era, 7 of 24. IN those days, a division heavy schedule was played with no interleague, so no complaining could arise. IN 1970, the Yankees had a better record than the Pirates, but with no interleague play, it was a moot point since the Twins and Orioles were both better, the Pirates had the second best mark in the NL behind the Dodgers and Pittsburgh was the first sub-90 win division champion with an 89-73 mark. In ’71, the Tigers were like the Yankees in that they were better than the NL Giants, but they were not as good as the Athletics or orioles in the AL. The Cardinals interestingly had the same record of 90-72 as the Giants, but because the Cardinals wanted to be in the East, they finished in second. Of course we cannot assume the Cardinals would have been better in the West, but we can always say what if. The Dodgers remember were just a game behind San Francisco win the season ended. It was the 1972 White Sox who were the first team to really feel left out in the cold, they were better than the Tigers by a game, but Detroit won a weaker Eastern division while the Sox were left staring up at the developing dynasty in Oakland.
The 1973 NL season was the first that would make you ask what could have been done to make things better. The Dodgers won 95 games and were second to Cincinnati in the West, the Giants won 88 in third, yet the Mets won just 82 games to win the NL East. Going into a Monday of makeup games after the regular season ended for most teams, a situation was possibly going to occur where a three-way tie took place in the NL East between the Mets, Pirates and Cardinals, who all could have tied for first at 81-81. When the Cardinals played game 162 on Sunday September 30, they came in at 80-81 and a loss would have won the NL East for the Mets had New York split a doubleheader in Chicago. Pittsburgh had to win on Sunday to go to 80-81 and if the Mets split or were swept at Chicago, it met a makeup game on Monday for the Pirates and two for the Mets. As fate would have it, the Cardinals did win 3-1 over the Phillies in St. Louis, the Pirates beat Montreal 10-2 in Pittsburgh and yes, the Mets only split that doubleheader in Chicago, winning 9-2 in the first game but losing 1-0 in the second. On Monday, October 1, the Mets and Cubs would play two in Chicago and if the Mets lost game one, the second game would be played. If they won then they had the NL East crown and the second game would be called off since it would have no impact on the final standings. Pittsburgh played a home game and lost to San Diego finishing 80-82, and the Mets would win that first game in Chicago to take the division at just 82-79. Had the Pirates won and the Cubs had swept those Monday games, a three-way tie of 81-81 clubs would have taken place. Those Mets would go to the World Series, the Giants and Dodgers who had left new York behind 16 years earlier despite better records could only watch at home.
It happened again in 1974 with the Reds and Braves sitting at home, Cincinnati won 98 and the Braves 88, while NL East winner Pittsburgh won just 88 and faced the 100 win Dodgers in the NLCS. IN 1976 a pair of second place NL teams had better marks than AL West winner Kansas City, but no interleague play and thus no reason for gripes from Dodger and Pirate fans that year.
The 1977 season was an expansion year and so the divisions were top heavy, especially in the American League which was home to the new Toronto and Seattle franchises. The top four teams in MLB all made the playoffs, the Yankees, Royals and Phillies all won over 100, the Dodgers won 98, while the 97-64 Red Sox and Orioles, 96-66 Pirates, 94-68 Rangers and 90-72 White Sox all watched at home. The ’77 season holds the record for most 90-win teams that missed the playoffs in the division era, with 9 of the 26 teams at that time winning 90 or more and another eight teams losing 90 or more, the Indians, Padres, Brewers, Mets, Athletics, mariners, Braves and Blue Jays, Toronto and Atlanta both were over 100 losses. Only two teams, both in the NL had exactly .500 records, the 81-81 Cubs and Astros. Three teams would win between 82 and 89, four would lose between 82 and 89.
The 1978 season would see eight teams win 90 or more, in the AL we all know what happened with the Yankees and Red Sox in that division playoff at Fenway. But did you remember that the Orioles and Brewers both won over 90 and Baltimore had a better record than the Royals, another 90 plus winner out of the west. The NL saw better records for the Reds who finished behind the Dodgers in the west than the Phillies who took the east. The Giants just missed the 90 win club with 89 victories. The 1978 season was interesting in that no team won between 80 and 83 games and another eight would lose 90 or more, Seattle and Toronto both losing over 100.
In 1979, the AL Brewers, Red Sox and Yankees all won 90 or more, all were behind the Orioles in the eastern division and all were better than the 88-74 Angels out west. The NL Expos were better than Cincinnati who won the west, its final official flag until 1990, but in the east Montreal was behind Pittsburgh.
The 1980 season was remembered for three great races. The Yankees would edge the Orioles in the AL East and Baltimore would miss the postseason even though the team was 100-62, Kansas City won the west in a romp with a 97-65 mark. The NL featured great finishes with Philly edging Montreal by 1 in the NL East, Houston beat the Dodgers in a playoff for the western flag and Cincinnati was not far behind.
I mentioned official flags for the 1979 and 1990 Reds, they should have also won one in 1981. But that was the season of baseball’s first massive strike and thus the rushed choice by MLB to split the season, giving those teams in the lead when the strike hit June 12 an entry to post season, so everyone started fresh with a chance to win what became a race over a eight week period from August 10 to October 4. The Reds were the best team by far, they were 66-42, playing exactly two thirds of the normal 162 game schedule. The Reds were on pace to win 99 games if you project the record to a full season minus the strike, but the Reds were not the best team in either of the two halves, those titles instead went to the Dodgers and Astros, who were second and third in their division overall, and fourth and eighth overall in MLB for that season. The same thing happened to the NL East Cardinals, who had the third best record overall in MLB in ’81, but the split portions went to the Expos and Phillies, teams who were second and third in the NL East and who were seventh and ninth in MLB. IN the AL, the Athletics had the best mark in the AL West and second overall in MLB for the entire season, but with the split, it gave them a matchup with a Royals team that overall finished in fourth in the division and 17th in all of MLB with a combined 50-53 record. IN the AL East, Milwaukee had the best overall mark and the Brewers did win one of the split portions, the other went to the Yankees. The Bombers would go to the World Series that year, despite having a mark overall that was third in the AL East and tenth in MLB at 59-48 behind the Orioles who were second. In the AL in 1981, it would have been Athletics vs Brewers if the split had not taken place, Reds vs Cardinals in the NL and we would never have had the story of Montreal’s blue Monday.
In ’82, Milwaukee edged Baltimore by a game in the AL East, the Angels two games worse than Baltimore would win the west by three over KC. The Cardinals edged the Phillies by three in the NL East, Philadelphia had the same mark as the 89-73 Braves who took the western flag by a game over the Dodgers.
IN 1983, the AL would see a repeat of 1980, the White Sox romping this time in the West, while Baltimore got justice and took the east, the Tigers and Yankees would both win over 90 and stay home, though most teams in the AL East had winning marks that year. The Dodgers and Phillies had the best two records in the NL, as did the white Sox and Orioles in the AL.
In 1984, the Royals took the AL West winning just 84 games, the Orioles, Red Sox, Yankees and blue jays were all better back east, all were way behind the 104-58 Tigers. The Cubs and Padres had the best two records in the NL. A year later in 1985, the mashing of teeth would come from New York, the Mets were better than the Dodgers by three games but the 98-64 Mets were behind the Cardinals in the NL East, the Dodgers took the west easily outlasting Cincinnati by 5.5 games. Meantime, the Yankees at 97-64 finished 1.5 behind Toronto but easily had a better record than the royals at 91-71, the eventual World Series winners, just don’t remind Cardinal fans about it.
The ’86 season is remembered for one of the best postseason events of all time, even though the regular season was really not all that dramatic, the entire postseason field was locked up with a full week left on the baseball calendar, Boston locked up the AL East on September 28, the season did not end until October 5, while the Astros, Angels and Mets had clinched previously. It would be 1987 that again would bring us some odd divisional results in both leagues. IN the AL, Detroit won the eastern title at 98-64, Toronto 96-66, Milwaukee 91-71 and the Yankees 89-73 all were better than the 85-77 Twins who got in winning the west and that Minnesota team would go on to a championship, despite the ninth best overall record in MLB and the fifth best in the 14 team AL. Over in the NL, the Cardinals took the eastern flag at 95-67, while the 92-70 Mets and 91-71 Expos sat at home, the 90-72 Giants got in winning the west.
Ironically the twins would then be bumped out in 1988, they were 91-71 and better than the 89-73 Red Sox who won the east, but Oakland was great again winning 104 and leaving Minnesota in the dust, even though the Twins were six games better than the 1987 World Series titlist. It happened to two teams in the 1989 AL West, Oakland won 99 to take the flag, but Kansas City with 92 and the Angels 91 victories both were better than the 89 by Toronto in the east, while in 1990 the White Sox at 94-68 were better than the 88-74 Red Sox. Again Oakland ran away in the west in 1990 going 103-59 to face Boston in the ALCS.
The 1991 World Series is probably the best ever played and nothing cheap happened to allow the Twins and Braves to get there. Minnesota had the best record in the AL followed by Toronto, Atlanta was only bested by Pittsburgh overall in the NL. In 1992, the best four teams again went to the post season, the Brewers, Reds and Twins all won 90 or more that season and went home as second place teams.
The 1993 season though will be remembered as the one that produced the best team to not go to a post season game in the division era. The 1980 Orioles won 100, the 1981 Reds played at a 99 win pace, but no one will ever forget those 1993 San Francisco Giants, a team that was all but moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. The Giants raced out to a commanding lead, but ’93 was an expansion year and so the divisions had a top heavy feel, particularly in the western division of the NL which was home to the newly formed Rockies and the Padres which went through a fire sale. The Braves would win 104 and take the division on the final day of the season, the Giants had a chance to tie Atlanta but got blown out at Los Angeles and sat at home with a 103-59 mark. The Phillies would win the NL East with just 97 victories edging Montreal by three. The White Sox and Blue Jays were the best two teams in the AL that year. Interesting to note, MLB had already announce the new three division alignment for 1994 and the balanced schedule used in 1993 would continue that next season. Had the 1994 division alignment been used in 1993, the great race would have been in the NL East, where the Braves at 104-58 would have pulled away from the Phillies and Expos who were then seven and ten behind the Braves. The Giants would have won the NL West by 22 over the Dodgers and the Padres and Rockies would have both been eliminated before September 1. The interesting race would have been in the NL Central, that title would have gone to the 87-75 Cardinals who would have edged Houston by two games. The Phillies would have been the wild card and if we had a second wild card like we now have in 2015, a 94-68 Montreal team would have played those Phillies, the winner to get the 104-58 Braves while the 103-59 Giants would have taken on the 87-75 Cardinals. IN the AL, the white Sox would have won the new central division, Toronto the east, while the west would have gone to the 86-76 Rangers. The Yankees at 88-74 would have been the wild card and if we went to a second one, it would have resulted in an additional playoff to break a tie between Baltimore and Detroit. The wild card winner would have then faced Toronto while the White sox and Rangers did battle.
What happened in 1994 does not matter ultimately since the strike canceled the World Series, but imagine if the Rangers had kept playing at the pace they were, they were the best team in a division with a record of 10 games under .500 and the 21st out of 28 teams in terms of overall winning percentage. If that pace would have continued, much better teams like the White sox, Orioles, and royals would have faced a possible Wild card entry against a team that got in with a horrendous division record. We almost saw that play out remember in 1973 and it nearly happened again in 1997, 2005 and 2008.
IN 1995 and 1996, nothing unusual would take place. IN ’95, the Astros would have played the Rockies, something that almost happened if not for a Rockies win the final day of that season, the playoff for that wild card would have been in Denver. Also, the loser of that divisional playoff between the mariners and Angels would have then played the Yankees in another elimination game, while the winner would have faced Boston, Cleveland awaiting the wild card winner in 1995 using today’s rules. IN ’96 if a second wild card would have existed, the Expos would have won as many as the central division Cardinals and a possible three-way tie for the second slot would have taken place in the AL to end the season. The Mariners would have had to make up a game and if they had lost it, a three-way tie for that second Wild card would have been created with the White Sox and Red Sox.
In 1997, the Mets and Dodgers both were 88-74, both would have been tied for the second wild card berth if it had existed, both better than an 84-78 Astros team that took the central title. In ’98, the only thing of note is that Boston had a better record than the AL division champs in Texas and Cleveland. Texas would have been tied with 88 victories with Toronto, a Blue jays team that would have been the second wild card if it had existed and thus Boston and Toronto would have played in that game for the right to then face the 114-48 Yankees, while Texas played Cleveland under today’s rules.
The NL in that same season actually had a tie and a playoff between the cubs and Giants, the winner got the NL’s best team in Atlanta, while the Mets just missed joining that party, a win the final Sunday would have created a three-way tie that would have needed to be broken under either the 1998 or modern Wild card systems.
IN 1999, the top teams all made it to post season, and we had another tie break in the NL between Cincinnati and the Mets. IN the AL, the second Wild card if it existed would have gone to Oakland.
In 2000, the Yankees at just 87-74 took the east, Cleveland was 90-72 and missed the post season, if the second wild card existed, the Indians would have faced Seattle and then that winner would have taken on the White Sox, while New York and Oakland, the series that was actually played in 2000 would have opened the ALDS.
If not for the Wild card in 2001, Oakland at 102-60 would have missed the playoffs. This great team though instead of facing the Yankees to open the playoffs would have had to play the 85-77 Twins under today’s rules and then get the 116-46 mariners if they had advanced, while the Yankees would have faced Cleveland. IN the NL, St. Louis would have had a playoff with Houston to decide the central and then that loser would have hosted San Francisco under today’s rules. That winner would have played who ever won the central that year and Atlanta and Arizona would have met in the NLDS.
In 2002, 11 teams won 90 or more, a higher mark than the 9 in 1977, but a lower percentage as 9 of 26 is still more than 11 of 30. In 2002, The Yankees had the best AL record and they would have faced the winner of a playoff between the Angels and either the Mariners or Red Sox, a tie existed if we had a second wild card. Oakland would have played Minnesota which was actually the case that year. IN the NL, the Braves would have faced the winner of a Giants and dodgers wild card game, while the Diamondbacks played the Cardinals as was the case that year.
The 2003 season would have presented an interesting change. Under today’s rules, the Yankees would have faced the winner of a Boston and Seattle wild card game, both teams were better than the Minnesota team Oakland would have faced in the AL playoffs. IN the NL, the Braves would have played the winner of a marlins and Astros Wild card, while the Giants would have faced the Cubs.
In 2004, Boston would have hosted Oakland and Houston would have hosted the Giants if the modern Wild card playoffs existed. The AL winner would have played the Yankees in the ALDS while weaker teams in the Angels and Twins would have faced one another. IN the NL, the Houston and San Francisco winner would have gone to Atlanta which was the case for the ’04 Astros, while the Dodgers went to St. Louis.
The 2005 season presented another weak division winner. The 82-80 Padres won the NL West that year. The Phillies 88 and the Marlins and Mets both at 83 wins were better than San Diego. Had a second wild card been around, the Phillies and Astros would have played to see who took on the Cardinals who won over 100 games, while the Braves at just 90-72 would have faced that San Diego team. IN the AL, the Red Sox and Yankees would have played off the AL East and the loser would have hosted Cleveland in the Wild card game. That winner would have then played the White Sox, while whoever won the East would have matched up with the Angels.
IN 2006, the Yankees at 97-65 and Mets with the same record had the best marks in all MLB. The Yankees faced the 95-67 Tigers that post season and lost. Under today’s rule, the Yankees would have played Detroit or the White Sox, Chicago would have been the second Wild card if it was around and that sox team was 90-72. The Twins and Athletics who won 96 and 93 respectably would be the other matchup in either playoff format. IN the NL, the Mets were clearly the best team and they would have played the winner of a Phillies vs either padres or Dodgers wild card. Los Angeles and San Diego tied at 88-74 to win the West. The western division winner would have played a an even weaker Cardinals team at just 83-78 from the NL Central, the team that ultimately won the 2006 World Series.
The 2007 season in the NL was one of the great finishes. With three days left, a possible five-way tie existed for the NL East, West and wild card positions between the Mets, Phillies, Rockies, Padres and Diamondbacks. When all was said and done, the Diamondbacks got the weakest team in post season, the 85-77 Cubs. Under today’s rule, Arizona would have played the winner of that great game between the Rockies and Padres, while the Cubs would have faced Philadelphia. IN the AL, the Yankees would have hosted Seattle to settle a Wild card, then the winner would have played Boston, while Cleveland would face the Angels. The Indians and Red sox both had 96-66 records, best in the AL, but Boston won the season series 5-2 and thus claimed the top spot.
The 2008 post season was memorable for many reasons. If we had a second Wild card, it would have produced another memory, because Boston would have hosted the Yankees. The winner of that would have then opened at the Angels, while the Rays would have awaited the winner between the Twins and white Sox as was actually the case in 2008 when those two had a playoff for the central division. IN the NL, the Mets would have lived one more day and played at Milwaukee in a Wild card game, the winner of that would have then played at the Cubs, while the Phillies would have played a weak 84-78 Dodger team from the west, a team that was not as good as the Astros at 86-75, Cardinals 86-76 or marlins 84-77.
IN 2009, the Yankees had the best record in the AL, they would have been rewarded by playing Boston under today’s rules, Boston won 95 and was much stronger than the Twins and Tigers who had to go to a playoff game to decide the Central. Boston would have first had to win a wild card game against the 87-75 Rangers who would have taken the second spot a game ahead of the Tigers and Twins, who thus had to play the second consecutive one-game playoff to decide the central division winner. The Angels would have had the fortune of facing Minnesota under that system. IN the NL, the 92 win Rockies would have played the 88 win Giants in the Wild card, the winner to then get the 95 win Dodgers from the same division that season, while the Phillies with 93 wins would have faced a 91 win Cardinals team.
IN 2010, the AL East would have produced what we have this season in the NL Central. Tampa with 96 victories took the division, the Yankees with 95 would have faced Boston with 89 in the Wild card, yes Theo, your Red Sox would have benefited from the new rules two years in a row, more about 2011 in a minute. The Twins who won 94 and the Rangers with 90 would have played in the other series. Over in the NL, the top teams all were the division winners, the Phillies at 97, Giants 92 and Reds 91. The Wild card would have featured the 91 win Braves hosting the 90 win Padres, the winner going to Philadelphia while the Reds opened against the Giants.
Then there is 2011, which for all purposes had its own version of one game playoffs the final day of the season. We all remember the epic fall suffered by the Red Sox and Braves, which allowed the Cardinals and Rays to get into the post season and lead to a Cardinal championship. Now under today’s rules that great finish would not have taken place, but the Rays and Red Sox and or the Braves and Cardinals could have had memorable games that match some of the other one-game playoffs in history such as the Yankees and Red Sox in ’78, the Rockies and Padres in ’07, the White Sox and Twins in ’08, the Tigers and Twins in ’09, or the Royals and Athletics in ’14. The winner in 2011 of Boston and Tampa would have faced the Yankees who won 97 games, while the Rangers and Tigers who won 96 and 95 respectably would have opened with one another. IN the NL, the Phillies would have opened against the Cardinals or Braves, they did face St. Louis that season, while Milwaukee and Arizona would be the other contest.
Since 2012, we have had the two Wild card system. IN 2012, the Tigers won the division with just 88 wins in the central, the Rays and Angels were both better and missed the playoffs even with the second slot available as a Wild card entry. IN 2013, 11 90 win teams existed tying the record from 2002, though again in terms of percentage, that still falls short of 1977 and 1969. Pittsburgh won 94 that season and settled for the Wild card, better than the Dodgers with 92 in the west. Pittsburgh faced a 90 win Cincinnati team and the Cardinals who won 97 faced those Pirates, while the 96 win Braves faced the slightly weaker Dodgers in the other series. The 2013 NL results are a foreshadow of what we are seeing now in 2015, the numbers are just more extreme in terms of the likely win totals for the five teams involved. IN 2014, the top 10 teams in MLB and in deed the top 5 in each league perfectly aligned themselves, the top teams were all division winners followed by the four Wild cards.
IN 2015, it would appear that the top 10 in MLB and the top five in each league will again qualify, it is just the unbalance where by the best three teams are all from the same division, so two of them will be Wild card entries. But hey if it were not for that wild card Theo, your Cubs would very much be on the outside with two weeks to go. Just look at the final standings in 2002 where the Red Sox would have had a chance for something facing the mariners in a second wild card tie breaking game. Look at the AL East standings from 1977 through 1980 and again in 1987, the teams who would have been happy to just have a Wild card to play for were many. Those Red Sox in 2011 would have given anything to play another day against those Rays on September 29, this current system would have done just that.
Bottom line, nothing is perfect, but at least we know that these great teams on paper have their opportunity to play their way toward the ultimate prize, a World Series championship. We all know what the real solution is though baseball would probably never do this, which means getting rid of divisions all together and either sending the top five from each league or the top ten from MLB into a post season tournament. If the leagues remained, the fourth and fifth teams would have a playoff game, the winner to face the team that finished first while second and third did battle. If going with no leagues and just looking at all of MLB, then the seventh and tenth teams would have a playoff and the eighth and ninth teams would do likewise. The weaker of those remaining teams would face the team finishing first, the stronger of the teams would play the team finishing second. The remaining two series would feature third and sixth place teams in one, fourth and fifth place in the other opening series.
Personally, I love the wild card, even if a weaker division winner gets in, it still rewards winning the division. My solution to that, a balanced schedule where everyone plays everyone, 14 games against each team in the division, six against each team in the rest of your own league, four interleague games against one team and three against each of the remaining 14 teams from the opposite league. Cut the schedule to 154 games, simply reduce the number of divisional games to 12 per opposition, or 13 for a 158 game schedule.
Theo, be careful what you wish for, because you are at least able to have your club in position to play for something that you would have gladly accepted with those 2010 and 2011 Red Sox. IF baseball realigns someday say to 32 teams and 8 divisions, that second wild card could again be taken away and the weakest division winner would be forced to play the lone wild card in that playoff elimination game.