Friday, March 2, 2012

What If There Had Been Two Wild Cards Since 1995?

Beginning with this year's postseason, more teams will be getting wild in the fall.  Major League Baseball has approved the addition of two playoff teams, with one extra team in each league crashing the playoff party in October.

There will now be a total of ten teams qualifying for the postseason, with each of the six division winners receiving a first-round bye.  The remaining wild card teams (two in each league) will face each other in a one-game do-or-die playoff for the right to advance to the division series, where they will play a best-of-five series against the team with the league's best record.

Last year, in a scintillating final day of the regular season, the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox were eliminated from playoff contention after leading their respective leagues' wild card races for most of September.  Under the new postseason format, both teams would have been involved in the new one-game playoff.

The last time baseball expanded its playoff format was in 1994, although the players' strike delayed its implementation until the following season.  So how would the Mets have fared had this year's new playoff format been in place since 1995?  And which team would have made the most playoff appearances since the National League split up into three divisions?

Expansion of the playoffs calls for expansion of our research, and we found some interesting information on what the National League playoffs would have looked like going back to 1995.  We'll begin with the most recent season (2011) and work our way backwards, with the team that won the wild card listed first followed by the team that didn't make the playoffs, but would have made it under the new system.  We'll also list the team or teams that were directly behind the club that would've been the second wild card and how many games back they were to determine if there would have been a tight race for the second wild card spot.  We'll begin now before we end up confusing ourselves.

2011: St. Louis vs. Atlanta.  Runner-up: San Francisco (3 GB)

2010: Atlanta vs. San Diego.  Runner-up: St. Louis (4 GB)

2009: Colorado vs. San Francisco.  Runners-up: Florida (1 GB), Atlanta (2 GB)

2008: Milwaukee vs. New York.  Runners-up: Houston (2½ GB), St. Louis (3 GB)

2007: Colorado vs. San Diego.  Runner-up: New York (1 GB)

2006: Los Angeles vs. Philadelphia.  Runner-up: Houston (3 GB)

2005: Houston vs. Philadelphia.  Runners-up: New York (5 GB), Florida (5 GB)

2004: Houston vs. San Francisco.  Runner-up: Chicago (2 GB)

2003: Florida vs. Houston.  Runners-up: Philadelphia (1 GB), St. Louis (2 GB), Los Angeles (2 GB)

2002: San Francisco vs. Los Angeles.  Runner-up: Houston (8 GB)

2001: St. Louis vs. San Francisco.  Runner-up: Chicago (2 GB)

2000: New York vs. Los Angeles.  Runners-up: Cincinnati (1 GB), Arizona (1 GB)

1999: New York vs. Cincinnati.  Runner-up: San Francisco (10 GB)

1998: Chicago vs. San Francisco.  Runner-up: New York (1 GB)

1997: Florida vs. New York/Los Angeles.  Runner-up: New York/Los Angeles (Even)

1996: Los Angeles vs. Montreal.  Runner-up: Colorado (5 GB)

1995: Colorado vs. Houston.  Runner-up: Chicago (3 GB)

The Mets' run to the playoffs in 1999 would have been much easier under the new format.

Opponents of the extra wild card point to the final day of the 2011 season.  Had the dual wild card format been in place last year, both the Cardinals and Braves would have qualified for the postseason, with the Giants finishing three games behind the Braves for the second wild card spot.  There would have been no drama on the season's final day because both St. Louis and Atlanta would have already clinched a spot in the wild card playoff game.  But looking at what the National League wild card races would have looked like under 2012 playoff rules, there would have a number of instances of Game No. 162 being for all the marbles.

In five seasons (1998, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2009), the second wild card team finished a mere one game ahead of the team directly behind them.  In one instance (2000), two teams finished a game behind the team that would have been the second wild card.

There still would have been a season in which two teams would have tied for the second wild card berth.  In 1997, the Mets and Dodgers would have played a Game No. 163 to determine who would face the Florida Marlins in the wild card playoff game.

In 12 of the last 17 years, the race for the second wild card would have gone down to the season's final weekend, as the second wild card team had no more than a three-game lead over their closest competitors at season's end. 

Only twice (1999, 2002) in the 17-year history of the wild card would there have been no race for the second wild card during the final week of the regular season.  In each of the other 15 seasons, the team that finished directly behind the second wild card team finished within five games of that coveted spot.

The San Francisco Giants would have benefited the most had the two wild card format been in place since 1995, as they would made four extra trips to the playoffs (1998, 2001, 2004, 2009).  No other team would have been guaranteed more than two additional trips to the postseason.  (The Dodgers would have won the second wild card in 2000 and 2002, but they would have finished tied with the Mets for the additional wild card berth in 1997, needing to win a play-in game against New York to make the playoffs.)

More teams will be celebrating like this beginning in October.


In the mid-'90s, baseball purists denounced the wild card, claiming that if a team wasn't good enough to win their division, then they shouldn't be allowed to play for a World Series title.  A decade and a half later, those same people were overwhelmingly in favor of the format.

This year a second wild card team will be added to the mix.  Yet again, some people are not in favor of the change.  But looking at what this change would have done for pennant races had it been in place since 1995, it shouldn't take long for these new opponents to change their minds.  After all, you can never get too wild in baseball.

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