Fifth-place teams put 'wild' in Wild Card

November, 18, 2011
11/18/11
10:00
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You probably have not forgotten baseball’s best night ever. Within 90 incredible minutes of action, September 28, 2011 gave us the spectacle of the Cardinals, Rays, Red Sox and Braves playing four different games and determining their destinies on the final day of the season.

The way things are going, we’ll never see its like ever again. At the NLCS, Bud Selig stressed that a night like September 28 would not affect his desire to add a second wild-card team to each league’s slate. He’s proven to be as good as his word, and as a result, finishing in third place isn’t the end of the line for anybody. That might get the Blue Jays and Orioles to stop squawking about their lot in the AL East, but at what cost?

Consider what this would have meant last season: The Red Sox and Braves’ infamous meltdowns would have been far less agonizing. Maybe they would have lasted one more day, with the Sox playing the Rays and the Braves taking their shot at the Cardinals. Maybe either one of the Sox and Braves would have advanced, but given how banged-up both teams were, how much of a scare would either have thrown into their LDS opponents? Would this really have made for an even better postseason than the one we just watched?

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria
Kim Klement/US PresswireCelebrations like this one by the Rays would not have happened under Bud Selig's new playoff idea.
Instead, this new scheme creates a new, genuinely unhappy spectacle: Some especially crummy teams getting wild-card bids for glory. Say the Red Sox and Yankees go toe-to-toe for the AL East crown next season, all the way until their final series against one another. Say the two are tied with 99 wins on October 3, the Yankees lose, having used CC Sabathia to gun for the wild-card “round” bye, so they get squared off against ... an 85-win White Sox team that was cruising comfortably with the fifth-best record in the league, and with their rotation queued up to toss their best starter in this must-win game. The Yankees get punished for trying to win, while the White Sox just need one game to advance after six months of mediocrity. How does that scenario make sense?

If you look at the fifth-place finishers during the 17 years of the wild-card era, starting with 1995 you get just seven 90-win teams into the postseason in the AL, and five in the NL. Assuming for a moment that the different stakes don’t lead to different results in the standings, we’d also have seen three one-game tie-breaker matchups to determine who the second wild card is… to play another one-game playoff to determine who’s in the League Division Series. That would have occurred in 1997 (between the Mets and Dodgers in the NL), in 2002 (between the Red Sox and Mariners) and 2007 (between the Tigers and Mariners).

What about the 22 “playoff” teams with less than 90 wins during the wild-card era, those exciting squads of yore America deserved to see more of? Among the less spectacular:

  • The 2001 Twins, 85-77: While the A’s were waltzing to the wild card with 102 wins, the Twins were finishing up their season with a meaningless series against the White Sox. Those three games would have been significant if there were two wild cards -- a game separated the Sox and Twins at the start of the series. Maybe with something at stake, the White Sox care a little more about the outcome, and win two of three, giving us another exciting one-game play-in between Jerry Manuel’s White Sox and the Twins. You can take that daisy chain of interdependent events in all sorts of unhappy directions. Maybe David Ortiz’s first postseason heroics happen in a Twins uniform, keeping him from ever getting cut loose to go to Boston. Maybe Ozzie Guillen never gets a job on the South Side because Jerry Manuel just skippered the first back-to-back playoff appearances in White Sox franchise history. Neat, huh? Paging Harry Turtledove.
  • The 1997 Angels, 84-78: The Yankees (96-66) won the wild card, then lost the 86-win Indians team in the first round. Maybe the Yankees don’t get even that far after finishing two games behind the Orioles in the AL East, because they’d have to get through the Angels first, with either Doc Gooden (4.91 ERA) or Kenny Rogers (5.65) taking on Anaheim’s big deadline-deal pickup, Ken Hill. Maybe America was ready to see Gary Disarcina and Chad Kreuter in the postseason, and just never knew it. (Neither man ever did play in one.)
  • The 2006 Phillies, 85-77: This was the team that Pat Gillick gave up on at the deadline when 11 different squads, the Phillies among them, were bunched up within six wins of one another. Gillick gave up, dumping Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle on the Yankees for four suspects and payroll relief, only to notice three weeks later that his team was still in the actual wild-card race. He hurriedly added Jamie Moyer, Jeff Conine and Jose Hernandez and came up short of catching the Dodgers and Padres. Of course, since the Pads and Dodgers both won 88 games, L.A. would have had to to play Philadelphia because the lost their season series to San Diego, costing them the NL West division title. The Dodgers would at least have had their rotation queued up, with Derek Lowe facing rookie Cole Hamels.
  • The 1996 AL Mess: The Mariners, White Sox and Red Sox all won 85 games to tie for the fifth-highest tally in the league. Maybe Seattle spares us that mess by winning a makeup date with the Angels, and maybe we get a three-way tie for the fifth-best record in the league anyway after they lose that game. How’s that supposed to work out? Back-to-back one-game tie-breakers to determine which of those three teams plays a “deciding” wild-card contest with the 88-win Orioles?

Now, I’m sure folks will be excited about this new playoff setup for all sorts of reasons. Just think, A’s fans, Moneyball would have arrived in the postseason a year earlier, because the Oakland A’s of 1999 would have made it to the playoffs. (For a game, which they should have lost, otherwise Bud Selig’s original “hope and faith” speech might never happen.) More appearances, more chances to get excited about the season... we all know where Bud's coming from.

Unfortunately, the inevitability of seeing one-game tie-breakers between two or more teams just to determine who gets to play in a one-game wild-card showdown, and before we even get to the actual League Division Series? As noted, that’s a logistical and scheduling nightmare we’ll be sure to see in the years to come.

And what about the possibility that a division-winning team winds up not with one of the five best records in its league? How about not even five from the top six or nine, but the 11th-best? That was what we were in danger of seeing happen in 1994 with the Rangers, and we've been fortunate not to see that happen again. What happens five-team playoffs don't even manage to give us the teams with the five best records in each league? Fiddle with the system to find a way to get it right on yet another pass?

We'll see if a presumably unbalanced schedule with year-round interleague play can make it unlikely, but this is the kind of "excitement" that baseball really could do without.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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