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Handicappin’ the MLB Wild Card Races

Taking a one day timeout from NFL camp previews and depressing Royals posts to focus on MLB teams who are still playing for something.

The concept of the wild card seems like a silly thing in American sports.  Think about it: we have a culture where we celebrate champions and largely ignore runner-ups.  The wild card is a way for us to give runner ups a shot at being champions.  It’s a very fascinating concept.  And it’s been a decisive one as well.  Since 2000, only two world series match-ups have been between division winners.  It’s not likely that this trend will continue at the same pace it has been, but we’ve seen plenty of instances where the wild card team is favored in it’s first round match-up.

Part of the problem has to do with the antiquated rule that disallows two playoff teams from the same division to play in the first round.  You can understand why major league baseball would do this: you don’t necessarily want the Yankess and Red Sox matching up in the first round every year.  There was a time at which that was only a 5 game series.  But now that it’s seven games, is it any better that the Yankees and Red Sox play every other year?  I think if you have a situation where the wild card has the 4th best record, and plays in the division with the no. 1 seed, they should play in the first round.  Either eliminate the wild card team right away, or have them represent their division in the LCS.

flickr.com/Keith Allison

flickr.com/Keith Allison

That’s tangent to the real point here: that the AL and NL effectively use the wild card differently.  In the AL, the wild card is a necessity if you are going to have three divisions and two rounds of playoffs.  Back in the East-West days, it made sense to let the big market powers in the East duke it out in the regular season.  In many ways, it was a better system then as opposed to now because the playoff system was simplified, and the ALCS was a stronger match-up on a year to year basis than it is now.  But in the era of three divisions, it’s important to make sure the two best records in the conference get in despite divisional lines.  That’s true of the NL as well, but the wildcard in the NL has little purpose outside of expanding and diluting the playoff field.  None of the division races are unfair from year to year, and you can thank the Cubs for not capitalizing on their market share for that.

This year’s example is as good as any.  The AL wild card has 3 legitimate contenders this year (4 if you count division leading Yankees and 5 if you count the division leading Angels):  it’s currently led by the Red Sox, and challenged by the Rangers and the Rays.  For another team to get into the race, all three of those teams would need to fall considerably off the pace.  The Rangers probably will do so before the end of the year, and I see their presence in this race as temporary.  I think that the Rays have a better chance of catching the Red Sox (4 GB) than, say, the Red Sox have of catching the Yankees (1.5 GB), but obviously, the status quo would be for New York to win the division and Boston to win the wild card.  But when you analyze the AL wildcard race at it’s most basic level, it’s the Red Sox/Yankees in the lead, the Rays challenging, and a whole lot of noise.

That’s not true in the NL.  Seven teams have a reasonable shot at the NL wild card.  It’s currently led by the Rockies, with the Giants a half game back, the Cardinals two games back, then the Marlins (4.0), Braves (5.5), Astros (6.5), and Brewers (6.5).  The Astros and Brewers are very much below average baseball teams incapable of keeping up the pace without improving significantly.  The Marlins on the other hand, might very well improve, but in their current form are not going to be competitive for much longer.  The Braves might be a longshot based on being more than 5 games out in August, but they also could get plenty better fast, and leap back into the race.



It’s hard projecting a race that you can’t even identify the contenders in (Cards or Cubs?), but it’s made significantly easier by the dominance of the Dodgers and the Phillies this year.  Over the last week, St. Louis and Chicago have really made it a two team race in the NL Central, which narrows down the possibilities for playoff contention in the NL.  The West has two legitimate wild card contenders, the central has one, and the east has one or two.  The Central is wide open enough to be decided by the lesser of two poor teams, the stronger of two good teams, or by a wide margin.  If both the Cards and Cubs trend upward over the final two months, it’s likely that both will make the playoffs, since neither the Rockies nor the Giants are flawless.  But given the other two options: one or both teams falling off the pace, and this wild card race is going to break down to just two or three teams very quickly.

This race, moreso than any in past years, features the two most likely winners hoping that they don’t have to stave off both the Cardinals and the Cubs.  I’d put my money on the Rockies, who seem like they will only extend their lead throughout August, but unlike 2007, if we’re three weeks into September and the Rockies don’t have the wild card locked up, it’s a good sign that the Cardinals (or Cubs) are going to win it.

Since I wrote this much, and have basically earned the right to make a prediction, LiveBall likes the Rockies in the NL, and in a bit of an upset (but not much), the Rays over the Red Sox in the AL.

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