Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 13: Baseball adds a second wild card

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card 

The final day of the 2011 season brought with it some of the best drama Major League Baseball had seen in some time. In both leagues two teams each — the Rays and Red Sox in the AL, the Braves and Cardinals in the NL — were tied for a Wild Card spot. In four other games home field advantage in the first round of the playoffs was at stake. In the event we got two extra inning games, one come-from-behind victory in the bottom of the ninth and two teams winning after being down to their last strike. The Red Sox and Braves each completed massive collapses which altered the course of each franchise. The Cardinals, making the playoffs on the final day of the season won the World Series. It was absolutely crazy.

Then a month and a half later Major League Baseball announced a rule change that, had it been in place on the final day of 2011, would’ve eliminated almost all of that drama.

The rule was the addition of the second Wild Card, which was part of the process involved in moving the Astros to the American League, making two 15-team leagues. It was also about adding what many considered a much-needed fairness to the playoff race. The idea: from 1995-2011, with one Wild Card team going directly to the Division Series with the three division winners, diminished the accomplishment of winning the division. Now, with two games being pitted together in a one-game, loser-goes-home Wild Card Game, a much greater incentive was put in place to win the division crown and to avoid that single-game playoff. And hey, even if it wasn’t the primary incentive, that 2011 Game-162 drama was pretty nice, but it was also pretty unlikely to occur on its own again very often and certainly could not be planned in advance. By ensuring two all-or-nothing games each year, baseball was ensuring itself of some elimination game drama on a regular basis.

The new format began in the 2012 season, with the Orioles beating the Rangers and the Cardinals beating those Braves in a matchup which would’ve taken place the year before if the format had been in place. The first time anyone survived a Wild Card Game to make it to the World Series was 2014, when both the Giants and Royals made it through the rest of the postseason to play in the Fall Classic. The only other team to do that were the 2019 Nationals, who also just won it all after winning the one-game playoff.

Quantitatively the Wild Card Game has given up 19 of the 30 clubs in appearance. The New York Yankees, Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates have each appeared three times. The San Francisco Giants and the New York Yankees have won the most Wild Card Games, two each. The Oakland Athletics have lost all three of their Wild Card Game appearances to date. Wild Card Game winners have gone an overall 7–9 record in League Division Series. It has, in terms of results, seemed to have given at least a moderately elevated importance to winning one’s division.

Qualitatively speaking It has also, however, served to make Wild Card Games a tad predictable and maybe even a bit boring. Teams with one dominant starting pitcher or a deep bullpen have an obvious advantage when you’re throwing everything you have at one game and, as a result, five of the sixteen games played since the new Wild Card system began in 2012 have been shutouts. In eight of the eleven others the losing team scored three or fewer runs. With the exception of the Royals-A’s matchup in 2014 and the Rockies-Diamondbacks game in 2017, there haven’t been barnburners. There also haven’t been a ton of close games. The margin of victory has been four runs or more in eight of the sixteen games. Only three out of 16 Wild Card Games have been decided by one run.

There has also been one addition side effect: some teams, it seems, don’t even want to bother with competing for the Wild Card.

This past summer, the Phillies, many games out of the division lead but still a potential contender for the Wild Card, took a conservative approach at the trade deadline amid reports that the front office did not view giving up any talent in order to win the Wild Card to be worth it. The sentiment of the front office was, reportedly, that it was not worth trying to make a one-and-done playoff game which, even if they won it, would simply put them into a postseason series with a powerful Dodgers team.

Setting aside the fact that the 2019 champion Washington Nationals took exactly that path to win the World Series, the seeming implication was that, while the second Wild Card has placed a premium on winning the division, it has diminished the appeal of the Wild Card. In an era in which it seems that a number of teams have no interest in putting a winning product on the field in a given year, having any additional incentives to eschew contention is less than ideal. Whether that sort of sentiment is common or, rather was a one-off bit of mid-season Philly media/fan hysteria is unclear and is probably unknowable.

Either way: the second Wild Card, eight years in existence, isn’t going anyplace.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES:

No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.