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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

If 2020 season is cancelled, which players would be hurt the most?

Miguel Cabrera
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Last week, I went over a few teams that stood to be hurt most if there were to be no 2020 season as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19). Today, we will look at some players who may be adversely effected by a lost year.

Milestones

Players chasing milestones, especially those towards the end of their careers, would be stymied by a lost season. Tigers DH and future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is the first one that comes to mind. He is 23 home runs short of joining the 500 home run club. Though he hasn’t hit more than 16 in a year since 2016, he would likely have at least hit a few this year and would have had an easier time getting there in 2021. He turns 37 years old in 10 days. Cabrera may be under contract through 2023, but it is not clear that his age and his health would allow him to play regularly such that he would be able to reach 500 home runs if the 2020 season were to be cancelled. (Cabrera is also 185 hits shy of 3,000 for his career.)

Mike Trout has 285 home runs for his career. It’s almost a given that he would get to 300 and beyond in 2020. He is currently one of only 13 players with at least 250 home runs through his age-27 season. The only players with more: Álex Rodríguez (345), Jimmie Foxx (302), Eddie Mathews (299), and Ken Griffey Jr. (294). Trout likely would have also reached 1,000 runs for his career, as he is currently at 903. Losing a full season could really make a difference where he winds up on the all-time leaderboards at the end of his career.

Veteran catcher Yadier Molina will be a free agent at season’s end, though he and the Cardinals have expressed interest in a contract extension. He turns 38 this summer and is 37 hits shy of 2,000 for his career. Even if this season never happens, Molina will likely join the 2,000 hit club in 2021 whether or not he signs a multi-year extension. Molina is also 84 RBI shy of 1,000 and 21 doubles shy of 400.

Free Agents

Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts and Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto headline the free agent class heading into the 2021 season. Even if there eventually is a 2020 season, or something resembling it, teams are losing money across the board and that will result in stinginess in the free agent market. Make no mistake, Betts and Realmuto, as well as Trevor Bauer, Marcus Semien, and Marcus Stroman will still get paid handsomely, but they likely won’t get as much as they would following a typical year. The players that really stand to get hurt are the mid-tier free agents, whose cost won’t match their relative upside — players like James McCann, Howie Kendrick, Yuli Gurriel, DJ LeMahieu, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Turner, Michael Grantley, Marcell Ozuna, Jackie Bradley Jr., Jay Bruce, and Josh Reddick.

2020-21 Draftees and International Free Agents

At the end of March, MLB and the MLB Players Association reached an agreement on a deal covering issues including service time, pay during the pandemic, and the amateur draft. In exchange for players on active rosters getting credit for a full year of service time whether or not there is a 2020 season, the league got the right to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds and the 2021 draft to 20 rounds. The league also gained the right to delay the start of the 2020 and 2021-22 international signing periods.

The MLBPA effectively sold out what will be their future union members. A shortened draft this year and/or next year would mean that players who would otherwise have been drafted this year will go undrafted and thus will either become unsigned free agents or return to the draft next year as part of a crowded pool of players. Likewise, pushing back the international signing period will add more players to the market at the same time. This, obviously, benefits ownership as a surplus of labor diminishes those laborers’ leverage.

Bounce-back Candidates

Players coming off of injuries or otherwise down years in 2019 were hoping to use 2020 to bounce back, reestablishing themselves in the league. Angels two-way player Shohei Ohtani didn’t pitch at all last year after undergoing Tommy John surgery and was hopeful to rejoin the starting rotation at some point in the first half of a normal 2020 season. We learned yesterday that Ohtani is expected to throw off a mound “soon.” If a 2020 season does happen, it likely wouldn’t begin for another couple of months at minimum, which should afford him enough time to get into pitching shape.

Ohtani’s teammate and perennial Gold Glove Award candidate Andrelton Simmons played in only 103 games last season due to an ankle injury. He mustered a meager .673 OPS as well, compiling just 1.9 WAR, his lowest total in any season since debuting in 2012. In 2017, he peaked at 7.8 WAR and put up 6.3 the following season. Simmons will become a free agent after the 2020 season, so he most certainly needed a healthy and productive 2020 to maximize his leverage on the market.

Reds first baseman Joey Votto, now 36 years old, is coming off of the worst offensive season of his career. He hit .261/.357/.411 with 15 home runs and 47 RBI in 608 plate appearances, continuing a downward trend. He registered a 167 adjusted OPS as recently as 2017, but that declined to 126 in ’18 and 98 last year. The Reds, back to being competitive, were definitely banking on a bounce-back year from Votto. (Votto, by the way, is also 56 RBI short of the 1,000 milestone for his career.)