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