The MLB Wild Card Races

Jared Sanderson is a freelance writer, bacon junkie, Red Sox fanatic, and beer expert. He contributes to several blogs and has a passion for sports journalism.
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It’s almost October, and for baseball fans all over the world, that means one eye is turned toward the MLB Playoffs. For the most part, we’re starting to get a clear picture of who will be vying for the World Series in a little over a month – the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers are clear favorites to challenge for the NL crown, while the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox are ahead of the pack in the AL. The wildcard races, however, are quite tight in both the NL and the AL. Let’s take a look at how things are shaping up as of Tuesday morning, September 17.

National League Wildcard

The NL Wild Card standings are particularly interesting, because they are just about synonymous with the race for the NL Central division. Currently, the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals are tied for the lead in the division, with the Cincinnati Reds just behind. With the Washington Nationals 4.5 games back of the Reds, it certainly looks as if the NL Central will earn both wildcard slots, with the top team between Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Cincinnati taking the Central, and the other two taking the wildcard slots.

So who’s going to end up taking the Central? Well, St. Louis currently has the lead and arguably the most favorable schedule from here on, so they’re likely the bet. The Nationals are within reach of sneaking into the conversation, but if we had to bet we’d say the Cardinals take the division, with the Pirates and Reds grabbing the wildcard spots.

American League Wildcard

This is a trickier picture, to be sure. The fact is, six teams are legitimately in the race. The Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays are tied atop the wildcard standings, and so have the top two spots locked up for now. The Cleveland Indians are one-half game game out, the Baltimore Orioles two games out, and the Yankees and Kansas City Royals sitting at 2.5 games behind. So who looks in position to take the two spots?

The AL East is where it all begins. Currently, the Rays are in the best position to finish 2nd in that division, which likely means a wildcard spot. In fact, at BetFair online – a dynamic sports betting site with up-to-date odds based on expert sports books – the Rays have by far the best odds to finish 2nd in the division. Meanwhile, it looks as if whoever takes the West between Texas and the Oakland A’s will leave the 2nd place team to the wildcard. So, as of now it looks as if the Rangers and Rays will take the two wildcard spots. However, the Yankees have continually shown us (despite this weekend’s sweep at Fenway) that they shouldn’t be counted out. We’re picking the Rangers to grab the 1st wildcard slot, and the Yankees to finish strong and steal the 2nd thanks to an easy schedule from here on out.

Does the Best Record In the League Matter?

mattingly_mcgwire_arizona_2013-04-13In the aftermath of yesterday’s “what the hell, let’s start Edinson Volquez and all our backups and wait, did I see Jason Grabowski getting a plate appearance too?” loss to Colorado, I joked that I was going to troll Twitter to see all the grief Don Mattingly would get about it.

As you’d expect, there were dozens, most taking on a form something like this:

While an understandable emotion, from this perspective it’s shockingly short-sighted, complaining about a lineup when the Dodgers are 12.5 games up on Arizona and playing against a non-contender in a stadium they traditionally limp out of. Ten of their next 14 games are against the Reds, who are in the playoff race, and the Diamondbacks, who they still need to officially squash, so I don’t imagine we’re going to be seeing many more lineups like this over the next two weeks, and I absolutely cannot get upset that the starters mostly got a day off yesterday.

Still, the one somewhat valid question that keeps popping up is whether the team squandered a chance to gain on Atlanta for the best record in the National League, especially when the Braves tossed out Kameron Loe (!) yesterday and lost to the Mets, keeping them two games ahead of the Dodgers. While it’s my opinion that having rested players is going to be far more important than the #1 seed and home field advantage — especially because it’s irrelevant in the NLDS and matters only if the Dodgers win the first round and the Braves do as well — it’s still a question worth looking into.

So, does it? The answer in the NL over the last few years is largely “no”. Last year, the Nationals won 98 games and beat out the Reds by one for the top seed. Without Stephen Strasburg, they lost to the wild card Cardinals in five games in the NLDS, as Gio Gonzalez imploded and their offense struggled terribly.

In 2011, the Phillies rolled to 102 wins. They also lost to the wild card Cardinals in five, as Chris Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay in a 1-0 victory in the deciding game. You’ll also notice here that while winning the top seed gets you the chance to face the wild card, it hasn’t really helped either the Nationals or the Phillies over the last two years.

In 2010, the top team (again the Phillies) at least made it out of the first round before losing to the eventual champion Giants in the NLCS. The Phillies had home field advantage, yet split the first two games in Philadelphia, then also lost the deciding Game 6 at home. (That game featured a two inning start from Jonathan Sanchez and relief appearances from Madison Bumgarner & Tim Lincecum. Baseball is weird sometimes.)

In 2009, it was these Dodgers who won 95 games and took the top spot, sweeping the Cardinals in a series best remembered for Matt Holliday trying to catch a liner in the ninth inning of Game 2 with his groin. They fell 4-1 to the Phillies in the NLCS, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

In 2008, the Cubs had the advantage and lost to the Dodgers in the first round; in 2007 it was the Diamondbacks, who got swept by the red-hot Rockies in the NLCS. In fact, the last time #1 National League team actually won the World Series, it was the Braves way back in 1995.

It just really seems to not matter all that much, especially with the 2-3-2 NLCS format that means that you actually have to survive three games on the road before you even get the benefit of a Game 6 or 7 at home; as you can see above, not all those teams even made it that far.

So sure, I’d like it if the Dodgers got the top seed and were able to open the NLCS at home with Games 1 & 2. But it’s also not nearly as much of a priority to me as making sure that everyone is fully rested and ready to go for the playoffs, because it’s foolish to simply assume that you’re walking over the Pirates or Reds or Cardinals or whomever they welcome to Los Angeles to start the NLDS. Even then, it may not matter because the Braves still need to win too, and even then it may not matter because history has proven that having the home field advantage means little — especially when the Dodgers are the best road team in the league this year.

One Month Until Dodger Playoff Baseball

dodger_stadium_towerMajor League Baseball announced the 2013 playoffs schedule today, and here’s the part that interests you:

Each NL Division Series will begin on Thursday, Oct. 3, and the first full slate of Division Series games, featuring the two AL Division Series openers and a pair of NLDS Game 2s, will take place on Friday, Oct. 4.

That means that one month from today, there will be Dodger playoff baseball. (Yes, I’m aware the division hasn’t yet officially been clinched. I’m also aware the Diamondbacks are closer to last place than first. It’s over.)

The Dodgers finish off the regular season with a home game against Colorado on Sunday, September 29, which means they get three full days to rest up at home and prepare for whichever NL Central opponent might be heading out to Los Angeles to face them. (I’m assuming here that they, along with Atlanta, end up with the two best records in the league. If so, they’ll face either the NL Central champion or the survivor of the Wild Card play-in game, which will almost certainly be comprised of two Central teams.)

That’s wonderful in so many ways, because it means that the Dodgers will have nearly full control of their playoff rotation, and so they can easily have it set so that Clayton Kershaw & Zack Greinke are available in Games 1 & 2. Almost certainly, their opponent — whether it’s the Cardinals or Reds or Pirates — will be fighting up until the last day, even into October 1 for the wild card teams, and won’t have nearly the same luxury.

The NLCS starts on Friday, October 11, and will be televised by TBS, with the ALCS on FOX. Game 1 of the World Series will then be on Wednesday, October 23 (also on FOX), and will start in the home city of the American League champs because Bud Selig flipped a coin or something. There’s two scheduled days off during the World Series, and if necessary, Game 7 would be Thursday, October 31, in the AL city.

One month from today. So close you can taste it, really.

What Does it Mean to “Make The Playoffs”?

I think most of us would agree that after losing two of three in a disappointing weekend series in San Francisco to fall five games out with 21 to play, any hopes the Dodgers might still have of taking the NL West are on life support. That’s not to say “dead”, of course, because it’s not totally ridiculous to say that all they need to do is pick up one game in each of the next two weeks to put themselves into position to enter that last three-game set with their destiny in their own hands, but considering how each side has been playing lately along with the ongoing health concerns of Clayton Kershaw & Matt Kemp, it doesn’t seem particularly likely.

If it seems like it’d take a miracle to catch the Giants right now, then it’d take a miracle and then some to overtake Atlanta for the wild card, given that the Braves are 6.5 ahead of the Dodgers and don’t even offer the benefit of head-to-head play. Short of Atlanta somehow repeating last year’s collapse and the Dodgers being able to take advantage of it, that’s not a scenario which seems in any way possible.

For most of the last two decades, that’d be the end of it. The Dodgers would try (and probably fail) to catch the Giants, the Braves would run away with the wild card, and we’d console ourselves with the knowledge that playoffs or not, the first six months for this organization post-McCourt got off to a great start.

But that’s not the case this year, thanks to the latest brainchild of Bud Selig, a man who continually insists that the public does not want more instant replay in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary: the second wild card, and it’s there where the Dodgers have a real chance. They sit just one game behind St. Louis, and not only do they welcome the Cardinals for four games later this week, the defending champs are losing players just as quickly as the Dodgers are – in the last ten days alone, they’ve had to contend with additional injuries to Jake Westbrook, Lance Berkman, & Rafael Furcal.

So if you can’t see the Dodgers making up five on the Giants or 6.5 on the Braves, surely you could see them overtaking a one-game deficit on the wounded-but-still-dangerous Cardinals to take that second wild card spot. Yet if they do, then the question becomes: does it really matter?

I mean, I know it matters, because being in the playoffs is better than not being in the playoffs, but we’ve never seen an October like the one we’re about to. Your only prize for taking that second wild card is one game at the home of the first wild card, to be played on Friday, October 5. (The final regular season game is set for Wednesday, October 3. I’m assuming for the moment that there’s no tie for the second wild card, which would necessitate a tiebreaker on Thursday, October 4, and would just complicate things further.)

As things stand, that would send the Dodgers to Atlanta for that one game winner-takes-all showdown, much like the game between the bottom two teams that kicks off March Madness, and that’s sort of a dummy prize. If you lose that game – which, considering you most likely had to claw up until the last day to get it, probably comes without Kershaw on the mound – you don’t even get the benefit of a single home playoff game. You lose, and you go home. You win, and you move on to Washington or Cincinnati.

From baseball’s point of view, this makes a lot of sense, because there had been complaints in recent years that winning the division didn’t carry enough of a prize. Now, the wild card teams are penalized the way they should be, and if a team is going to make a run to the title as a wild card, they’re really going to have to earn it. (To this day, the Marlins still have two more World Series titles than they do division titles, which seems wrong.) For all the concerns about whether adding another playoff team even made sense, this was the one part of it I always agreed with.

From the point of view of the team, however, does it mean anything? Will you hang a banner saying “2012 NL Wild Card”, especially if you didn’t even get a home game? Should you be proud of being the fifth-best team in the league, which is what the second wild card is? Again, if you get in, win the game, and make some noise, no one’s going to care that you were the second wild card. If you get in and your stay in the playoffs lasts for three hours 3,000 miles from home, I’m not sure anyone’s going to remember that, either.

None of this affects how you approach the rest of the season, of course. You play the games on your schedule, try to win as many as you can, and see where the chips fall as far as playoff positioning. You don’t target the division or the first wild card or the second wild card; you just win. And, it should go without saying, none of this is relevant if the Dodgers can’t get their offensive act together. Yet with the Pirates sinking like a stone, the Dodgers are the only team within five games of St. Louis for that last wild card spot. We’ll know a lot more at the end of the weekend, but for the moment it looks like Selig’s shiny new toy is the only path for the Dodgers into the playoffs. What exactly that means, in this new era of baseball inclusiveness, remains to be seen.

You Make the Playoffs! And You Make the Playoffs!

Since we’ve been hearing about this for months, it’s not much of a surprise, but today we’re starting to hear that the proposal from Major League Baseball about adding another wild card for each league starting this season is about to become a reality.

Ken Rosenthal:

Baseball’s playoffs will expand from eight to 10 teams, starting this season, according to major-league sources.

The sport’s new collective-bargaining agreement stipulated that additional wild cards would be added in each league no later than 2013. But commissioner Bud Selig wanted the expansion to occur immediately, and management worked with the players’ union to ensure the switch to a 10-team format this season.

The agreement on the additional wild cards is not yet final, and one source said there are “still a few loose ends” to resolve. But an announcement could occur as soon as Thursday, sources said.

2012 is somewhat of a transitional year because they’re making this change now, but not moving the Houston Astros to the American League until 2013. So for one year, we’ll have 16 NL teams fighting for what will now be 5 playoff spots, and then next year you’ll have an even 15 teams in each league. That’ll require interleague play every day, which I really don’t like.

I’m somewhat torn on the idea of adding another wild card team. The old-timer in me says that I’m not thrilled with the idea of watering down the playoffs even further, since now 30% of baseball is going to be able to claim they’re a playoff team. You can see how meaningless the regular seasons are in hockey and basketball, and I don’t want that to happen to baseball; the idea of a sport that is built over the long haul like baseball is having a team go home because of a one-game playoff each year (in the wild card round) seems kind of against the spirit of the game. Besides, you could argue, look how amazingly incredible the end of the 2011 season was. With another playoff team in each league, there’s no Red Sox collapse. There’s no Braves collapse. Each of those teams would have made the playoffs under this new system. (Though I do find the idea of a team raising a pennant celebrating how they made it as a wild card then immediately got bounced in the first game immensely entertaining.)

I’m also kind of worried about what might happen to my favorite time of the year, the July trading deadline. If there’s only 4 or 5 teams who are completely out of it by that point, then there’s a lot fewer trade options available. That could potentially either reduce the amount of trades or lessen the star power of he moves we do see. It also doesn’t help that the new CBA has largely done away with compensation picks for veteran free agents; the combination of both could really depress the market, and I would hate to see the traditional July feeding fury become a snooze.

But there are positives, too. I’m sure we all hated the idea of the wild card when it first came up back in the 90s, yet it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t led to additional interest now that an entire division isn’t screwed if one great team pulls away from the start. If 2011 might not have played out exactly as it had, there’s still the added potential for multiple teams taking that second wild card down to the final day, since it’s probably going to end up in the mess of 86-90 win teams we see each year. The final details aren’t yet out, but one item that I really do like is that i really will give a bit more of a boost to a division winner, because the two wild cards are likely to play each other in a one-game playoff and that allows the champ to rest & reset their starting rotation against an opponent that has had to claw just to get there. For those who argue that a second wild card isn’t ideal, having both wild cards be at such a disadvantage really does help soften that concern a bit.

As for how this affects the Dodgers this year… well, I’m not sure it really does that much. You could say that a team such as this – one that’s probably built for 83-86 wins, give or take – could see this as an added opportunity to get into the playoffs. Of course, every team in the league that isn’t the Mets, Astros, Pirates, or Cubs (probably) is able to say the same. You still have to be a better club than the Giants, Rockies, Braves, Nationals, Marlins, Brewers, etc, and one additional wild card isn’t going to change that. It may make things more interesting, and it may make us think they still have a chance for a few additional weeks, but when it comes down to it, either the team is good enough, or they aren’t.

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Elsewhere…

- Eric Stephen asked Don Mattingly if he had thought about hitting A.J. Ellis second in the lineup. “Not really,” replied the skipper. That’s not really in any way a surprise, I suppose.

- Steve Dilbeck voices what I’m sure many have been thinking: though it’s wonderful to have baseball back, six weeks of spring training for a team that already has 95% of its roster set is somewhat hard to get excited for.

- With the announcement that Facebook is opening up Timeline pages to brands and giving them a month to switch over, I thought I’d take the plunge and convert the MSTI page immediately. Take a look.

- And on a “site news” note, we’re approximately one month away from the launch of the new MSTI. (Yes, I’m putting this out there publicly in part to motivate myself to finish before the season.) I’ve been working on this for a while and I’m really excited by how it is turning out. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, we’ll have a sneak peek in a week or two.