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Wondering about the Wild Card

October 12, 2009

by Matt Kane

While watching the Colorado Rockies play the Philadelphia Phillies Wednesday afternoon during my lunch break, I was wondering about teams that make the playoffs as the wild card.

I asked myself, or maybe Snickers’, my cat, if she was listening, whether it’s worth getting into the playoffs as the wild card team. After researching the topic a bit, I found out that it is, indeed, worth it.

Including this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs, there has been a total of 30 wild card teams in the 15 seasons since baseball went to a three-round playoff system. Out of the 28 wild card teams prior to this season, four went on to win the World Series. They were the Florida Marlins in 1997 and 2003, the 2002 Anaheim Angels, and the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

According to my calculator’s math, four-out-of-28 is 14 percent, which would leave less than appealing odds to place a bet on. But those who went with the underdogs in 1997, 2002, 2003 and 2004, probably made a killing, just like the Marlins, Angels and Red Sox did those years. So that tells me it is absolutely worth it for a team to enter the playoffs as the wild card in its respective league.

Looking deeper into the issue, 15 of the 28 wild card teams advanced to their league championship series, and nine of those 15 played in the World Series.

As I said, the Marlins, Angels and Red Sox were the three wild card teams to win four World Series. The other wild card teams to play in the World Series were the 2000 New York Mets, 2002 San Francisco Giants, 2005 Houston Astros, 2006 Detroit Tigers, and the 2007 Colorado Rockies.

The Boston Red Sox, this year’s American League wild card team, leads the majors with seven wild-card berths, and their fourth, in 2004, broke the 85-year-old Curse of the Bambino.

While writing this column, I began wondering which teams would have benefitted from the wild card system before the 1994 season. Then, I realized that’s impossible, because there were only two divisions — the East and West — in each league before the 1994 season, and, prior to 1969, there weren’t league championship series.

Out of curiosity, though, I decided to look at the two, non-division-winning teams with the next-best records in their respective leagues from 1969 to 1993, and considered those two teams in the playoffs. The year 1969 was the first year the two leagues played a league championship series to determine their respective World Series representative. I threw out 1981 because it was affected by a work stoppage, so I had 24 seasons to look at.

I found out that the Dodgers and the Reds would have benefited the most from a four-team playoff system. The Dodgers would have qualified for nine postseasons between 1969 and 1993, and a possible tenth. The Dodgers tied the Cubs with an 85-70 record in 1972. The Houston Astros played one less game in 1972, finishing with an 84-69 record, and could have made it a three-way tie if their 156th game was necessary at the time.

The Reds were second in the National League with eight seasons that would have ended in the playoffs.

In the American League, the Yankees would have been guaranteed a high seven trips to the playoffs, and the Red Sox and Brewers were guaranteed five trips. The Red Sox tied with the Rangers in 1974, and with the Royals in 1971, and, with tiebreaker wins in those two years, they could have matched the Yankee’s total.

Locally, the lack of a wild card system from 1969 to 1993 cost the Twins two postseason berths. In 1992, the Twins (90-72) would have joined the race with the Brewers (92-70), and, in 1988, it would have been the Twins (91-71) and Tigers (88-74) prolonging their seasons.

One noteworthy find in my research is that the 1993 San Francisco Giants and the 1980 Baltimore Orioles did not make the playoffs despite winning 100 games or more. The Giants finished 103-59, in 1993, and the Orioles were 100-62 in 1980.

The Atlanta Braves were 104-58 and beat out the Giants for the National League West crown in 1993. The East-winning Phillies were 97-65. In 1980, the Orioles were beaten out in the American League East by the Yankees, who were 103-59. The American League West winner, the Royals, were 97-65.