Back in March, I analyzed whether unbalanced interleague schedules had affected National League division races and wild card races between teams in the same division. I concluded that, for the most part, unbalanced interleague schedules had not affected those races.
In that post, I admittedly didn’t analyze whether unbalanced interleague schedules had affected wild card races between National League teams in different divisions because of the unbalanced intraleague schedule introduced in the 1998 season. That year, the Arizona Diamondbacks came into the National League (in the NL West), the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays came into the American League (in the AL East), the Detroit Tigers moved to the AL Central (from the AL East) and the Milwaukee Brewers moved to the NL Central (from the AL Central).
The unbalanced intraleague schedule used between 1998-2000 had teams playing 12-13 games against other teams in their division and 8, 9 or 10 games against teams in other divisions. In 2001, the intraleague schedules became even more unbalanced, with teams playing 16-18 games against division rivals and 6 or 7 games against teams in other divisions. In the thirteen seasons since 1998, eleven Wild Card races have come down to teams in different divisions.
Here’s the breakdown:
|Wild Card Race||Wild Card Winner||Second Place Wild Card Team||Margin of Victory|
|1998||Chicago Cubs (90-73)||San Francisco Giants (89-74)||1 game (Cubs beat Giants in 1 game playoff)|
|1999||New York Mets (97-66)||Cincinnati Reds (96-67)||1 game|
|2000||New York Mets (94-68)||Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76)||8 games|
|2001||St. Louis Cardinals (93-69)||San Francisco Giants (90-72)||3 games|
|2003||Florida Marlins (91-71)||Houston Astros (87-75)||4 games|
|2004||Houston Astros (92-70)||San Francisco Giants (91-71)||1 game|
|2005||Houston Astros (89-73)||Philadelphia Phillies (88-74)||1 game|
|2006||Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74)||Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)||3 games|
|2008||Milwaukee Brewers (90-72)||New York Mets (89-73)||1 game|
|2010||Atlanta Braves (91-71)||San Diego Padres (90-72)||1 game|
Of these eleven races, only one was decided by more than 3 games; six races were decided by only 1 game. Even without a closer inspection of the particular schedules of the teams in these exceedingly close Wild Card races, it is safe to say that the unbalanced intraleague schedules for these National League teams impacted the Wild Card races in one way or another. The same is true for the unbalanced interleague schedules. Whether the Wild Card winner would have been a different team under different scheduling we’ll never know. But when only one game separates the Wild Card winner and the second place team, any differentiation in schedule between the two must have had some effect on the outcome of the race.
Now comes word that MLB Commissioner Bud Selig wants to expand the playoffs starting in 2012 to include a second Wild Card team. The plan is sketchy: would it be a one-game playoff between the two Wild Card teams; a best-of-three series; something else? The players union is open to discussing the idea, but will consider it as part of discussions toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Yesterday, Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote a very thoughtful post raising all sorts of questions about how expanded playoffs would work and whether changes would need to be made to the unbalanced intraleague schedules and to interleague play. Stark notes that teams have complained for years about the unfairness of competing for the Wild Card against teams that play different schedules. And as we see from the above table, that unfairness charge has been borne out more years than not.
As close as the actual National League Wild Card races have been since 1998, the hypothetical races for the National League Second Wild Card–had such a thing existed between 1998 and 2010–would have been just as close. In nine of those thirteen seasons, the race for the hypothetical “Second Wild Card” would have been decided by 3 games or less and in those nine races, eight involved teams from different divisions.
Here’s the breakdown:
|Hypothetical National League Second Wild Card Race||Hypothetical Second WC Winner||Hypothetical Second WC Loser||Hypothetical Margin of Victory|
|1998||San Francisco Giants (89-74) (Giants lost 1 game playoff to Cubs)||New York Mets (88-74)||1/2 game|
|1999||Cincinnati Reds (96-67)||San Francisco Giants (86-76)||9.5 games|
|2000||Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76)||Cincinnati Reds (85-77)|
Arizona Diamondbacks (85-77)
|2001||San Francisco Giants (90-72)||Chicago Cubs (88-74)||2 games|
|2002||Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)||Houston Astros (84-78)||8 games|
|2003||Houston Astros (87-75)||Philadelphia Phillies (86-76)||1 game|
|2004||San Francisco Giants (91-71)||Chicago Cubs (89-73)||2 games|
|2005||Philadelphia Phillies (88-74)||Florida Marlins (83-79)|
New York Mets (83-79)
|2006||Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)||Houston Astros (82-80)||3 games|
|2007||San Diego Padres (89-74) (Lost 1 game playoff to Colorado Rockies)||New York Mets (88-74)||1/2 game|
|2008||New York Mets (89-73)||Houston Astros (86-75)||3 games|
|2009||San Francisco Giants (88-74)||Florida Marlins (87-75)||1 game|
|2010||San Diego Padres (90-72)||St. Louis Cardinals (86-76)||4 games|
Jayson Stark is right. If Major League Baseball and the players agree to add another Wild Card team to the playoffs, and they care at all about setting up a fair process for deciding who that additional Wild Card team will be, then they’ll need to make changes to the unbalanced intraleague and unbalanced interleague schedules now in use.
Correction: Reader mkd correctly pointed out that I had the wrong team as the Hypothetical Second Wild Card in 1999. It was the San Francisco Giants with a record of 86-76, not the Pittsburgh Pirates at 78-83. I’ll leave it to the psychoanalysts who read this blog to figure out how/why I made an error costing the Giants a hypothetical second wild card spot.