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Unbalanced Interleague and Intraleague Schedules Would Have Affected Hypothetical Races for “Second” Wild Card in the National League

by Wendy Thurm on April 27, 2011

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 RaceWild Card WinnerSecond Place Wild Card TeamMargin of Victory
1998Chicago Cubs (90-73)San Francisco Giants (89-74)1 game (Cubs beat Giants in 1 game playoff)
1999New York Mets (97-66)Cincinnati Reds (96-67)1 game
2000New York Mets (94-68)Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76)8 games
2001St. Louis Cardinals (93-69)San Francisco Giants (90-72)3 games
2003Florida Marlins (91-71)Houston Astros (87-75)4 games
2004Houston Astros (92-70)San Francisco Giants (91-71)1 game
2005Houston Astros (89-73)Philadelphia Phillies (88-74)1 game
2006Los Angeles Dodgers (88-74)Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)3 games
2008Milwaukee Brewers (90-72)New York Mets (89-73)1 game
2010Atlanta 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 RaceHypothetical Second WC WinnerHypothetical Second WC LoserHypothetical Margin of Victory
1998San Francisco Giants (89-74) (Giants lost 1 game playoff to Cubs)New York Mets (88-74)1/2 game
1999Cincinnati Reds (96-67)San Francisco Giants (86-76)9.5 games
2000Los Angeles Dodgers (86-76)Cincinnati Reds (85-77)

Arizona Diamondbacks (85-77)
1 game
2001San Francisco Giants (90-72)Chicago Cubs (88-74)2 games
2002Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70)Houston Astros (84-78)8 games
2003Houston Astros (87-75)Philadelphia Phillies (86-76)1 game
2004San Francisco Giants (91-71)Chicago Cubs (89-73)2 games
2005Philadelphia Phillies (88-74)Florida Marlins (83-79)

New York Mets (83-79)
5 games
2006 Philadelphia Phillies (85-77)Houston Astros (82-80)3 games
2007San Diego Padres (89-74) (Lost 1 game playoff to Colorado Rockies)New York Mets (88-74)1/2 game
2008New York Mets (89-73)Houston Astros (86-75)3 games
2009San Francisco Giants (88-74)Florida Marlins (87-75)1 game
2010San 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.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

mkd April 29, 2011 at 9:14 am

Great article (the one about division winners, too). I dislike the unbalanced intraleague schedule and really really dislike unbalanced inter-league play. If adding an additional wild card gets those topics on the table I’m all for it. Even a single season where one team goes to playoffs because they faced markedly weaker opponents is one season too many. This isn’t football- we enough games for everyone to face everyone an equal number of times. We ought to do it because we owe it to ourselves to make the game as fair as possible.

Also, small tweak: I think the Hypothetical Second Wild Card loser in 1999 is supposed to be the 86-76 Giants (speaking of ’99, was that a season of dominant powers dominating or what?- only 6 of the 16 teams in the NL had winning records that year. That’s gotta be some kind of record)


Wendy Thurm April 29, 2011 at 9:48 am

Thanks for your comments (and for correcting my error. As a Giants fan, I have no idea how that happened.) Every little bit that helps bring back a more balanced schedule is good with me.


phild April 29, 2011 at 6:19 pm


Interesting analysis. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a dinosaur from the 60s (my formative years) who is not really in favor of even one wild card let alone adding another one to cure the obvious problems that exist with the system we have now. My preference would be to go back to two divisions per league with only division winners advancing to the post-season. That would seem to be a much easier solution than any of the Rube Goldberg schemes that are being discussed to fix obvious problems with the second wild card which hasn’t even been added yet.

It’s interesting to me that limitations on inter-league play are considered to be part of the solutions to make the two-wild-card scheme more equitable yet limitations on inter-league play are considered to be a roadblock to going back to the two-division per league alignment. It seems that someone (Commissioner Bud?) has a thumb on the scale of that discussion.

What really bugs me about adding another wild card is more dilution of the qualifying standards for the post-season. Look at the data for the NL 2006. The second wild card is a 82-win team!
the year before two 83-win teams tie for the honor. Does that bother anyone promoting this scheme? That to me seems more inequitable to the better teams than the scheduling imbalances are to the contenders for the second wild card.


phild April 29, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Ooops – looks like I misread the table – those were the runners up for the second wild-card but the records for the second wild card winners weren’t all that more impressive in those years . I still have a concern for dilution of the qualifying standards for the post-season.


Wendy April 30, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I’m generally OK with current system. Especially in NL, there is such disparity in the divisions, I like that the wild card rewards team that is often better (much better) than one of the division champs. With 16 teams in NL, I just can’t see 2 divisions.

Thanks for reading the blog. Come back soon.


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