One wildcard is out and two wildcards are in, but September drama is sticking around

Baseball's change to a ten-team playoff was supposed to kill the drama of previous years. As events unfolded, that couldn't be farther from the truth. Photo: AP Photo/Nick Wass

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2012 — September 28, 2011 was the kind of day that die-hard baseball fans can only dream about. The final day of the regular season held the fates of both wild-card spots, four teams, and two sets of home-field advantage in the balance. In St. Petersburg and Baltimore, walk-off wins finalized a Boston Red Sox collapse that gave the AL wild card to the Tampa Bay Rays. In Houston, a Chris Carpenter shutout gave the St. Louis Cardinals a chance at the NL Wild Card. In Atlanta, an extra-innings thriller sent the Cardinals through.

Months later, with the 2012 season already in sight, and the drama of St. Louis’ stunning run to the World Series title fading away, the best last-day drama-killing device in history rode into view. It was the second wild-card spot – a proposal to put five teams from each league into the playoffs instead of four. Sending an extra team looked innocent on the surface. After all, the NFL sent 37.5% of its teams to the playoffs, the NBA sent 50%, and the NHL sent 53.3%. Where was the harm in letting two more teams into the postseason party?

Quickly, the danger became apparent, helped to clarity by the epic finale of the previous season. With two wildcards in each league, none of the four games that finalized the playoff would have had any meaning at all. They wouldn’t even have helped to determine home-field advantage for the one-game wildcard round, which determines the host by regular season head-to-head record. September 28 would have been meaningless, a day to rest starters and manipulate pitching rotations for October.

Fast-forward to sixteen days until the end of the 2012 regular season. The American League appears to have confirmed that sentiment. The real drama there is in the AL East between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles, where even the loser will drop neatly into wildcard slot number two. But there’s still a glimmer of hope in the National League, where with 15-17 games remaining, six teams are within five games of the second spot.

The Cardinals, looking for an opportunity to defend their title, hold the slot for the moment. But the Los Angeles Dodgers, boosted by acquiring the core of the Red Sox at the trade deadline, sit just one game back. Next come the Brewers, who nearly kept the Cardinals out of last year’s World Series, just two-and-a-half back. Then another NL Central team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, trying desperately to fight off a collapse, now three games out. The Philadelphia Phillies and the Arizona Diamondbacks round out the battle, sitting four and four-and-a-half games out respectively.

And none of the six are likely to drop out of the picture anytime soon. Both the Phillies and the Brewers have won seven of their last ten, and even a seventh team, the San Diego Padres, are on a roll and sit just six games out. Making the picture even murkier, simulating the remainder of the season, based solely on schedule strength, shows all six contenders winning between 7 and 9 games. The margin of error says that each and every one has a fighting chance.

In the end, neither system carries the day. With one wildcard from each league, there would be a two-team battle in the AL, and no chance for any teams save Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Atlanta in the NL. With two, both go through in the AL, and the NL goes to pieces. At this moment, the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers are duking it out for the upper hand in the AL Central, separated by just three games.

Meanwhile, key wins in Seattle by the Orioles has kept the AL East where it’s been for much of the month – within one game. It’s going to be a wild ride, and on October 3, there may very well be two divisions and two wildcards up in the air once again.


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Arjuna Subramanian

Arjuna Subramanian is an aspiring baseball writer living in the Washington D.C. area.  He started his writing  with his blog Painting The Black on MLBlogs in May of 2009.  He fell in love with the sabermetric movement during the 2008-2009 offseason, and strives to provide balanced articles from both sides of the statistics/scouting divide.  

When not writing, watching/listening to baseball, over-analyzing his Chicago Cubs, staring in disbelief at the writing of Thomas Boswell, or keeping tabs on the latest Milton Bradley blowup, he can usually be found at the DC Fencers Club, where he is a competitive epee fencer.

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