Three years ago, the MLB expanded the postseason from eight to ten teams by adding a second wild card team. Six division winners and four wild card teams now reach the postseason. As a result, the league has placed a significantly larger premium on winning a division title; both wild card teams would need to play in a one-game playoff to determine which team advances to the Division Series. 162 regular season games later, four teams’ fate would come down to one single game, arguably the single most meaningful baseball game played every year.
One single game goes against conventional wisdom in the sport of baseball, which truly relies on a large sample size to determine player and team performances. Advanced stats, such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) – calculates a player’s value compared to an average, replacement-level player – only carry meaning when pitchers have thrown over 180 innings or batters who have accumulated over 500 at-bats. An All-Star player generally has at least a 5.0 WAR over the course of a 162-game season.
In a single nine-inning game, though, regular season stats do not amount to anything. Teams can exploit any player with “favorable” matchups; hitters can go through a mini-slump, which almost everyone endures over the course of a season; pitchers can have a rough outing, which all of them have during the course of a season. Starting pitchers only play once every five games in the regular season, while the best hitters fail 7 out of every 10 at-bats. In the playoffs, batters will only receive an average of four at-bats over the course of a game; starting pitchers often do not pitch postseason games with a standard rest schedule that they routinely endure in the regular season.
Ultimately, the postseason is a completely different game than the regular season. Look no further than last year, when the two best players in the MLB during the regular season flopped in the playoffs. 2014 NL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, who had a 1.77 ERA in 27 starts during the regular season, surrendered 11 earned runs in two postseason starts that spanned 12.2 innings pitched; the Dodgers lost both of Kershaw’s playoff starts and fell to the Cardinals in four games in the NLDS. Unanimous 2014 AL MVP Mike Trout, who finished with a .938 OPS and a 7.9 WAR last season, got only 1 hit in 12 at-bats in the ALDS; the Royals swept the Angels in three games.
Every single elimination game played after the last day of the regular season means something significant. Team records mean nothing after the postseason begins, as every team who qualifies starts with a clean slate. Everything begins with the one-game wildcard playoff, which has meant so much more than the league could have every imagined.
Last year, the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants, two middling regular season teams, both won their Wild Card games en route to participating in the World Series. Both teams did not even win 90 games in the regular season, and the Giants finished with the fifth-best record in the National League, which would have placed them out of the playoffs in any year prior to 2012.
Kansas City, hosting its first postseason game in 29 years, battled back from two different one-run deficits in the bottom of the 9th and 12th innings to win a wild-card thriller over Oakland. The Royals carried that momentum into two straight sweeps over the MLB-best Angels in the ALDS and Orioles in the ALCS to reach the World Series.
San Francisco, which stumbled to a 7-9 record in the team’s final 16 games to drop behind Pittsburgh, dominated the Pirates 8-0 on the road behind a complete-game shutout by Madison Bumgarner. The Giants wound up defeating the NL-best Nationals in the NLDS and Cardinals in the NLCS to reach and win the World Series. Bumgarner had arguably one of the greatest postseasons ever in the process, pitching 52.2 innings in 7 games (almost 7.5 innings per appearance) and only yielding six runs in the playoffs. He won the World Series MVP.
One game alone propelled the Giants and Royals to baseball’s biggest stage. The Royals used the momentum to sweep the two best teams in the MLB (in terms of record) while Bumgarner continued his dominance throughout the entire postseason. Both the Giants and Royals proved the value of reaching the postseason, regardless of position or record. Anybody can win once a team reaches the postseason, even if teams must persevere through a one-game playoff.
As a result of the second Wild Card team, more teams than ever believe they can contend for a postseason berth. The 2015 Trade Deadline has proven that more teams than ever will attempt to secure a playoff berth, even if that comes in the form of a wild card spot.
At the time of the July 31 trade deadline, the Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals all established commanding division leads of over five games. The Los Angeles Angels and Houston Astros were neck-and-neck in the AL West; the Giants and Dodgers were essentially tied in the NL West; the New York Mets and Washington Nationals separated themselves from the rest of the NL East. Other than that, the rest of the teams’ best bet was to secure one of the two Wild Card spots. As of August 3, eight teams are within three games of securing an AL Wild Card spot, while five teams have a realistic shot of getting the NL Wild Card spot. Let’s examine the teams who made noise at this season’s trade deadline:
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
By the time the Blue Jays acquired Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, and a two-month rental of David Price, Toronto trailed the Yankees by 7.5 games in the division and the Twins by three games for the 2nd wild card spot, with Baltimore possessing the same record as the Blue Jays. Yet, the Blue Jays decided they had the team to contend this year and they had strong points to validate their argument; Toronto has outscored opponents by over 100 runs this season despite their .500 record and has outscored every other MLB team by more than 50 runs. Adding Tulowitzki provides more firepower to an already loaded lineup.
Toronto really needed another top-line starter – Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, and R.A. Dickey were the team’s best starters by the end of July – if the team had any chance of reaching the postseason and having success in October. Price provides tremendous stability and experience to the rotation, as he has pitched in five different postseasons (though he has never won a postseason start). Toronto ranked in the bottom-third in the league in team ERA at the time of the deadline, and pitching wins out in the playoffs due to the colder weather. The Blue Jays have not reached the postseason since 1993 and have run out of patience to wait out another year. Toronto surrendered three quality pitching prospects to acquire Price, so the Blue Jays have officially decided that they must capitalize on the opportunity this year. They have 13 more games against the AL-East leading Yankees in August and September, so they certainly will have a chance to win the division.
Baltimore went out and acquired Gerardo Parra from Milwaukee, who batted a career-best .328 for the Brewers this season. The Orioles dealt their third-best prospect in the organization for a two-month rental of Parra, who will play left field. The core of Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado have helped Baltimore return to prominence; the Orioles have had three consecutive winning seasons (two playoff appearances) after enduring 14 straight losing seasons. They reached the ALCS last season and want to give themselves an opportunity to get back to the big stage.
NEW YORK METS
After the botched Wilmer Flores debacle, the Mets acquired Yoenis Cespedes, Kelly Johnson, and Juan Uribe to bolster a lineup that ranked DEAD LAST in the majors at the time of the trade deadline. They also obtained Tyler Clippard to strengthen the back-end of the bullpen, after the MLB suspended Jenrry Mejia for 162 games for PED violation.
New York’s other team could have easily played for next season. Wheeler’s expected return will add to arguably baseball’s strongest and highly touted rotation next season, featuring Jacob de Grom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard. Instead, the Mets have recognized that they have a legitimate shot at reaching the postseason this year and that they must bring the fanbase hope, which will draw fans to Citi Field. That stadium has never hosted a playoff game, and the Mets have not even been involved in a pennant race since moving to their new home in 2009. Home attendance steadily declined from 2010 to 2014. A playoff team this season will likely strengthen fan engagement with the Mets next season and beyond.
The Nationals acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies, moving Drew Storen to a set-up role. Papelbon was the closer for the 2007 World Series champion Boston Red Sox and had a stellar season closing in Philadelphia, posting a 1.59 ERA in 37 appearances. Storen had a 1.12 ERA last season and a strong 1.56 ERA this season. The Nationals have a powerful rotation (Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmerman, Doug Fister, Stephen Strasburg) to compliment a revamped bullpen and will look to hold off the Mets in the NL East race.
Poor Pittsburgh. The Pirates had the third-best record in the majors at the time of the 2015 deadline yet stood a distant second-place in the NL Central behind St. Louis. So far, home field has meant extremely little for the Wildcard playoff – home teams are 2-4 in this format. Pittsburgh has hosted the NL wildcard game in each of the past two seasons – beating Cincinnati in 2013 and getting routed by the Giants last year. However, the Pirates changed their strategy last season and used arguably their two best pitchers – Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole – for two of the final three games of the regular season in an attempt to overtake St. Louis to win the division. The Pirates lost their final two games against the Reds, and then Edinson Volquez proved no match for Madison Bumgarner in the playoff game.
This year, Pittsburgh may yet again host the game for the third straight year. The Pirates entered the wildcard at least five games ahead of every other team for the top wildcard spot, but they will try to catch St. Louis to avoid last season’s disappointment. They bolstered every part of their roster with the additions of starting pitcher Joe Blanton, 3B Aramis Ramirez, and reliever Joakim Soria. These moves do not indicate a need for an ace starter to play for the big wildcard game; they will try to run off a big hot streak to avoid playing in a one-game playoff. Pittsburgh plays St. Louis nine times in August and September, and the Pirates must win at least two-thirds of these matchups if they have a chance at catching the Cardinals.
The Cubs have progressed far quicker than their organization believed was possible prior to the season. While the offense has struggled (23rd in runs scored) and the pitching has flourished (5th in team ERA), GM Theo Epstein did not attempt to change the lineup and rather went out and got pitching. That’s a fair point since their entire infield, catcher, and right fielder are young, developing players. Schwarber, Bryant, Russell, Jorge Soler, Starlin Castro, and Anthony Rizzo, six of the team’s eight everyday starters, are all 25 and younger. They need at-bats more than anything, NOT veterans replacing them. Pitching, despite the team’s strength this season, could use much more depth, and the Cubs brought in Dan Haren and Tommy Hunter to add arms to the rotation. While Haren is a fly-ball pitcher pitching in a homer-friendly Wrigley Field, he has a 4.04 strikeout-to-walk ratio for his career and has had a steady start to this season, pitching 129 innings in 21 appearances (over six innings per start). If Haren emerges as a strong fifth starter, Chicago will have a very good chance to reach the playoffs.
With a loaded farm system, the Astros were primed to contend for years to come but not particularly this year. However, with the rest of their division underperforming, the Astros have a legitimate shot to do something special this season. They needed some veteran presence both in the lineup and rotation to help them going forward this year. Acquiring pitcher Scott Kazmir and center fielder Carlos Gomez at the deadline immediately boosts Houston’s chances this season to win the AL West. Gomez represents a massive upgrade over current CF Jake Marisnick and will provide added stability to the lineup. Kazmir was just named the AL Pitcher of the Month for July, as he went 2-0 with a 0.26 ERA in five starts for the month. Instead of just playing it safe this year, the Astros have officially decided that they will go for the win this year. Props to them.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The Angels acquired veteran outfielders David DeJesus, Shane Victorino, and David Murphy at the deadline to bolster the lineup. All three players have had subpar seasons this year compared to the rest of their career. Can they find another gear playing in Orange County?The Angels have dropped from the MLB’s leading offense in 2014 to the 12th leading offense this season. Unlike the Astros, the Angels have a much shorter window of opportunity to win. Albert Pujols, 35, is not getting any younger and is only in the fourth year of his 10-year/$240 million contract. The new acquisitions will play a large role in determining the Angels fate this season.
The Rangers, with Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, and Shin-Soo Choo locked up to lucrative contracts at least through 2017, also have a small window of opportunity to win. Hamilton flamed out with the Angels earlier this season after two woeful seasons in Orange Country, returned to Arlington at 34 years old. Fielder (31), Beltre (36), and Choo (33) are probably as good as they’ll ever get. Even if the Rangers had a losing record at the trade deadline, they needed to make a “win-now” move to have a chance at accomplishing anything with this core. More than anything, they needed pitching, which ranked 28th out of 30 MLB teams in ERA, and surrendered nearly five runs per game.
Cole Hamels, who has previously won a World Series MVP and pitched a no-hitter in his last start for Philadelphia, arrives in Arlington poised to get the Rangers over the hump. After pitching in Philadelphia for over eight seasons, Hamels is used to throwing in hitter-friendly ballparks. This season, he has thrown 9.6 strikeouts per every 9 innings, which ranks as his best mark since his rookie season in 2006, and has a 3.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio for his career. Texas will have to make a miraculous run to catch Houston or the Angels for the division lead, but they are well within striking distance of a wild-card berth, sitting less than four games behind the leaders at the time of the trade deadline. Even though the Rangers have had horrible luck in the Wildcard playoff games (losing both times in 2012 and 2013), Texas must go all-in now given the current construction of the roster. The acquisition of Hamels, who is locked up through 2018, provides the Rangers with a reasonable shot at getting to a third wildcard playoff game.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Unlike the past several years, San Francisco’s rotation has faltered this year, as the Giants rank 12th in the majors in team ERA. Two pitchers, Chris Heston and Bumgarner, have essentially carried the Giants all year, as both men are the only players on the staff with a sub-4.00 ERA, over 102 innings pitched, and a WAR of over 0.1. The Giants need much more out of their pitching staff this season if they have a shot at repeating as champs.
Mike Leake’s (acquired from Cincinnati) high groundball rate should serve well with San Francisco’s young nucleus in the infield. Matt Duffy (3B), Joe Panik (2B), Brandon Crawford (SS), and Brandon Belt (1B) are all 28 or younger, as shortstop Crawford has a 97.6 % career fielding percentage at one of the sport’s most difficult positions. Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong have fallen out of the rotation, while pitcher Tim Hudson’s 73 ERA+ (average is 100) ranks among the worst in the majors. Leake will likely take over Hudson’s rotation spot, and should serve as a massive upgrade at that position. The Giants will need him to pitch well in order to have a chance at catching the Dodgers in the division or holding off the Cubs for a wildcard spot.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Despite some sensational pitching performances from Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, who have both had two exceptionally long scoreless inning streaks in recent times, the remainder of the rotation has been inconsistent. While three Dodgers (Greinke, Kershaw, and Brett Anderson) have made at least 20 starts this season, 11 other Dodger pitchers have started a game in 2015. That screams instability.
Alex Wood (from Atlanta) and Mat Latos (from Miami) have now taken over the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation for Los Angeles. Both players represent significant upgrades from the array of pitchers the Dodgers have used in that spot this season. Wood has a very modest 8.2 strikeouts/9 innings and has a 119 ERA+ for his 3-year career; Latos has recorded 8.1 strikeouts/9 innings and has significantly increased his velocity this season. Latos should benefit from moving to a pitcher-friendly park at Dodger Stadium. If one of these pitchers falters or gets hurt, Bronson Arroyo will fill in for him; the Dodgers have completely revamped their rotation and hope to find steadiness to hold off the defending World Champions in the NL West.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Despite being far off from both the Giants and Dodgers for a playoff spot, the Padres decided not to unload their veterans and make a run this year. San Diego made offseason headlines by acquiring a revamped outfield of Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, and Justin Upton. Yet, the Padres have grossly underachieved this year, falling over eight games behind a playoff spot at the time of the deadline. Upton and pitcher Ian Kennedy become free agents after this season and instead of attempting to receive some compensation for either of them, San Diego has decided to build off its post-All-Star break momentum and make a run at the playoffs. Go big or go home.
Minnesota looked to upgrade its 3.97 team bullpen ERA, ranked 24th in the MLB at the time of the trade deadline, by acquiring Kevin Jepsen from Tampa Bay for two pitching prospects. Jepsen had an outstanding 2014 season with the Angels, posting a 1.05 WHIP and 2.63 ERA in 74 appearances. However, his walk rate has spiked this season, while his strikeout rate has declined. Will a change of scenery help Jepsen? The Twins have put themselves in position to contend, but they must have a strong August to give themselves a chance to make a push in September.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
The White Sox had a seven-game winning streak from July 23-29 that convinced team management that they could contend this season. However, the White Sox still remained over 10 games behind Kansas City for the division lead and another eight games behind a wild card spot. Baltimore, Toronto, LA Angels, and Texas all made significant acquisitions at the deadline that made them a threat. The White Sox rank behind all of those teams in the Wild Card standings. Yet, Chicago decided to keep their strong veterans, especially Jeff Samardzija who will become a free agent at the end of the season, instead of receiving prospects. They are still playing for a wildcard spot this year.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
14 teams made significant moves or non-moves at this year’s deadline that showcase their desires to contend for a playoff spot this season. Another three teams – Yankees, Royals, and Cardinals – have firmly established themselves as division favorites, while three other teams – Rays, Tigers, and Diamondbacks – have a realistic shot at reaching the postseason this season if they get hot. Overall, 20 teams – two-thirds of the MLB – are vying for 10 playoff spots this season.
Unlike in the NBA, when the lower seeds have in incrementally low chance at competing for a championship, any MLB team can win it all regardless of position. Thus, the MLB has tremendously benefitted from the spike in interest, as more fanbases have bought in to their team’s desire to contend.
In fact, according to the MLB press release, the past decade alone has registered 10 of the highest total attendance figures in MLB history. The past three years, since the implementation of the second wild card, has seen a COMBINED average of over 30,000 fans per game across MLB ballparks. Compared to last year, which averaged 30,458 fans per game (2013 averaged 30,515 fans per game), more fans have already come to the stadiums this season. So far (through August 3), 30,643 fans per game have packed MLB ballparks. We have not even approached the stretch run in late August/all of September, which should attract even more fans for contending teams.
While the addition of the extra MLB Wildcard has added an element of luck to the World Series winner, the entire league has tremendously benefitted from a wider spike in interest. When teams make moves that show their desire to win this year, fans take notice and begin to support their teams at the ballparks.
Two teams in particular, the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets, have had playoff-type atmospheres in their two series since acquiring players near the trade deadline. Toronto’s four-game series against Kansas City between July 30-August 2 averaged 35,500 fans per game, while New York’s 10-game homestand between July 23 and August 2 averaged over 35,000 fans per game. To put that into perspective, both franchises have collectively averaged fewer than 29,000 fans per game in the past four years. As both teams continue to contend into the final few weeks in the season, the Mets and Blue Jays each has a chance to approach 3 million total fans for the year.
Because of the added wildcard, more teams have decided to play for the present instead of always planning ahead for the future. They have begun to realize the economic boost from fielding contending teams into the final weeks of the season. Since the format changed in 2012, both of last year’s wildcard teams and nearly a third (St. Louis blew a 3-1 lead in the 2012 NLCS) have reached the World Series. The best teams in the regular season do not always succeed in the postseason.
Thus, adding the second wildcard has revolutionized the entire league in a positive manner. Even with two more teams reaching the playoffs, a fewer percentage of MLB teams (33.33%) reach the postseason compared to the NFL, NBA, and NHL. The regular season still carries tremendous meaning; the division winners get rewarded with an automatic path to the Division Series while the wildcard teams must survive a one-game playoff just to play against a Division winner.
A team has tremendous incentive to beat the four other teams in its division, fueling rivalries across baseball. Many brawls, such as the one between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati on August 2, galvanize interest and add intensity to the games. It shows that teams care about the result, and fans will naturally get more involved in a game when players display their passion.
These rivalries can expand outward when teams that are not involved in a division race still have a chance to secure a wildcard berth. Teams like the Blue Jays, involved in an intense scuffle with the Royals on August 2, play in more mutually meaningful games against opponents also competing for a wildcard spot. Had we had one fewer wildcard spot in play, only a few teams could realistically have a chance at reaching the postseason, leaving most of the league playing in meaningless September games. Instead, two-thirds of the league has decided to go for the playoffs this year, all thanks to the second wild-card spot. At the end of the day, the sport of baseball wins.