The Wild Card Turns 23

Manny Ramirez and the 2004 Red Sox benefited from the Wild Card. (via)

Twenty-four years ago, the San Francisco Giants won 103 games and missed the playoffs. They had to watch on television as the Atlanta Braves won the National League West, then lost the league championship to the Phillies, who lost the World Series when their notorious closer, Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams, served up a championship-winning homer to Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for Bay Area faithful, just four years removed from their last league pennant but four decades from their last World Series championship. And it would never happen again. No pennant race would ever again have stakes that high. Since the creation of the Wild Card, the winningest team to miss the playoffs has been the 96-win 1999 Reds. Other than that single exception, every team in the last 23 years that won at least 94 games has garnered a playoff spot.

Whatever you think of him, Bud Selig is arguably baseball’s best commissioner ever, having personally overseen the merging of the leagues, the creation of interleague play and the World Baseball Classic, and two decades of labor peace following the ruinous 1994 strike. (From 1972 to 1994, baseball players and owners had eight work stoppages in 22 years. The players have not missed a game since. Selig, who took over as interim commissioner in 1992, deserves some credit for that.)

And October is when fans most directly see his effect on the game, as Selig added four new teams, two new divisions, and an extra round of playoffs. Twenty-three years after the first Wild Card teams and six years after the addition of the second Wild Card and the Wild Card Game, it’s amazing to remember that in 1993, 28 teams competed for just four postseason spots. (Yes, we know that technically the first year of Wild Card play would have been in 1994, so you could argue that the Wild Card is 24, but since those playoffs never happened we’re not counting them.) Now, 30 teams compete for 10. Every team in baseball has seen their playoff odds go up from 14 percent to 33 percent.

Wild Card Statistics
Years Teams Championships by WC teams Championships by division winners
1995-2011 (17 seasons) 1 per league 5 (29%) 12 (71%)
 2012-2016 (5 seasons) 2 per league 1 (20%)  4 (80%)
                 Total      54 6 (27%) 16 (73%)
Category Team Record Win %
               Most WC wins Red Sox 28-29 0.491
             Most WC losses Red Sox 28-29 0.491
         Best WC won-loss % Royals 11-4 0.733
Best won-losss %, min. 20 G Marlins 22-11 0.667
            Worst WC record Dodgers 0-6 0.000
 Worst WC record, min. 20 G Yankees 10-14 0.417

Of 54 wild card teams, 12 have won a pennant, and six have won the World Series: the 1997 and 2003 Marlins, the 2002 Angels, the 2004 Red Sox, the 2011 Cardinals, and the 2014 Giants. (In the 2002 and 2014 World Series, both teams were Wild Cards.)

In all, 24 of baseball’s 30 teams have won a Wild Card, playing additional games in October thanks to Selig’s rule change. And had it not been for the Wild Card, the Marlins and Angels franchise would remain without a championship, and the Red Sox would have had to wait even longer to reverse the curse.

There has only been one 100-win Wild Card team, the 2001 Oakland Athletics, whose 102 wins still left them 14 wins back of the 116-win Mariners. But the A’s lost to the Yankees in the Division Series, and those Yankees then promptly dispatched the M’s in the LCS before losing to the Diamondbacks in one of the most memorable World Series of all time.

Had the Wild Card begun a mere two years earlier, the winningest Wild Card might have been those mighty 1993 Giants. Perhaps rookie manager Dusty Baker would have handled the eventual league champion Phillies better than Bobby Cox’s Braves did, and Giants closer Rod Beck might have handled Joe Carter better than Mitch Williams did.

Their sad fate provided the original rationale for the Wild Card: a team that excellent in the regular season deserves a shot in October. But once upon a time, people used to complain about the unfairness of Wild Card, when Wild Card teams won three World Series in a row from 2002 to 2004. Rather than giving a great team a chance at immortality, it seemed like the Wild Card was giving excessive aid to also-rans.

The Florida Marlins were Exhibits A and B. In their quarter-century of history, the Marlins have never finished first in their division. On three occasions, they have finished in second place, and they have never won more than 92 regular-season games. But they’ve won two World Series, riding the Wild Card to World Series championships in the only two postseason appearances the franchise has ever made.

Of course, Barry Bonds retired ringless. He made only one World Series appearance, against the 2002 Anaheim Angels, the first of those three charmed Wild Cards. They were followed by the 2003 Marlins and the 2004 Red Sox, who rode Wild Card bids all the way through October, and skeptics worried that it was far too easy for a second-place team to win it all. That concern presaged to the creation of the second Wild Card and a one-game playoff, the Wild Card Game, which ensured that Wild Card teams had a slightly tougher road through the playoffs than division winners.

But with the benefit of more than a decade of additional hindsight, it becomes clear that those three years were something of a fluke: lightning just happened to strike thrice. Only two Wild Card teams have won the World Series since 2004, and that has served to quiet Wild Card skeptics. Sometimes a team just gets a horseshoe up its butt.

And here’s what it looks like when that happens:

2002 Angels

The second-winningest Wild Card team of all time, the 2002 Angels won 99 games, but those weren’t enough to take the division away from the 103-win Moneyball A’s, whose 20-game winning streak from Aug. 13 to Sept. 4 proved too much to overcome.

Still, it was the winningest Angels team of all time. The Halos had enjoyed little success in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s — in the 41 seasons from their 1961 founding to 2001, the team had finished first a grand total of three times, had lost in the first round of the playoffs each time, and had never won more than 93 games.

By contrast, these Angels were loaded for bear. They overwhelmed the 103-win Yankees in the Division series and the 94-win Twins in the LCS, dropping only two total games on their way to the World Series. It was then that they ran into trouble, facing the Giants, who themselves were a Wild Card team. The Angels dropped the first game and split the next four, and were down three games to two.

Then they came back home for Game 6. At the first sign of trouble — a two-run homer in the fifth by Shawon Dunston — manager Mike Scoscia yanked Kevin Appier and put in his 20-year old wunderkind Francisco Rodriguez, as he’d been doing all October. But the baby-faced Rodriguez had thrown three innings in Game Two and two in Game Four, a total of 15 innings in the playoffs after having pitched just 5.2 innings in the majors during the regular season, and maybe he was gassed. He gave up a wild pitch in the fifth, a home run in the sixth, and an RBI single in the seventh. It was 5-0 Giants, and the Series was nine outs from being over.

But Scott Spezio hit a three-run homer, Darin Erstad hit a solo shot, and Bonds misplayed a bloop single by Garret Anderson to allow the tying run to get to third and the winning run, Anderson, to get into scoring position at second. A booming RBI double by Troy Glaus off ace Giants closer Robb Nen gave the Angels the lead, one they would not relinquish.

The deflated Giants went down quietly in the rubber match, as Livan Hernandez gave up four quick runs and the Angels bullpen held firm, as it had for most of the series. The Angels won a World Series in which nearly everyone had given them up for dead, but they won it on both sides of the ball. The true stars of the series for the Angels were in the bullpen, chiefly Rodriguez and 30-year-old rookie Brendan Donnelly, who pitched 7.2 innings and allowed but one hit.

Thanks in large part to the double that turned the tide, Glaus was named MVP, though his three-homer performance and .385/.467/.846 slash line paled beside Bonds’ four homers and unearthly .471/.700/1.294 line. Bonds was credited with only 17 official at-bats in seven games, to go with 13 walks. In those 17 at-bats, he hit four homers, two doubles and two singles. But he never won it all.

The 1997 and 2003 Marlins
Some bitterness towards the Marlins was understandable, particularly regarding the 1997 team, which then-owner Wayne Huizenga dismantled via fire sale shortly after they won the World Series. It glittered with talent, acquired by GM Dave Dombrowski through savvy trades (Gary Sheffield, Robb Nen, Cliff Floyd), free agency (Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Al Leiter, Bobby Bonilla, Alex Fernandez), Latin American scouting (Edgar Renteria, Luis Castillo, Livan Hernandez), and the draft (Charles Johnson).

Yet nearly all those stars were gone within 14 months of the championship victory. By Christmas Day of 1998, of all the players in the preceding paragraph, only Hernandez, Fernandez, Castillo, and Floyd were still Marlins, and Hernandez was traded midway through 1999. It left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans who had thrilled to watch the Marlins sweep the Giants in the Division Series, then power past the mighty Atlanta and Cleveland teams in the LCS and World Series. (For their part, Braves fans were not sorry to see the dismantling of a team they felt had robbed them; in Game Five, which the Marlins won 2-1, umpire Eric Gregg had given Livan Hernandez a brutally wide strike zone.)

While the 1997 team had a high proportion of free agents — as was necessary, since it was only the franchise’s fifth season of life, so the farm system hadn’t had much chance to bear fruit — the 2003 team had a much higher concentration of star talent acquired by trade, as new general manager Larry Beinfest (hired February 2002) showed his brilliance, acquiring:

Plus, Ivan Rodriguez was a free agent, and Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera came up through the farm system.

The 2003 Marlins did not start the year hot. Through the first month and a half of the year, they were 16-22, and manager Jeff Torborg got the ax. In his stead, Beinfest turned to 72-year-old Jack McKeon, who had not held a managing job since getting fired in Cincinnati three years prior. (He had managed the Reds to 96 wins in 1999 and they had missed the Wild Card by a single game, but after the team acquired hometown hero Ken Griffey Jr. in the offseason, McKeon’s Red fell to 85-77, a decline of 11 wins.)

But whatever magic he lacked in 2000, he rediscovered in May of 2003. The Marlins won their first two games with him at the helm and went 75-49 under him through the end of the year, a .600 winning percentage. (That would be a 98-win pace over a full season.)

They dispatched the Giants in four games in the Division Series, then faced the Cubs in the LCS, and they promptly went down three games to one, with Matt Clement outdueling Willis, the man he was dealt for, in Game Four. In Game Five, the Marlins sent 23-year-old Josh Beckett to the mound, and the third playoff start of his career was one for the ages: 115 pitches, 80 of them strikes. He got 11 strikeouts and yielded but one walk and two singles. The Cubs did not get a runner past first base. He then pitched four innings out of the bullpen in Game Seven, allowing just one run, and racking up the first and only hold of his long career.

Game Six is remembered for all the wrong reasons — had the Cubs’ normally surehanded shortstop Alex Gonzalez not booted an easy grounder from Miguel Cabrera, it’s likely that no one would ever have remembered the name of the poor Cubs fan who was heaped with all the eventual blame. (If anything, the goat of the series was Kyle Farnsworth, who gave up a late run in Game Three, then three runs in Game Six and two more in Game Seven.) In all, the Marlins put up an eight-spot and won Game Six 8-3, and Kerry Wood gave up seven runs in Game Seven, and the Cubs had to wait more than a decade longer to reverse their own curse.

Meanwhile, the charmed Marlins took on the Yankees, and Beckett went back to work. He was the hard-luck loser in Game Three, yielding just three hits and two earned runs while striking out 10, but Mike Mussina and Mo Rivera yielded just a single run. That win put the Yankees ahead 2-1, but the Marlins won the fourth game with a walkoff home run in the 12th inning. (It was struck by their shortstop, whose name was also Alex Gonzalez.) Brad Penny won a gem of a fifth game, and that set things up just as McKeon could have hoped: he put the ball in Beckett’s hands with the chance to win it all.

Once again, Beckett went all nine innings, needing only 107 pitches. He struck out nine, walked only two, and yielded just five hits, letting no Yankee past second base. The 23-year-old Texan had allowed just two earned runs and eight hits in 16.1 innings in the World Series, and he was named the World Series MVP just four years after the Marlins had taken him with the second pick in the draft. (The first overall pick was Josh Hamilton, who would not make his major league debut for another four years.)

2004 Red Sox
The third-winningest Wild Card team is one of the most famous teams of any type: the 2004 Idiots won 98 games and brought a World Series championship to Boston for the first time in 86 years. To do so, they had to dispatch the Yankees, whose 101 wins left the Red Sox staring up at them from second place for the seventh straight year and the 13th time in their long history. (The Yankees and Red Sox finished in first and second place, respectively, every single year from 1998 to 2005; the Red Sox were the league Wild Card in five of those eight campaigns.)

The Red Sox may have been also-rans in the regular-season standings, but they were hardly pushovers: they averaged 92 wins a year over those eight consecutive second-place finishes, and likely would have had multiple division titles had they been anywhere but the AL East. (They almost certainly would have had even more wins under the unbalanced schedule, too, if they hadn’t been facing the Yankees 18 or 19 times a year. That started in 2001.)

The core of the 2004 team — Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, and Tim Wakefield — had nearly reached the World Series the previous year, winning 95 games and holding a 5-2 lead over the Yankees in the seventh game of the ALCS before Grady Little famously failed to relieve Pedro Martinez. He gave up the tying runs, and the Red Sox had another winter to brood.

GM Theo Epstein left nothing to chance, firing Little and trading for Curt Schilling, who had been the World Series MVP just two years earlier. Even more stunning, Epstein orchestrated a four-team trade just minutes before the trade deadline to send away fan favorite Nomar Garciaparra and obtain the slick-fielding but light-hitting shortstop Orlando Cabrera and backup first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz to shore up their defense.

The moves paid off, as the team went 32-18 after the deadline and swept the Angels in the Division Series. But the Yankees were waiting in the LCS, and they ran out to a 3-0 lead in the series, winning the third game by a tally of 19 to 8. Down 4-3 in the ninth inning of the fourth game, the Red Sox led off with Kevin Millar against Mariano Rivera.

Now, Mariano Rivera in the postseason was something like Barry Bonds in the 2002 World Series. It was the 10th year of his career, and he had a 2.43 career ERA through 728.1 innings in the regular season. But in the postseason, he had pitched 104 innings and given up a total of eight earned runs. His postseason ERA was 0.69.

Millar walked, and the next two occurrences were extremely easy to predict: he was immediately replaced by pinch runner extraordinaire Dave Roberts, the current Dodgers manager, and Roberts attempted to steal second. But no one who had followed a century of Red Sox baseball could have imagined what happened next. Roberts made it safely under the tag. Then, Bill Mueller singled him home to tie the game. Suddenly, Rivera’s career postseason ERA was 0.78.

David Ortiz hit a two-run walkoff home run in the 12th; he hit another home run in the next game as the Red Sox tied the game in the eighth, and then Ortiz hit a walkoff single in the 14th to win it. The Red Sox won the next two games in regulation, then swept the Cardinals in perhaps the most anticlimactic World Series in memory.

Since 2004, the 2011 Cardinals and 2014 Giants have been the only two Wild Card World Series winners. But those teams each returned multiple veterans who had recently won championships in their city, in St. Louis in 2006 and in San Francisco in 2010 and 2012. Indeed, the 2010 Giants ended a 56-year championship drought by defeating the Rangers in five games, just three years after Barry Bonds left the team, and then they repeated the trick two more times in the next five years.

In all, Wild Card teams have hardly been weak world champions. In fact, the first-place 2006 Cardinals are the least-winningest regular-season World Series champions of all time, finishing 83-78, behind the 1987 Twins, who were 85-77.

Those Cardinals were not even the worst regular season team to capture a division title: that would be the 2005 Padres, who somehow limped to the top mark in the NL West with a record of 82-80, just 12 years after the Giants finished in second place with a record 21 wins better. (The Padres just barely claim the edge in ignominy over the 1973 Mets, who were 82-79.) No Wild Card team has ever been quite that bad, because division winners need to surpass only four other teams’ win totals, while Wild Card teams must finish in the top two of 12.

Prior to the 2017 Rockies, there had been only one third-place Wild Card team, the 2015 Cubs, who won 97 games but still lagged behind the 98-win Pirates and 100-win Cardinals. Those three teams were the three winningest in the league, even though they were all in the same division and faced each other 19 times a year. Those Wild Card Cubs lost in the LCS, but destiny was clearly close at hand, and the next year they won six more games in the regular season and four more in the World Series and the North Side had a championship for the first time in living memory.

The Wild Card is safely ensconced now, and so it surely doesn’t need my defense. Will one of this year’s four bring home the hardware?

It’s unlikely. But then again, it always is.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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Bryan O'Connormember
6 years ago

This was a great read. One quibble: the 2016 Orioles and Blue Jays tied for second. As the road team in the Wild Card Game, the Orioles must have lost a tiebreaker, placing them third in the division, right?

Dennis Bedard
6 years ago

Great compilation about WC history. I think we all know what is coming next. 2/3 instead of a one game elimination.

6 years ago

I remember the constant Bob Costas pontificating in the 90s about how horrible the Wild Card was and how it cheapens the game.

6 years ago

2013 Cards, Pirates, Reds

6 years ago

2013 Reds finished 3rd.

Psychic... Powerless...
6 years ago

Very enjoyable.

6 years ago

Take away interleague play (which the Yankees were slightly better in than the Red Sox) and reconstitute the AL East by bringing back Cleveland and Detroit (two teams the Red Sox did better against than the Yankees did), and Boston likely wins the AL East in 2004.

Marc Schneider
6 years ago

I don’t have a problem with the wild card concept, especially given the current divisional set up, in which average teams can win a division (e.g., 2006 Cardinals) and the wild card team is often better. But I dislike the current wild card game because it seems so unfair to have a team that wins substantially more games than another have to play that team in a one-game play-in. The Braves lost to the Cardinals in 2012, despite being six games better, in part due to a controversial infield fly call. (The Cardinals seem to have made a career of going deep in the playoffs as a wild card but not doing so well when they win the division.) I understand that MLB became enamored of the concept of a one-game playoff because of the drama of teams tying for the wild-card and having to play it off. That’s fine, but, IMO, this current set up just rewards mediocrity and diminishes the regular season.

6 years ago

I agree, reluctantly, that the Wild Card is here to stay. I’ve never been a fan of it and I’m even less of a fan of the two-Wild Card format. The only reason I can rationalize the existence of the Wild Card is the three-division format which kind of cries out for another playoff team unless you want to bye system which I think would be unworkable.

But was the three-division format really necessary? What really was wrong with the old two-division format with only the division winners advancing to the post-season? I’ll tell you what was wrong, not that I agree with it. You could get more lucrative post-season games on network TV with the three-division Wild Card format. That’s what it was all about – money. Not justice for the 1993 Braves or any other great team that missed out on a division title because of an even better team. But wasn’t that really one of the great things about baseball – the season-long battle between two good teams going down to the wire with everything on the line?

with the original Wild Card format, that apologists like you celebrate, the only all-or-nothing battles were between also-ran teams competing for the Wild card or two mediocre teams fighting for a division title. Two great division rivals like the 1993 Giants and Braves could just coast knowing that both would make the playoffs. You had the pathetic spectacle of the Dodgers and Astros treating a season-ending series like Florida spring training games. You had teams like the Yankees practically tanking so they could be a Wild Card team get to play the Twins instead of trying to win the division and having to play a tougher opponent. And not least, you had four-team divisions that created the real prospect of sub .500 teas making the post-season as division winners.

The two-Wild Card format addresses some of these issues but is fundamentally unfair to really good teams that have an equal or even stronger division rival. Those teams face the prospect of a coin-flip one-game play against a decidedly inferior opponent. Yeah, the play-in game creates excitement but so would picking two teams at random and letting them play for the World Series championship. I doubt anyone thinks that’s a good idea (OK, some TV guys probably do).

As opposed to the present system I think it would be better to drop the pretense and eliminate the divisions. Seed the four top finishers in each league for the playoffs. My personal preference would be to go back to the pre-1994 format but I guess that ship has sailed.

Finally, I have to take you to task about your comment that Bud Selig was “arguably baseball’s best commissioner ever”. Are you kidding? Selig’s central role in the 1994 lockout and cancellation of the last 6 weeks of the regular season and the post-season, in trying to bust the player’s union with the replacement players, his blind eye regarding PEDs coupled with his cynical “born-again” sanctimony, his ridiculous coupling of the All-Star game to World Series home advantage and selling out of fans to the networks with respect to post-season TV scheduling coupled with the ripping off of fans during multi-hour rain delays, the ballistic escalation in ticket prices and taxpayer rip-offs in stadium deals, all of which occurred on his watch, should have him banned from the HOF as all are worse than anything Pete Rose or Joe Jackson did.

Selig was never more than a today and supplicant to the plutocrat owner class that he served. He might look good compared to mediocrities like Bowie Kuhn, non-entities like William Eckert and outright racists like Kenesaw Landis but that’s not exactly a high-bar to top.