Prognosticators have been lumping the Cardinals in the 2016 wild card hunt dating back pretty much to last October, and despite a couple of minor rough patches for the Cubs that have temporarily given St. Louis and Pittsburgh a glimmer of hope, the NL Central has, to date, sorted out largely as expected, with Chicago pitching and slugging their way to the best mark in baseball with just over a quarter of the season left to play.
As a fan of the Cardinals, it’s been a maddeningly frustrating season. The offense, aided by baseballs that may or may not be juiced, has scored 4.93 runs per game in the 2016 campaign, a significant improvement over the 3.99 they averaged a year ago, despite no major free agent additions among position players. And while it should be no surprise, given the league-wide increase in offense, that the pitching staff and defense aren’t performing as well as the 3.24 runs per game allowed in 2015, they’re allowing 4.40 per contest this season, and are likely just 2-3 games away from surpassing the 525 runs allowed all last year.
Yet for all the defensive miscues and lapses, pitching woes, and general lack of run production against superior teams, at the start of play today, we, as Cardinals fans, can take solace that our Birds find themselves a half-game ahead of Miami for the NL’s second wild card. With a couple of good series, or a swoon by the Marlins, Dodgers, or Giants, St. Louis would have themselves in position for the winner-take-all wild card game come October. And I’m not so sure I like the idea of that.
Baseball’s postseason has always been more exclusive when compared to the other major professional sports leagues in the US. The NHL has allowed more than half of its teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs dating back to the 1920s; the NBA has, likewise, allowed over half of competing teams to qualify for the playoffs throughout its entire history. Even the NFL, which has had a 12-team playoff since 1990, when 28 franchises comprised the league, allows a slightly greater proportion (37.5% to 33.3%) of teams to compete for the Lombardi Trophy.
Because it allows so few contenders to compete for the Commissioner’s Trophy every October, it’s evident that MLB values the emphasis on and importance of its grueling six-month long regular season. The scenario from 2015, in which the teams with the second- and third-best records in MLB as a whole qualified for the NL’s two wild card spots, was an aberration and highly unlikely to occur again for some time. This season, it’s entirely possible that one of the wild card teams will finish with fewer than 85 wins–the Marlins’ .517 winning percentage works out to 83.75 wins over 162 games, while the Cards’ .521 comes to 84.4 wins. In the AL, the Red Sox are on pace for a slightly more respectable 88 wins, but even the Yankees, who were cast as sellers leading up to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, are within 3 games of the second wild card.
Of course, any number of teams can catch fire in September and ride their hot streak to a wild card berth, but that scenario downplays the importance of the marathon that is baseball’s regular season. While I would love for the Cardinals to get hot over the final seven weeks, objectively speaking, it devalues what began back in April and raises the question as to why baseball even plays as many games as it does in the first place.
I created a table comprising the number of wins for wild card teams from the beginning of the wild card era (1995) through last season, including the teams that would have qualified for the second wild card from 1995 through 2011, had such a double-consolation prize existed. In both leagues, the second wild card (or wild card runner-up) has averaged about 89 wins. To get there, the Cardinals or Marlins would need to play their final 45 and 46 games, respectively, 11 and 12 games above .500, which doesn’t seem all that impressive until you consider they’re both currently only a few games above average.
Overall, I’m fine with rewarding the best team to not win their division with a chance to vie for the trophy. Over the course of 21 seasons, the 42 teams to have won the (first) wild card averaged better than 93 wins, and at least one wild card team regularly outpaces an inferior division champion over the 162-game schedule. Meanwhile, not making it to 90 wins doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy (sorry, fans of perennial cellar-dwellers!); of the 42 second wild cards or wild card runners-up, only 16 of these teams have won 90 or more. Given that teams have six months over which to prove their title-worthiness, it seems absurd to give them a chance to upset a superior club in the one-game playoff.