MLB: The Wild-Card “Chaos” Scenario

On Monday, September 4, 2017, I will be participating in my yearly Fantasy Football Draft.   Growing up, I wasn’t much of an NFL fan – to be exact, the reason why I am a big fan of the Carolina Panthers now is innocent enough:  When the NFL expanded in 1993, I threw the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers into a hat, picked one out, and that was it.  Prior to that, I would watch some games, but never was invested in any one franchise.   It was fun to watch the Buffalo Bills back when they dominated in the AFC, but thankfully, I did not jump on that bandwagon.

As many sports fans turn their attention to this coming Thursday and into the weekend, I am in all-out MLB playoff chase mode.  While the Yankees have certainly played in more meaningful September games than not over the past 20 years, it wouldn’t matter much to me.   Last year, I was still more into the MLB playoff chase than early season NFL.    I have always been intrigued by a scenario where many teams end up tied for a Wild-Card at the end of the season.  MLB is the only major sport that does not use tie-breakers to settle these scores:  You must play it out on the field.  If 5 or 6 teams end up with the same record for the second wild-card, perhaps the league will just have to play until Christmas.

The National League offers a chance at a 2-team tie between the Brewers and Rockies this year, but it is the American League where the best chance for chaos resides.   6 teams in the league are between 65-68 loses, with one more team (Tampa) just on the outskirts at 70.   I think the chances at this kind of scenario may increase a bit when you factor in that the Twins, Orioles, Angels, Rangers, and Royals are all flawed teams.  There isn’t a team in that bunch that jumps out at you as an obviously underachieving team.   The Twins and Rangers, to be exact, started selling off their assets at the trade deadline.  The Orioles were at least discussing the possibility, while the Angels and Royals mostly stood pat (though the Angels have since added).    On July 31st, the Royals were actually the team occupying the second Wild-Card spot, and were tied in the loss column with the Red Sox (who have since taken over the division lead from the Yankees).  Now, they are further down the totem pole, one game under .500, but still very much alive.

Here is a look at some of our best chances at a 3+ Wild Card scramble through the years, since the wild-card was implemented in 1995:

2016:  The American League offered these standings with 2 games left in the season:  Orioles (88-72), Blue Jays (87-73), Detroit (86-73), Seattle (86-74).   Toronto would win their final two games, Baltimore would win one, and Detroit/Seattle both went down in flames to crush any chance at a 4-team tie (as you can see, the Tigers ended up playing 161 games. They had a game rained out against the Braves that was not made up since it had zero impact on the standings)

2013:   We actually did have one tie-breaker game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers, a game won by Tampa Bay, 5-2.   The chaos scenario almost came into play, thanks to an absurd 10-game winning streak by the Indians to close the season, which clinched the first wild-card spot in the standings.  If they would have just lost one of those games, the Rays, Rangers, and Indians would have needed to settle a 3-team tie.  By the way, all three teams were hot to close that year, as the Rangers and Rays both put together an 8-2 stretch in their final ten games.

2007:  This was one of the most exciting wild-card races we have seen, which culminated in the Padres and Rockies playing an exciting 9-8 tie-breaker game, which began the Rockies’ run to the World Series.   Heading into the final day of the season, the Padres were 89-72, while the Rockies, Mets, and Phillies headed into the final day at 88-73.   The Padres (loss), Rockies (win), Phillies (win) all did their jobs to finish 89-73, but a Mets’ loss (because of course the Mets would blow it) finished their season at 88-74, allowing the Phillies to take the National League East while the Rockies and Padres went to the play-in.   Some chaos was on our doorstep, only to be ripped away from us.

2005:  There was a lot of intrigue going into the final weekend of 2005, as the Yankees and Red Sox were battling for a division crown, with the Indians lurking int the wild-card chase.   The chaotic scene crumbled, however, when the Yankees clinched the division in Game 161, while the Indians were floundering, losing their final three games.  I remember fondly just how anti-climatic Game 162 was that year, because it was set up to potentially be epic.

2004:  The National League picture was also muddled late in 2004, when the Astros used a 7-game winning streak to overtake the Giants by one game in the race.   With ten games left in the season, the Giants were 86-66, the Cubs were 86-66, Astros were 83-69, and the Padres were 82-70.   This is what makes baseball the most fascinating of all of the sports late in the season:  You just never know what team may come out of the woodwork and steal a spot in the playoffs.  The 7-game winning streak were a part of a 9-1 stretch that made up 4 games on the Giants (5-5) to get themselves into the playoffs.

1998:  The year that saw so many great teams (the Yankees are recognized as one of the best teams ever, but this season also featured a Braves team that won 106 and an Astros team that won 102) also featured a crazy National League Wild Card race between the Cubs, Giants, and Mets.   The Mets seemed to have the spot locked up, before they finished their season with a 5-game losing streak to finish at 88-74.   The Giants and Cubs would both finish at 89-73, both also losing on the final day of the season.  In other words, the Mets were again the team that robbed us of a 3+ team wild-card scramble.   The Cubs won Game #163 to advance to the playoffs.

1996:  The American League took center stage, as four teams finished within 3 games of each other.   None of those four teams had a big finish (the Red Sox were best with a 6-4 ending), allowing the Orioles to hang on to their spot.   The Mariners are White Sox were also involved, but finished 4-6 and 5-5, respectively.   A case where the Orioles building a cushion heading into the final two weeks allowed them to hang on at the end.

1995:  The year of the Angels’ collapse, and the Yankees’ miracle late-season run in the wild-card race.  The Angels’ collapse coincided with solid finishes by the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, giving us a scenario where the Yankees clinched the wild-card while the Mariners and Angels had to play in a divisional tie-breaker.  This scenario had the potential to look really bad for MLB.   If all three teams would have ended up tied, the Mariners and Angels would have played a divisional tie-breaker, but the Yankees would have automatically won the wild-card, as the loser of Game 163 would have technically fallen behind the Yankees in the standings.  I believe baseball eventually changed that rule, and with two wild-card spots now, all the rules probably were changed anyway.  Of course, the Mariners beat the Angels and ended up playing the Yankees in what is still one of the most exciting Division Series since the concept was initiated that very year.

1995:  The National League also had a little chaos going on.  Heading into the final two games of the strike-shortened season, the Dodgers (76-66), Rockies (75-67), Astros (74-68), and Cubs (73-69) were all in the playoff picture.   What made this even more interesting was that the Astros and Cubs were actually playing each other, though the Cubs would need to win the final two games to overtake the Astros.  It did not happen.   The Dodgers and Rockies both won their final two games, locking out the Astros and Cubs in the playoff race.

Back when College Football didn’t have a playoff system, I was one of those who was rooting for 3 big conference teams to finish 11-0 or 12-0, creating a situation where they would have to leave a big school out of the title game.   That never happened, and now we just have the usual gripes over which team should earn that #4 seed in the current system.   Baseball is really the last “chaos scenario” sport we have, and I want to see one.  Perhaps not at the expense of my favorite team, but I would be willing to have them be involved in such “fun.”

The odds say it will not happen.  It is more likely to happen if all of the above teams don’t see much of each other the rest of the way, but it still not a likely outcome.  Although it isn’t likely in any one season, it is likely to happen at some point.  So, why not in 2017?   A season filled with divisional predictability could give us something crazy in the wild-card race.   That would make my early October much more enjoyable than a random Jaguars – Browns type of game.



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