Best of the Wild Card Era

With the introduction this season of the new second Wild Card and subsequent Wild Card play-in game, we have reached the end of the eight-playoff-team era. This got me thinking, as the end of an era naturally will do, about which teams did the best and worst in those years.

As such, I decided to come up with a system to evaluate, in somewhat empirical terms, which teams were the best. Naturally, this means a point system. For each season, a team is awarded 10 points for winning the World Series, seven points for a pennant, three for a division title and one for a Wild Card. Additionally, teams that have the best record in their respect league will be awarded a bonus point. With the exception of that bonus point, the system is not cumulative; that is, the most points a team can earn in a season is 11 (a World Series title plus the best record) rather than 21.

Joe Torre, the skipper for most of the Yankees’ recent success (US Presswire)

A few notes on this system: obviously, it rewards postseason performance over the regular season. There are a lot of vagaries of fate that can dictate postseason results, but ultimately, one plays the game to win titles, so that’s what the system rewards.

Additionally, I’ve never thought that winning the Division Series is an especially notable accomplishment, so the system doesn’t give any reward for that.

Before we review the best teams, a few comments on the least successful: in the “One Wild Card” era, four franchises recorded no points: the Royals, Pirates, Blue Jays and Nationals. Tough luck there.

Four other teams also failed to record double-digit points: the Rockies, Reds, Orioles, and Brewers. The Orioles deserve particular note: in the first three seasons, they recorded five points—with only five teams above them—and none thereafter. Of course, they did make the playoffs this past season, so perhaps they are making up for it now.

Having discussed the bottom, we’ll quickly run through the teams occupying the sixth through tenth spots on the list:

10. Texas Rangers
9. Arizona Diamondbacks
8. Los Angeles Angels
7. San Francisco Giants
6. Philadelphia Phillies

I’m a little surprised that Texas doesn’t rank higher; they did win two pennants and three other division titles. Winning last year’s World Series (as they almost did) would not be enough to put Texas into the top five, though it would move San Francisco down to ninth and jump the Rangers over Arizona into a tie with the Angels. Texas is just one of two teams—we’ll reveal the other shortly—to make the top ten without a World Series title.

Notable absences from the top ten, by the way, include the Marlins (two titles, and nothing else, they are twelfth overall) and the White Sox, who have both a World Series title and a season with the best record in the league, but are thirteenth overall, which is the lowest among teams with a title. (Colorado, discussed above, is the lowest team with a pennant.)

5. Boston Red Sox, 30 Points

The Red Sox had nine playoff appearances during the period, including two titles and the best record in 2007. (I probably should’ve mentioned this earlier, but the One Wild Card era ran 17 seasons in total.) The Red Sox total is hurt, somewhat, by virtue of their frequently winning the Wild Card rather than the division. All but two of their playoff appearances—1995 and 2007—were via a second-place finish. Two titles, including the team’s first in more than 85 years (as you well know) will surely mean that Red Sox fans will have no complaints at finishing fifth in these rankings.

4. Cleveland Indians, 32 Points

And here is the highest-ranking team without a World Series title. Through 2001, only the Yankees and Braves had more points than the Indians. From 2002 forward, only seven teams had fewer points. I considered imposing some kind of penalty for teams that had their success clustered around a few years (or, conversely, a bonus for those which had it spread through a higher percentage of the 17 seasons) but ultimately decided that success is success.

3. St. Louis Cardinals, 45 Points

Taking nothing away from the other teams, but we’re reaching a point, as you can see, where the best teams are noticeable better than those below them. The gap from the Cards down to Cleveland is larger than the gap from Cleveland down to the twelfth-place Marlins. The Cardinals reach this point not only on the back of their two titles (and third pennant), but also from winning multiple division titles, which racks up points even when the postseason performance wasn’t there.

“One Wild Card” era superstar—and cowboy hat devotee—Chipper Jones (US Presswire)

2. Atlanta Braves, 56 Points

Were it not for the team yet to come, I would say the Braves are the least surprising team on this list. Though the One Wild Card era misses three division titles and two pennants of the Braves’ great run with Bobby Cox, it does grab their World Series title, as well as two other pennants. All but one of Atlanta’s points came through 2005, and while people tend to think the Braves began to decline around the turn of the decade—they did win just one postseason series after the 1999 NLCS—it’s also true that they posted back-to-back best records in the league in 2002 and 2003.

1. New York Yankees, 91 points

We all knew this was coming. The gap between the Yankees and everyone else is, clearly, insane. They are ahead of the Braves by the same distance the Braves are ahead of the Houston Astros, who aren’t even in the top ten. The Yankees have more than double the total of every team except Atlanta, and they are only 10 behind the combined total of Atlanta and St. Louis. Eight times across the 17 seasons of the One Wild Card era, the Yankees had the best record in the league, and they failed to make the playoffs (and, therefore, record a point) only once, in 2008.

I am not, to be fair, a neutral party on this point, but it seems to me the Yankees’ success since 1995 has been, if anything, underrated. It is true they have a large structural advantage over many teams, but they have (as the above paragraph indicates) simply dominated the competition.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

We will have to see how long the Two Wild Card era lasts, especially as it seems likely that the trend is leading towards, if anything, allowing more teams into the postseason. When the time comes that the playoff format changes, I’ll be here to see who came out on top.

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  1. Paul G. says:

    More playoff teams???  Palpitations!

    Seriously, I’m not sure how baseball could add more teams to the playoffs and make it work.  The most likely scenarios if they tried:

    1. Copy the NBA/NHL and take the top 8 teams in each league.  Both leagues currently have 30 teams so the template fits.  But outside the giant problem of watering down the playoffs, it adds yet another playoff round.  That adds another week pushing the World Series further into November.  At least the NBA and NHL play indoors.  Brr. 

    So how do you fix that?  You could shorten the season (ain’t gonna happen), schedule doubleheaders (ain’t gonna happen), start the season earlier (already pushed that out as far as it can go), or make the first round a best out of three or single game elimination.  Baseball will just love it when the 110 win team gets bounced by the 78-84 qualifier because of a bad umpire call….

    2. Use the NFL template with 6 teams, 2 getting opening byes (or 7 teams, 1 bye).  This doesn’t work for baseball.  Football teams can use an extra week to get healthy and prepare for the game.  Baseball teams get rusty.  It would be a penalty for having a good record.  That could be mitigated by having a shortened first round format, but again that will not be popular.

    3. Use the first half/second half format somehow.  I think 1981 ended that idea for good.

    4. I suppose you could try a round-robin group playoff, but that does seem somewhat kinda pointless after 162 games.

    You want more playoff teams?  This might work.

    a. Expand to 32 teams.
    b. Divide MLB into 4 LEAGUES (8 teams each).
    c. Divide each LEAGUE into 2 DIVISIONS (4 teams each).
    d. Take the top 2 teams in each division or the 2 division winners and the next 2 best records (16 teams in all).
    e. Limit/eliminate interleague play as to prevent having a really weak division getting one/two qualifiers with losing records.

    Don’t see that happening either.  Maybe if we had 48-64 teams, maybe, and then you probably get 3 or 4 divisions per league.  In this format I suspect you would see one league in Japan/Far East and one in Latin America and I think we are still a bit away from making those logistics work.

  2. Paul E says:

    Paul G:
      32 teams sounds great, however, I’d prefer they play 162 games with 4 divisions of eight teams. Let the two division winners from each league play a nine-game playoff in a 3-4-2 home/away format. Let Selig and Co decide if they want a 7 or 9 game WS.
      If they do away with inter-league play, the 8-teams per division format would work well with teams playing other seven teams in their own division 14 times (98 games) and the other division’s eight teams 8 times (64 games). Obviously, this works well into a 162 game formatted season. However, a whole lot less obvious is where the starting pitching is going to come from grin….maybe they can raid Korea and Japan for talent. Maybe they can bring baseball to China and pay the Chinese governmant an import tax for players with real talent.

  3. Mike says:

    Water down the talent even more and baseball will cease to exist.  As it is, a third of every roster, on the average, should still be learning to play the game in triple A.

  4. Paul G. says:

    Divisions with 8 teams does have a nostalgic ring to it, but I seriously doubt you will ever again see a division with more than 6 teams, or 5 teams for that matter.  In the past finishing in the “second division” too many times was a cycle of death.  The St. Louis Browns never really escaped.  MLB does not want eighth place teams ever again.  It is a lot easier for a last place team to leapfrog 4 competitors rather than 7, or at least they can tell that to the season ticket buyers….