A year ago this time, 14 teams were within three games of a playoff spot. And Bud Selig's "why don't we add a wild-card team in each league" brainstorm sure looked like his most brilliant idea since lunch at Gilles.
But as I gaze upon the standings this year on the day after Labor Day, I can't help but think:
Wouldn't this be a much more fun September without those extra wild cards?
Take a look at the standings -- especially in the National League -- and think about it.
Imagine the National League with only one wild-card slot available. Finishing third in the NL Central wouldn't look like such a beautiful thing under that scenario, now would it?
Or how about the American League? Wow. What a scramble.
"A lot would be on the line," said one AL executive. "You'd be looking at one team -- out of Oakland, Texas, Tampa Bay and Boston -- that was not going to make the playoffs. Or imagine one of the NL Central teams not making it. Instead of talking about the magical year Pittsburgh is having, they could be looking at not getting in at all."
No disrespect to the Indians, Orioles, Royals, Diamondbacks, Yankees or Nationals. But while this system is keeping them alive, the odds aren't with them under any system.
Even under this format, we already are 95 percent sure, according to coolstandings.com, which five National League teams are going to be playing in October. And over in the AL, according to coolstandings, not one team that's chasing a current leader has better than an 24.8 percent chance of sneaking into the postseason field from a spot back in the Labor Day pack.
So for all the virtues of that extra wild card -- an idea I still really like (in most years) -- there are going to be seasons like this one, where we might be heading down the stretch wishing nobody had ever listened when people like me were writing and talking about what a great idea this was.
How likely is a miracle?
The Rays and Cardinals of 2011 remind us that September miracles do happen. But this just in: There's a reason we call them "miracles."
History tells us that only three teams in the division-play era have ever been at least seven games out of a playoff spot at any point in September and made the postseason. Those Rays (nine games out) and Cardinals (8 1/2) were two of them. The third: The 2009 Twins (seven games).
(What about the 2007 Phillies, you ask? Yes, they were seven games back in the NL East as late as Sept. 13, but they were only 2 1/2 out in the wild-card race at that point. So they don't fit this criteria. Got it?)
And speaking of wild cards, only four teams have ever won a wild-card spot after finding themselves six games behind (or more) at any point from Aug. 1 on. Those Rays (nine) and Cardinals (10 1/2) were two of them, too. The others:
2004 Astros (seven out, on Aug. 26)
2007 Rockies (six out, on Sept. 1)
So remember how far back teams like the Nationals (10 1/2 back in the wild-card race on Aug. 19), Diamondbacks (eight out on Aug. 25) and Royals (eight behind on Aug. 24) once dropped, not so long ago? If they charge back to make the postseason field, it wouldn't merely be a comeback.
It would be history.
What it will take -- AL wild-card dept.
Our friends at Baseball Prospectus project it will take 89 wins to lock up an AL wild-card spot. Here's how each of the contenders would have to finish to win 89:
Red Sox* 7-16
(* -- Currently in first place but still …)
(** -- Just seeing if you're paying attention out there.)
What it will take -- NL wild-card dept.
Meanwhile, Baseball Prospectus projects that 90 wins will get you to the NL wild-card survivor game. Here's how each of the NL contenders would have to finish the season to reach that 90-win plateau:
(* -- Currently in first place but still …)
These projections can change, obviously. But rundowns like this still give you a general idea of how slim the margin of error is for teams like Arizona and Washington. They really can't afford to lose much more than a game a week the rest of the way.
State of the AL East
Is this race over? The Red Sox and Rays were tied as recently as 10 days ago. Then Boston ripped off a 6-3 streak, while the Rays lost eight of their next nine. And all of a sudden, they're separated by 5.5 games -- Boston's largest lead since July 5.
Why it's over: No team in the wild-card era has ever held that big a lead in the AL East on Labor Day and not won the division.
Why it's not: Uhhh, anybody remember 2011? The Red Sox led the Rays in the wild-card race by seven games on Labor Day that year. Robert Andino and Dan Johnson would be happy to remind you how that turned out.
Schedule watch: The Red Sox have the toughest remaining schedule of any of the AL East contenders. Their next 15 games are against the Tigers (two games), Yankees (seven), Rays (three) and Orioles (three). The Rays still have to play 14 games against the Red Sox (three), Rangers (four), Orioles (four) and Yankees (three) -- and all of their "easy" games are on the road (at Seattle, Minnesota and Toronto). The Orioles play 10 of their final 13 games against the Rays and Red Sox. And guess who has the easiest schedule in this division? The Yankees, with 11 games left against teams that are currently in last place (White Sox, Astros, Blue Jays, Giants).
State of the AL Central
The Indians are finished playing the Tigers. In most cases, in most years, you'd say that would be a bad thing for a team trying to play catch-up. In this case, ehhhh, not so much.
The Indians went 4-15 against Detroit this year. Four and fifteen. Yikes. That's the most games they've lost against any team in one season since 1969, when they went 3-15 against Ted Williams' Washington Senators.
Baseball Prospectus says the Indians and Royals both have a 0.1 percent chance of catching the Tigers. Just thought you'd want to know. So no teams are more grateful for the invention of that second wild card than they are.
Schedule watch: The Indians may be in danger of losing Justin Masterson. But at least they have the easiest remaining schedule of any AL contender, with 16 of their final 26 games against the Astros (four games), Twins (four), White Sox (six) and Mets (three). And remember, this is a team that has gone 40-17 against teams with losing records. So don't erase them from your wild-card leaderboard yet.
State of the AL West
Fun race. The Rangers opened a seven-game lead on Oakland in May, fell six games behind the A's in July, pulled ahead by 3.5 games on Aug. 23 and, naturally, found themselves dead even again after losing to the A's on Monday. So it looks as if these two teams will be arm-wrestling right to the finish. And that's fine with us September pennant-race fans.
Schedule watch: The schedule is a huge factor. According to baseball-reference.com, the A's have the second-easiest remaining schedule of any AL contender. They started a three-game series against Texas on Labor Day. Once that's over, their only series against a team with a winning record over the next four weeks is a rematch in Texas, Sept. 13-15. The rest of their schedule goes: Astros (three games), Twins (seven), Angels (six) and Mariners (three). Texas, on the other hand, has 15 of its next 18 games against the A's (five games), Pirates (three), Rays (four) and Royals (three), before finishing with a seven-game homestand against the Astros and Angels.
State of the NL East
Just thought I'd ask: Has anyone noticed that the Braves arrived at Labor Day with the best record in baseball (84-53)? Nobody ever seems to mention that. They hadn't been 30 games over .500 at any point in any season since 2004. Their magic number is 11. They lead Washington by 15 games. No team has ever blown a lead that large in September. So there you go.
Schedule watch: For what it's worth, the Nationals have the easiest remaining schedule of any NL wild-card contender. They play 16 of their next 19 against the Phillies (five games), Mets (four) and Marlins (seven) before finishing at St. Louis and Arizona. But if the Nationals are going to make a serious run, they probably need to go no worse than 13-3 in those 16 games.
State of the NL Central
In some ways, this is the best, and most compelling, race in baseball. In other ways -- considering that all three teams involved have a 98 percent chance (or better) of playing in October, according to Baseball Prospectus -- it would be a lot more compelling under a format with only one wild-card team. Or none. Oh, well.
Nevertheless, we still have three teams that are separated by just 2.5 games, and still have a total of four series left against each other, if you count the Reds-Cardinals showdown that started Monday. So that's kinda fun. And I bet you'd be shocked to learn that the Reds had the best record in the division (24-19) since the All-Star break.
Schedule watch: Will the Cardinals' relatively easy schedule decide this race? After they finish their four-game series in Cincinnati, followed by three at home next weekend against Pittsburgh, all of their remaining games are against the Brewers (six), Mariners (three), Rockies (four), Nationals and Cubs (three apiece). The Pirates, on the other hand, still have home-and-home series left with the Reds and have to visit Texas and St. Louis. And the Reds play 12 of their final 24 games against the Pirates (six), Dodgers Cardinals (three apiece) -- but only have one road trip left all season (a nine-gamer to Milwaukee, Houston and Pittsburgh). And that's a big factor for a team that's 42-24 in Cincinnati.
State of the NL West
I still find this mind-boggling: The Dodgers have gained 22 games in the standings on Arizona just since June 22. That's only 64 games ago. They were once 9.5 games back. They're now 12.5 games ahead. Crazy.
Schedule watch: The only above-.500 team the Diamondbacks play between now and the final weekend of the season is the Dodgers (three in L.A., four in Arizona). So that leaves 16 games against the Blue Jays (two), Giants (four), Rockies (six) and Padres (four) before Washington shows up for the final three games of the year. But how much will that matter? The Diamondbacks are a sub-.500 team themselves since Memorial Day (39-45).