MLB stretch drive sees 17 teams holding onto playoff hope
How expanded wildcard concept saved the sport’s final month
Never has September baseball been filled with more hope from more major-league cities and their fans, holding onto the belief they could be playing in October.
Playoff races in both American and National leagues have arrived at what amounts to crunch time. With around 10 games remaining for all, the bottom line is that there are 17 teams at or above .500, in cities that have been able to convince their fanbases they still have a chance to earn, at least, a wild-card spot … if only a sudden, and in many cases unlikely, hot streak would arrive.
It’s good for the game. Bottom line is never have more teams been alive as contenders this late in a season. Baseball’s over-the-years playoff evolution has progressed from one AL and one NL pennant winner facing off in a seven-game World Series (1904-68), to today’s excitingly crowded October dance floor led by a trio of division winners, joined by the next three best records. This format has proven a boon to the business of MLB sport. Kudos to those that run the game (and we don’t say that often) for injecting the game with new life as a viable, thriving (i.e. gambling) enterprise.
This is the second season of MLB qualifying three wildcard teams in each league, with a total of 12 of 30 teams making it to the post-season. It must be pointed out that in the NHL and NBA playoffs it is 16 out of 32, so baseball remains the most difficult major pro sport in which to qualify.
Why expanded playoff field has been right decision leading to positive results.
An expanded playoff field has clearly taken hold of the public’s imagination, serving to keep interest alive in baseball in the months of Sept./Oct. and enthusiasm alive in MLB cities and markets that otherwise would have seen their team playing out the string, over the final 30 games of a “wait-until-next-year” season while turning their attention to other sports – NFL, NHL and NBA.
Twelve MLB playoff teams are going wall-to-wall on their schedule emerging into October, with the need to go pedal to the metal and win three or four intense series. With sports gambling taking over as America’s Pastime, the new format creates an expanded TV audience from old-school fans who will be joined by a younger generation that has specialty and prop bets on the line that need to be seen.
The more MLB teams that remain invested until the very end of the schedule and in the day-to-day outcome of the season helps explain why there will be fewer mid-90s win totals for wild-card qualifiers now and in the future. Losing teams are competing longer. This year there are likely to be qualifiers in the high 80’s in wins.
In the past, up until the pandemic season in 2020, team rosters from Sept. 1 until season’s end were allowed to expand to 40, basically all their roster players. The larger group would all be available for all games, which was in many ways unfair. Some losing teams used to promote up to 38 players, while other good teams, most likely contenders, would limit call-ups to between 4-7 extra players, with specific skills that could help them win even one needed game down the stretch.
The old disparity that it created between losing teams that used the loophole to see their kids, against good teams trying to rack up as many wins as possible created a clear late-season separation in the standings with teams in the high 90’s in wins facing also-ran teams that didn’t care because they were already out of the post-season race and didn’t care if they lost 85 or lost 95 games.
The difference in logic between those years when the expanded 40-man September roster took effect, and the change in roster size now, is easy to explain. In this day and age, most teams, including the Jays, have fancy player development centres at their spring training site where they can send their top prospects when the minor-league seasons end. They don’t need to keep track of them in major-league clubhouses with major-league money and few at-bats or innings pitched.
Identifying the AL and NL contenders for 12 playoff spots
American League: Division leaders are Orioles, Twins and Astros. The Twins are all alone in the AL Central and have a mortal lock on a five-team grouping that is 99 games under .500. The first-place O’s are battling the Rays for first, while the defending World Series champs, the Astros are locked in a three-way tussle with the Mariners and Rangers.
The Blue Jays are in a solid playoff position, currently waiting for the wreckage to unfold, that will be the result of the upcoming intramural dustup out West (M’s and Rangers with 7 games vs. one another) that will surely allow room for just the division winner and one wildcard from the West.
All seven of those above teams can truthfully claim that their fate is in their own hands in terms of qualifying as the division winner, or one of the three wildcards, while the longshot Yankees have not been eliminated but have been realistically waving the white flag for weeks now.
AL Wildcard Predictions: Rays, Rangers and Blue Jays. The O’s and Astros should win divisions.
National League: While the three NL division races aren’t close, having been locked up by the powerful Braves, the surging Brewers and the cocky Dodgers, the wildcard race has become an unbelievable free-for-all that changes daily.
The Phillies have been most consistent of that potential NL wildcard group, while, with the other two wildcards, you can throw a blanket over the Diamondbacks, Cubs, Marlins and Reds in the standings. The one peripheral contender out West has been the Giants, who are hanging on with a winning record. They have a successful post-season history as World Series winners in 2010-12-14, but are just like the Yankees in that they know this is not their year. But it’s the final 12 days and they are still in the land of the living.
NL Wildcard Predictions: Phillies, Cubs and Marlins.