September 10, 2004
There are five teams scrambling for the National League wild-card spot. This match-up features two of them. The first time the Marlins prevailed in the playoffs (1997) there were a lot of cries of aesthetic foul because they were the first wild-card team to go all the way, which seemed pretty cheap at the time. What was rarely mentioned is that they had the second-best record in the league that year, 92-70.
Did you know that wild card teams have a winning playoff record? It's true: 85-79. This means, we know, that non-wild card winners have a losing playoff record over the same period of time. Should we be scandalized by this? Not really. Consider that in more than half the time, the wild card team does not have the fourth-best record among playoff qualifiers. More times than not, the wild card has been better than at least one of the divisional champions. That overall winning record is owed to some large part to the Marlins and their two World Championships out of the slot. A number of other wild-card teams have posted winning records without going all the way: the 2002 Giants, who lost to the other wild card winner, Anaheim; the 2000 Mets and the 2000 Mariners.
What helps the wild-card cause is that just two of their number have ever been swept in a series. Both the '98 Cubs and '96 Dodgers were humbled by the Braves. Only two other teams--the '95 Rockies and '98 Red Sox--have only won one game in the first round. No wild-card team that has survived the first round has been swept in the second. So, wild-card teams have either won the first round or taken it to the limit in 14 of 18 tries. That's a pretty good record and one to keep in mind when considering predictions come playoff time.
There's an old debate about which teams have the advantage in the playoffs: ones that come through a rough race or ones that coast. As teams that are often buffeted in front and back, I thought it might be interesting to look at how wild card teams have fared in the postseason in few different scenarios:
The teams that coasted to the wild-card have fared better than those that had a close shave of it. Teams three games or closer have gone 15-25 (.375) while teams that had a four-game-or-greater cushion are 60-44 (.577). This would seem to make sense for a pretty obvious reason: the teams that finish with the bigger lead have better records. That's fine, except that the difference between the two isn't all that great. It's about 95 wins to 91.
If we break it down to one more level, we get the small subgroup of wild-card teams that have been closely sandwiched between first place and their main wild-card pursuer. Only five of the 18 teams qualify for this cell, making the sample size too small for any kind of conclusions. (In fact, the sample sizes on all of this wild-card talk are still fairly small.) Since I went to the trouble of doing it, though, I might as well show them to you. The fully-bracketed wild card teams fared as follows:
BEST MATCH-UP (Best combined records with both teams being over .500): St. Louis @ Los Angeles
If the wild card turns out to be either Houston or Chicago and if the current winning percentages hold, the Cardinals will finish 20 games ahead of them. That would be the second-largest gap between a wild card and its division winner in history. In 1998, the Red Sox finished 22 games behind the Yankees.
Whilst on the topic of cushions, how have teams with scandalously large bulges done in the playoffs of late? Since the advent of the three-division gulag, 18 teams have won their titles with gaps of 10 or more games. This group has produced fewer World Champions than have the 18 wild-card teams discussed above: three to two. They have also produced a very similar playoff won-loss record:
Wild card teams: 85-79, .518
Nine of them have gone out in the first round while only eight wild-card teams have done so. The Cardinals' two previous trips to the playoffs in this mode resulted in first-round success and second-round humiliation. Both times they swept and were then taken out in five games by the eventual World Series loser (2000 Mets and 2002 Giants).
BIGGEST AMERICAN LEAGUE MISMATCH-UP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): Boston @ Seattle
About a month ago I was punishing myself mentally and physically for having picked a Boston/Houston World Series. Now I do not feel so quite ashamed.
By now, the Red Sox have put themselves in a position where not making the playoffs seems unlikely. What that means is this: as we speak, the following memo is going around the corporate headquarters of The Fates:
BIGGEST NATIONAL LEAGUE MISMATCH-UP (opponents furthest from each other in won-lost records with the better team over .500 and the lesser team under): San Francisco @ Arizona
Those are Tomko's monthly strikeout totals in 2004. Not very impressive, are they? That last number represents just one game, though, a game in which Tomko miraculously struck out more men than did Johnson. The Giants prevailed 4-1 this past Sunday as Tomko (4.49 K/9, 40th out of 46th among qualifiers) beat Johnson (10.74 K/9, second in the league) on the draw, eight whiffs to seven. How did this happen? It helped that Tomko the pitcher got to face Johnson the batter in addition to Johnson the pitcher. He chipped in with two Ks. A few of the Arizona starters are not big strikeout guys; Andy Green and Shea Hillenbrand don't go down much on strikes. For Tomko's purposes, though, the presence of Josh Kroeger--who has struck out in half his major-league at bats--and Doug Devore (whiffing one in three times) got him three more. Juan Brito is no Joe Sewell, but he put the ball in play all three times. Luis Terrero has been a one-in-four man and contributed one to the cause.
It's a sad day for Johnson when his team fields a lineup that puts him on an equal strikeout footing with Brett Tomko.
The second game features a match-up that would appear to have only one possible outcome. It's a likely bet that Stephen Randolph is going to be the man to issue Barry Bonds his 200th walk of 2004. Bonds enters the series at 197 while Randolph--and this is not a misprint--has walked 64 batters in 66 1/3 innings pitched. What else could happen when these two meet (although Bonds has put the ball in play five of the seven times he's faced him)?
Sunday's match-up is another in the continuing series of the ongoing saga, Why Destiny Hates Brandon Webb. Last year he pitched great and lost the Rookie of the Year Award to a player who had more hype. This year he's pitched very well and the only thing he's earned (other than the second-year minimum salary) has been the title of Baseball's Unluckiest Man. In game three of this series, he draws Jason Schmidt as his opponent. Schmidt's VORP of 50.8 is fourth-best in the league.
If the Giants can outlast Johnson, a sweep looks like a strong possibility. With the Dodgers hosting St. Louis, this might be an opportunity to tighten the screws on the race in the West. Isn't it less stressful to battle one team for a divisional title than four teams for a wild-card spot?
WORST MATCH-UP (Opponents with the worst combined records with both teams being under .500): Tampa Bay @ Kansas City
The Royals 26-run outburst against the Tigers on Thursday was rare enough, but taking into account their sub-.400 winning percentage makes it an even rarer trick. Since 1972, only five teams have scored at least 25 runs in a game. The next-worst to these Royals were the '85 Phillies, who beat the tar out of the Mets 26-7. (They could have had more but a strikeout and double play killed a first-and-second, nobody-out situation in the home eighth.) They finished at .463. The other three big-scoring teams were over .500.
In terms of teams that scored at least 20 runs in a game, only two since '72 are in the same stratum as the Royals .360 success rate:
No sub-.400 team since 1972 has put up a margin of victory as large as the Royals 21-run gap on the Tigers. The only team close is the 2000 Orioles, a .457-playing outfit that murderlized the Blue Jays on September 28, 23-1. Only 10 of the runs were earned.