It’s always a shame when we get to the final day of the MLB regular season and there is nothing significant still to play for.
Looking through the standings, the only potential thing to ‘win’ would be the first draft pick in next year’s amateur draft, which goes to the team with the worst win-loss record.
The San Francisco Giants (63-98) are one loss ‘better off’ than the Detroit Tigers (64-97) in the race to the bottom. If the Giants foolishly go and win today against the San Diego Padres and the Tigers lose then they’ll be matched on 64-98.
Normally with tie-breaker situations you look at the results of the games the two teams played against each other, but I’m not sure quite how that works here.
The Tigers won their inter-league series 2-1, which should mean they finish higher, although in the circumstances they might feel that the victory should result in them finishing last so they get the number one pick. Such is the weirdness that creating an incentive to finish last leads to.
Anyway, despite the Tigers’ protestations, I suspect that the Giants do have the worst record sewn-up already on that tie-breaker (I was going to look it up, but thought better of it), so we are where we are and can enjoy the final day as simply a day of baseball with not much riding on it.
Looking at the almost-final standings, you can’t escape the conclusion that the teams most people thought would win the six divisions heading into the year have done so.
Neither the LA Dodgers and Washington Nationals had a strong challenger on paper and so it proved, whilst the Chicago Cubs also came through with a handy gap in the end despite the NL Central being harder work for them than we might have thought.
The Cleveland Indians blitzed the AL Central, in no small part thanks to their incredible 22-game winning streak, Boston kept the New York Yankees at bay in the East and the Houston Astros took all the fun out of the AL West (for the other four teams at least) by going 38-16 across April and May and never looking back. An 11-17 August counted for little, particularly when they responded with a 20-8 September.
The above is partly the whole point of having the Wild Card round. We had predictable division winners this year because they were all blatantly going to be really good teams and were only going to be beaten if they had a disaster or two to give someone else a chance.
That’s not a bad thing in my book. Whilst surprises are always fun, ultimately you should want there to be impressive teams that rack up wins in the regular season and make their eventual clashes in the post-season all the more enthralling.
The Wild Card, especially the second Wild Card, adds something else to the play-off pot.
It creates the potential for other strong teams to get in, such as the Yankees this time around. Despite the negatives you can throw at the Wild Card play-in game from a fairness point of view, the AL East was a great example of one of the main positives.
There is a huge potential difference between winning the division and going straight through to the best-of-five Division Series, compared with flipping a coin in the lose-and-you’re-out Wild Card game. Potential is the key word there, as if you manage to win the Wild Card game your odds of winning it all aren’t all that much lower than the other Division Series competitors. However, the risk of your play-offs only lasting one game means that the division is always worth fighting for now, which wasn’t the case when there was only one Wild Card per league.
NL W(ild Card)
The second Wild Card means that if there are three strong teams in one division in a given year, they could all have a chance of making it to the post-season.
That’s happened this year in the NL West. The Colorado Rockies were a somewhat surprising third-placed finisher last year behind the Dodgers and Giants, yet their 75-87 record to get there – after losing 96 and 94 games in the previous two seasons – gave reason to be cautious about being too optimistic for their hopes in 2017.
In fact, it proved to be indicative of the potential that was there at Coors Field and they’ve fully earned their first play-off appearance since 2009.
The Rockies’ progress in 2017 is nothing compared to that of the team that will be hosting them for the NL Wild Card on Wednesday. 2016 was a disaster for the Arizona Diamondbacks after they made big moves in the off-season – spending $206m on Zack Greinke and a king’s ransom in a trade for Shelby Miller – only to lose 93 games. Various people lost their jobs as a result, but there was still some talent at the club and the potential for a quick return to respectability.
They far exceeded that and enter the final day of the regular season with the joint-sixth highest win total across the Majors with 92. No one can say the D-Backs haven’t earned their play-off appearance.
Twins and the AL Wild Card game
As for the Minnesota Twins, well, some people aren’t being quite so generous in their praise of the second AL Wild Card winners.
They’ve earned their spot because they’ve got the fifth-best record in the American League and five teams qualify for the play-offs from each league. However, they enter the final day with a win-loss record of 84-77.
In football people often say the league table doesn’t lie at the end of a season; in other words, where you end up is generally a good reflection on how good your team was.
MLB takes that further by playing a 162-game regular season. Randomness can still come into, but by and large that’s more than enough time for the cream to rise to the top, the chaff to be separated from the wheat, and the middling middlers to settle in the middle.
It is fair to say that Minnesota are more middly than creamy.
That doesn’t matter in the least for the Minnesota Twins, who can smile away any jibes by knowing there are 20 other teams that would love to be in their position. They’ve made it to the play-offs a year after losing 103 games. They’ve won 25 more games than they did last year and can make it 26 if they win on Sunday. That’s a real achievement for Paul Molitor and his team.
And as for the AL Wild Card game
The problem some have with the Wild Card game in a situation like this is that a team that has earned a significantly better record over 162 games than their opponent can be knocked out by losing one game.
There’s no escaping that this isn’t completely fair, but there’s one important thing to note about it this year.
The New York Yankees have won more World Series than any other team and broken more hearts than anyone else along the way too. The ‘Evil Empire’ moniker isn’t being thrown around quite so much now as it had been the previous 10-15 years, but there’s a reason why it became a thing in the first place. Yankees fans, like fans of any all-conquering team, understand that people love to hate them.
So if it does happen and the Twins do dump the Yankees out on Tuesday night – and it certainly could – then whilst the strict analysts may bemoan it, the rest of us can have a good chuckle about it.