Why going all out for the second wild card spot just doesn’t make sense

As we head into play on Wednesday, 12 of the 15 teams in the American League are within six games of a playoff spot. This is great news if you were a member of Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon Committee, tasked with bringing parity — competitive balance is the preferred MLB jargon, I believe — to a sport that has seen its fair share of dominant dynasties.  The addition of a second wild card, along with rising television revenues that have shrunk the gap between the haves and the have-nots, means that more teams are fancying themselves as contenders now than ever before.  

The Royals, a game below .500, are reportedly more interested in acquiring a hitter to bolster their offense than in selling off the final few months of James Shields’ contract. The Rays are five games below .500, but have won six straight and might just be talking themselves out of trading David Price, given their recent surge. Even the Red Sox, who looked dead and buried a few weeks ago, have now won eight of their last 10, and can probably make a case for keeping their team together to make a last ditch run at defending their championship.

However, I’d like to make a suggestion to American League teams chasing the second wild-card spot: proceed with caution.

The reward for even winning the wild card used to be a best-of-five series that would likely result in at least two home playoff games, a nifty little reward for a team’s fan base. Under the new system, however, the carrot at the end of the wild-card stick is just a single-game winner-take-all affair, with the loser only extending their season by one additional day, and maybe not even playing that game in front of their home crowd.  

And the news gets worse for the second wild-card entry in the American League this year; not only are you going on the road for an elimination game, but you’re almost guaranteed to be going up against one of the very best teams in baseball.

The Oakland A’s have the best record in baseball, but they happen to share a division with baseball’s second best record, which belongs to the Los Angeles Angels. They are the only two teams who have won more than 60 percent of their games so far; in fact, they are the only two teams to have even won 57 percent of their games to date. And it isn’t a fluke, as both teams have expected winning percentages over .600 according to the BaseRuns formula, which strips out a lot of the timing luck that can make win-loss records deceiving.

One of those two teams is likely going to win the AL West, while the other is going to host the wild-card game. For now, let’s assume that the A’s are going to hang on to their lead and the reward for winning the second wild card will be a trip to Anaheim to try and beat Mike Trout and his merry men. Just how likely is it that any of the teams fighting for the second wild-card spot would actually win that elimination game and advance to the division series? 

It’s a complicated question, but let’s try and answer it as best as we can. To start out, I collected the game-by-game odds data from FanGraphs that we’ve compiled for every Angels home game this year; based on each team’s starting line-up and starting pitcher for that day, we have a model that estimates each team’s odds of winning that particular game. These odds can vary quite a bit from day to day depending on the match-ups; for instance, the Angels were 63 percent favorites to win on June 6th when they threw Jered Weaver against Andre Rienzo, but only 42 percent favorites to win the next day when Matt Shoemaker matched up against Chris Sale.  

Overall, though, the Angels have been favored to win 55 percent of their home games, which makes sense as they are a very good team with home field advantage. But what about when the Angels matched up against one of their potential wild-card opponents, and particularly, when one of their better starting pitchers took the hill against one of the best starting pitchers on a wild-card contender? Let’s take a look at a handful of games that fit the criteria.  

March 31st, vs. Seattle: Jered Weaver vs. Felix Hernandez — Mariners favored 55/45.

April 29th, vs. Cleveland: Jered Weaver vs. Corey Kluber — Angels favored 51/49.

May 6th, vs. New York Yankees: C.J. Wilson vs. Hiroki Kuroda — Angels favored 52/48.

July 18th, vs. Seattle: Jered Weaver vs. Hisashi Iwakuma — Toss-up, 50/50.

July 19th, vs Seattle: Garrett Richards vs. Felix Hernandez — Mariners favored 54/46.

Even without a dominating No. 1 starter — Richards has pitched like one this year, but his prior track record means that the game odds aren’t treating him like an ace yet — the forecasting model has essentially said that the other wild-card contenders stand no better than a coin flip’s chance of winning in Anaheim, even with their best pitchers on the mound.  

And those numbers don’t factor in the strategy adjustment a team can make in the wild-card game. The most obvious strategy in winner-take-all games is to empty the bullpen, exploiting every match-up advantage you can and never letting a hitter face a tiring pitcher. In the regular season, teams combine to use 7.8 pitchers per game, but in the four wild-card games that have been played since the introduction of the current structure, teams have combined to use 9.8 pitchers per game. No starting pitcher has pitched past the seventh inning in any of the four games.  

While we remember games like Jack Morris’ Game 7 World Series performance in 1991, the reality is that modern baseball teams have figured out that fresh relief pitchers, even just decent ones, are more effective than tiring starting pitchers. Major League hitters have a .681 OPS against relief pitchers this year, which is pretty close to the .688 mark they put up against starting pitchers the first time they face them in a game. But that goes up to .720 for the second at-bat and a remarkable .760 for the third at-bat, making tiring starting pitchers about as effective overall as the worst member of any given bullpen.  

In an elimination game, having a really great starting pitcher is less important than having a deep, flexible bullpen full of guys who can provide match-up advantages and get three to six outs apiece. And while the Angels might lack a true No. 1 starter, their recent additions of Joe Thatcher and Huston Street have solidified a bullpen that was already better than people gave it credit for. With Joe Smith, Kevin Jepsen, and Mike Morin, the Angels have five high quality relievers, and they’d likely have starters Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs available out of the bullpen during the wild-card game as well. With seven or eight good arms ready to come out of the bullpen, a team can mimic the performance of a dominant ace without actually having one.  

And no, rooting for the Angels to win the AL West won’t solve any problems, as the A’s have a very similarly constructed pitching staff, with a great bullpen full of guys who can throw 20 pitches at a level that rivals the best starters in the game. While they may not have King Felix, David Price, or Jon Lester, the A’s and Angels have the kind of pitching staff that sets up very well for an elimination game. Add in home field advantage, and the second wild-card team is likely going to be an underdog even if they manage to line up their rotation so that their No. 1 starter takes the mound in the wild-card game.  

There’s going to be pressure on a lot of teams within striking distance of the second wild-card spot to make a big move over the next week. Before they mortgage the future for a run at that spot, however, it’s worth asking what the realistic upside of winning the second wild card actually is. Yes, technically you get to say you made the playoffs, but in reality, all you’ve really done is worked yourself into a game with a better team, at their park, in a format that allows them to neutralize their biggest weakness.  

Second wild-card contenders: look at what the Yankees are doing. Make smart upgrades — along the lines of Brandon McCarthy and Chase Headley — that don’t empty your farm system or leave you significantly weakened for the future. Fighting for the right to fly to Anaheim (or Oakland) to try and win one game isn’t worth punting your long-term future. It’s just one game, and one game you certainly shouldn’t count on winning.