Following a September that lacked MLB’s usual playoff-race excitement, the 2017 postseason will start with two games that also might not feature much drama. On Tuesday, the Yankees will host the Twins in the most lopsided wild-card matchup in history; the next night, the Diamondbacks will play the Rockies in a game that’s only slightly less imbalanced.
Of course, in this case, “in history” is a little less grand in scope, as it means just “in the era of dual wild cards” or “since 2012.” But even in that short span, a pattern for these single-contest rounds has emerged: Two evenly matched teams play a tense game that produces at least one memorable moment and sets the tone for the month of playoff baseball to come. By that standard, this year’s talent gap between wild-card competitors is abnormal.
Last year, both wild-card games featured teams with the same record, and the year before, both Cubs-Pirates and Astros-Yankees paired teams with just one game of separation. Overall, of the 10 games before 2017, four matched teams that finished with the same record, and four more matched teams that finished one game apart after 162 regular-season contests. Only the 2012 Braves-Cardinals (six games apart) and 2013 Pirates-Reds (four) contests had a non-negligible gap.
But this year, both the Yankees and Diamondbacks finished six games ahead of their respective opponents, and advanced metrics show that the clubs are even more disparate than the gaps their records reflect. Two alternate totals are of use here: Pythagorean record, which estimates how many games a team “should have” won based on its run differential—which is a better predictor of future performance than just wins and losses—and third-order record, a tool tracked by Baseball Prospectus that further adjusts a team’s standing by weighing strength of schedule and other underlying factors.
By those measures, the Yankees have played like a top-three team in baseball, along with the top-seeded Indians and Dodgers. Pythagorean record suggests they’ve played at a 101-win level, and third-order record pegs their season at a 106-win clip. Due to woefully unclutch performances by both star hitters and relievers, though, New York struggled to match those estimated totals and finished 91-71. The 85-77 Twins, conversely, overperformed their advanced stats, which suggest they played in the .500 range.
So by plain record, the Yankees finished six games better than the Twins, which ties for the largest disparity among any wild-card matchup. By Pythagorean record, they finished 17 games better, which is the largest. And by third-order record, they finished nearly 25 games better, which is again the largest.
The Diamondbacks fare similarly—though not quite as dominantly—in comparison to the Rockies. The average of the opponents’ regular, Pythagorean, and third-order records places Arizona nine games better than Colorado this season, which represents the third-greatest gap in the wild-card sample. (In the chart below, “wins gap” denotes the average difference between the regular, Pythagorean, and third-order records for each team.)
Wild-Card Wins Gap
|Did the Better Team Win?
|Did the Better Team Win?
But predicting one game of baseball with any level of confidence is a fool’s errand, and the Twins and Rockies still have reasonable paths to victory despite their apparent deficits. Look at the last column on that chart: The statistically superior team has won just five of 10 wild-card games to date. By pure win-loss record, the largest difference between first and second wild cards occurred in the first year of the new playoff system, when Atlanta finished six games ahead of St. Louis. The Cardinals won, though, in a game best remembered for the infield fly that left the infield.
And using the more involved math, the statistical underdog has won the two games with the largest disparities. In 2014, the Athletics finished 14 games better than the Royals by Pythagorean record and 19 games clear by third-order record, but Kansas City employed multiple late-inning rallies to advance. In 2012, the Rangers were the better team on paper, but the Orioles moved on as, in a demonstration of the unpredictability of a one-game playoff round, Joe Saunders outdueled Yu Darvish.
Consider, for instance, that Rockies starter Jon Gray has faced the Diamondbacks three times this season, losing a home start but winning both games in Arizona. He combined for 20 strikeouts against just one walk in those two victories and went 4-0 with a 2.10 ERA over his last five starts of the regular season. Nobody who follows baseball would be surprised to see him turn in another gem to help the Rockies advance.
And in the Bronx, the Twins admittedly enter Tuesday’s game bearing the brunt of 15-plus years of misery at the hands of the Yankees, but their roster is talented enough to swing the upset. Minnesota’s Byron Buxton–led defense is one of the best in baseball, and its Buxton-led offense has been hot for two months. No team hit more homers or scored more runs than the Twins from the start of August onward, and that offense is facing Luis Severino, who has never pitched a playoff game at any level and recorded one of his worst starts of the season against Minnesota last month.
The point isn’t that these upsets will happen, but rather that it doesn’t take too strenuous a stretch to imagine that they could. Only one of 10 wild-card games has been decided by more than four runs; almost every contest to date, then, has been a few swings at most from switching course entirely.
That the Yankees and Diamondbacks are simultaneously much better than their opponents but also reasonable bets to lose, and therefore be eliminated from the playoffs after just one game, is a seeming logical inconsistency that has inspired alternate proposals for the wild-card round. FanGraphs’ Travis Sawchik suggested MLB adopt a Korea Baseball Organization format: a two-game series in which the lower-seeded team needs to win both games to advance. The Ringer's Ben Lindbergh and FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan discussed another, more compelling idea on a recent podcast episode: If Wild-Card Team A beats Wild-Card Team B by one game in the regular-season standings, Team A will start the wild-card game with an automatic 1-0 lead; a two-game gap will yield a two-run advantage, and so on.
Those who argue that it’s unfair that a significantly better team starts the playoffs on equal footing with a laggard have a point. But almost no part of a playoff structure that crowns a champion using short series after a 162-game season is fair, and the Yankees could have avoided the vagaries of a one-game playoff altogether by winning their division. They had ample opportunity to do so, too, but played .500 baseball from the start of June through the end of August. On aggregate, they’re one of the majors’ top teams, but they also lost 71 times this year, and turning even three of those defeats into victories would have granted them the AL East title and instead sent the rival Red Sox to the one-game playoff.
The structural switch to two wild cards per league was designed to emphasize the importance of winning the division. The Yankees or Diamondbacks squandering brilliant, surprisingly competitive seasons with just one bad inning or a single fluky hit this week would be the greatest piece of evidence yet that the intended effect materialized.