With the Pirates inserting themselves right into the middle of National League playoff race this year, I’ve made a regular habit of checking Baseball Prospectus‘s playoff odds pretty much daily. How are the Pirates really playing? How do they stack up? How are they likely to finish? For about a month now, those odds have hovered in the ballpark of 50%; the Reds have made themselves overwhelming favorites in the NL Central, but the Pirates, Braves and Cardinals are locked in a three-way battle for two wild card spots.
As it stands right now, the Cardinals and Braves are slight favorites for the wild card spots the Pirates are right behind them; it’s basically a three-way coin flip between the two teams as the odds stand right now. What I thought was interesting was this: if the BP average simulation comes to bear, the Braves will take the first wild card spot with 92 wins, the Cards will take the second with 90 wins, and the Pirates will come up just short of a playoff spot with 89 wins. When I saw that this morning, I said to myself, “Damn, it would be heartbreaking to see the Pirates win 89 games this year and still miss the playoffs.”
It wouldn’t just be heart-breaking, given the second wild card it’d be pretty insane. Baseball went to its current three-division format in 1994, but because of the strike they didn’t play a full season with it until 1996. Since 1996, the win totals of the wild card winners have been: 90, 92, 90, 97, 94, 93, 95, 91, 92, 89, 88, 90, 90, 92, 91, and 90. As competitive balance has increased across baseball in the last few years, the target win total for NL wild cards has generally hovered right around 90. There are only two seasons where 89 wins would get you in, but at least for the last five years it’d have you right in the mix.
But what if baseball had two wild cards all those years? How many wins would the second wild card team have had? From 1996 onwards, the wild card runners up have won: 88, 88, 89, 96, 86, 90, 92, 87, 91, 88, 85, 89, 89, 88, 90, 89. Or, in 16 seasons, 89 wins would get you into at least a tie for the second wild card spot in 11 of them.
These aren’t anything but idle observerations for now, but it’s a reminder that from the distance of ~55 games, it looks like the wild card race in the National League could come right down to the wire. To hit 90 wins, the Pirates will need to go 29-26.