This is the first year I can remember where, as of September 1st, there was literally not a Wild Card chase to found. That is, unless you consider 7.5 games back or 8.5 games back within striking distance. Mathematically, there is still a possibility of Atlanta or New York being overtaken for the Wild Card. Realistically though, not a chance.
As of September 1, 2010, the A.L. Wild Card was all but wrapped up. In the National League though, the Giants were 1.5 games back of the Phillies, and the Cardinals were 5 games back. Using the Septemmber 1st date as our constant, let’s look at the Wild Card standing back through the 2002 season:
2009: Texas was 4 games back in the American League while San Francisco was 1 back in the senior circuit. Colorado was 3 back and Florida was 5 back.
2008: The White Sox and Twins were tied at 3 games back of Boston. In the National League, the race wasn’t as tight, but Philadelphia was still 5.5 games back of Milwaukee.
2007: Seattle was 2 games back in the A.L. and Detroit was 3 games back. San Diego and Arizona were tied for the Wild Card lead, and Philadelphia was 3 games back.
2006: The Twins were 0.5 games back in the American League, and Boston was 5.5 back. In the National League there were 7 teams within 5 games of the Wild Card, including Philadelphia and Cincinnati only 0.5 games back.
2005: The Angels, the Yankees, and Oakland were all tied for the Wild Card lead while the Indians were 1 game back and the Twins were 5. In the N.L., Houston was 0.5 games back, Florida was 1.5 games back, the Mets were 2.5 games back, and the Nationals were 3 games back.
2004: The Angels were 3.5 games back of Boston and Texas was 5 games back. San Francisco, San Diego, Florida, and Houston were at least within 3 games of the Wild Card lead.
2003: Boston was 1.5 games back of Seattle. The National League again had 7 teams in competition. All 7 were within 4 games of the lead, with 4 teams within 2.5 games.
2002: Seattle was 2 games back and Boston was 5 games back. San Francisco was the lone competitor in the N.L. at 2 games back.
In the 9 seasons preceding this one, we have had compelling Wild Card races. We have had parity. But suddenly, in 2011, teams are either good, or they are bad. And a lot of it has to do with pitching. As Jason Stark wrote yesterday, pitchers are gaining ground on hitters through technology and constant study. In addition, the reduction in steroid users has brought the game closer to a level playing field.
Teams who have pitching are successful. The Phillies clearly have the best rotation in baseball. The Braves have probably the best bullpen in baseball (not to mention an aging Derek Lowe who slugged a home run yesterday). The Brewers have a threesome of pitchers who have gelled better than any other team besides the Phillies. The Diamondbacks have developed Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson into legitimate stars and Kennedy is even Cy Young quality. In the American League, the Red Sox had Clay Buckholtz most of the season to go along with a rejuvenated Josh Becket and a consistent Jon Lester. The Yankees have CC Sabathia. The Tigers have the best pitcher in baseball. And the Rangers have had one of the best staffs all season (they may be breaking down now, but they posted solid number up through about the middle of August).
I am a big proponent of adding another Wild Card in each league, but this season does not help my case much. There is not a single team out there that cries out, “Hey, we deserve to be in the postseason!” The Indians have tailed off terribly, the White Sox are inconsistent, the Giants don’t have an offense, and the Cardinals don’t have pitching. If a second Wild Card team were in play in each league this season, much like artificial sweetener, it would just be fake. We’d be looking at Tampa Bay and St. Louis as the additional play-off teams. While those teams could make some noise in the postseason, a glance at there season does not reveal a compelling reason to let them in.
In a league where only 27% of the teams make the postseason, it is easy to wish for more. But not this year. There’s no one else deserving enough. The Wild Card races as they are aren’t even all that wild.