Despite a recent 35–11 stretch that included a 13-game winning streak, the Yankees' best-case scenario as September begins appears to be earning a berth in the single-elimination Wild Card Game. I framed it in that manner to serve as a friendly reminder that games early in the season count just as much as the games later in the season. The team’s 12-20 stretch from late May through June has as much to do with them currently looking up at Tampa Bay in the standings as the Rays’ good play does.
That said, one “win or go home” postseason game will certainly be fun and something to look forward to. With the large caveat that there is still a long way for the Yankees to go to clinch a Wild Card spot, let’s take a look at the brief history of the one-game Wild Card. In doing so, maybe we’ll see if there’s anything we can glean from it that may tell us something about the team’s chances of bigger postseason success.
The Wild Card Game itself has often been described as a “coin flip” — but is it?
Since the current playoff format began in 2012 (excluding the 2020 expanded format), there have been 16 single-elimination Wild Card Games played. Yes, as a card-carrying member of the “small sample sizes don’t mean much” club, I recognize that’s not much data on which to go. Yet maybe we’ll learn a few things anyway, and it’s certainly a fun discussion regardless.
There is a seeding component in the game that may imply that one team has an advantage over the other. Whether that’s a home-field advantage or one team is just better than the other (which is likely how they earned the higher seed) it begs the question: “Has the team with the better record and/or home-field advantage performed better in Wild Card Games?”
No. There have been 12 games in which one team had a better regular-season record than its opponent and four in which the teams had the same record. The 12 teams with superior records went 6-6 in their games. If that isn’t a coin flip, then it’ll certainly do until the coin flip arrives.
Perhaps there’s a home-field advantage in games in which both teams had the same record? After all, at the very least, teams don’t want to travel — not having to might help, right? Not according to our small sample, no. In the four games where both teams had the same record, the home team lost three.
Is there anything we can take from the history of one-game elimination Wild Card Games that might help us out? Something upon which we can gaze with more hope than a coin flip?
As logic would dictate, who the starting pitcher is carries some weight. This isn’t to say that you have to send a Cy Young Award candidate out there in order to win, but sending someone to the mound with your fingers crossed isn’t likely to end well. Even though it’s still a small sample size, our sample just doubled because in the 16 games, there have been 32 starting pitchers. Of the 32, a total of 28 were either the team’s clear ace or in the event of teams that didn’t have a clear number one, someone who would be on the very short list of the team’s first choice. Four other teams had to make do with whoever was available — all four lost.
For discussion’s sake, let’s be optimistic for a moment and assume the coin flip game lands pinstripes up, and the Yankees move on to the ALDS. What are the team’s chances of making a deep run then?
Worse than a coin flip actually. More than half of the teams that won their one-game elimination Wild Card only staved off elimination briefly — nine of the 16 had their seasons end when the Division Series ended. Of the seven who managed to win their Division Series, more than half of them were knocked out in the Championship Series. Only three of the 32 Wild Card teams have reached the World Series, and only two — the 2014 Giants and 2019 Nationals — won it all.
Something that needs to be kept in mind in this discussion, is playing in a Wild Card Game in and of itself may be a factor that drops a team’s chances of winning the Commissioner’s Trophy. The larger factor is that if you’re playing in a Wild Card Game, you’re probably not a great team, which lessens the odds of winning the World Series significantly — frankly a good chunk of the time, Wild Card teams haven’t even been a very good team.
I don’t want to speak for you dear reader, but I wouldn’t consider a team that’s won between 52 and 54 out of every 100 games a good team — that’s closer to “average” than to “good” in my book. Yet that’s exactly what almost half of Wild Card teams since 2012 have done: 14 of them had regular-season win totals in the eighties and winning percentages below 55 percent. In fact, the 2018 Yankees and the 2015 Pirates are the only teams of the 32 that won 60 percent or more of their regular season games. The 2018 and 2019 Oakland Athletics both won 97 games with a .599 winning percentage and had to settle for a one-game elimination Wild Card Game both seasons. (Just when I thought the Yankees and Dodgers were the only teams that should mock the Astros.)
There are always factors in play for which we’re unable to account. The current health status of a roster overall is an enormous factor, as the team with the healthier roster usually has a distinct competitive advantage. Additionally, due to mid-season acquisitions, a team’s October roster may be better than it was earlier in the season.
Yet even significant factors such as those are likely to have impacts over larger sample sizes and one game is about as small as a sample size can get. Even if things go your team’s way — you get a home game, your best pitcher is available, etc. — you’re still essentially hoping the coin lands on the right side after being flipped.
Regardless, it’s going to be must-see TV to witness how the season plays out between now and October 5th. If everything else holds, the Yankees will host a game that night ... and hopefully Gerrit Cole will be available.