The 2019 Arizona Diamondbacks had the bad fortune to be born in the same division as the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Diamondbacks have had plenty of good surprises this year, and they have the third-best run differential in the National League. They're also 15 games out of first place, as the Dodgers are on pace to win 104 games. According to FanGraphs' playoff odds, the Diamondbacks haven't had better than a 5% chance to win the NL West at any point this season, and they hit 0.0% on June 4.
But the rest of the National League (and Ketel Marte) have kept Arizona in the middle of a playoff race nevertheless. The Diamondbacks are 3.5 games behind the second wild-card spot, and their chances of claiming a playoff spot are somewhere from 10% to 50%, depending on which baseball stats site you go to. The question that will hang over the trade deadline the next three days -- for the Diamondbacks and at least six other teams directly and for the rest of baseball indirectly -- is how much that wild-card spot is worth.
Last week, when the Diamondbacks were just two games out, Arizona general manager Mike Hazen suggested ... not that much:
Mike Hazen doesn't sound convinced into buying: "The belief that a .500 team is going to win the World Series, get through the wild-card format that we have and win the World Series is, I don't think objectively that's a position we should be staking ourselves to."— Zach Buchanan (@ZHBuchanan) July 22, 2019
For a rebuttal, we'll turn to the 2017 Minnesota Twins, who earned the second wild-card spot and faced the most difficult postseason gauntlet in major league history:
The Twins lost, immediately. One game -- which was hardly competitive after the fourth inning -- and they were bounced, almost as though they had never won anything at all. But they had won something. You can see it in that video. It's just a matter of figuring out the value of what they won.
This is Major League Baseball's eighth season under this playoff format: All six division winners are guaranteed entry into the division series, and two wild cards in each league play each other in a one-game round to join those six. We can say with near certainty that the Dodgers, New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves -- all of them in first place, and all strong or prohibitive favorites to win their respective divisions -- will be looking to make trades before Wednesday's trade deadline. Most will gladly trade two, three or four future wins for an extra win right now, knowing that the win right now could tilt a playoff series or the World Series.
But from the beginning of this playoff format, it has been unclear whether teams fighting for the wild-card spots will make the same calculation. A wild-card spot is, undeniably, good and better than missing the playoffs. But how good is it? Would a team so willingly trade a top prospect when (A) the race for a wild-card spot is so crowded, (B) the wild-card spot guarantees only one postseason game, perhaps not even in a team's home ballpark and (C) the team that emerges victorious from that wild-card game is at a disadvantage for the rest of the postseason because it probably had to use its ace (maybe both of its aces!) to win that game?
Eight years in, the question is a little easier to answer. We can see, in at least a foggy and inexact way, which teams make more trades at the deadline. Since 2014, there have been 63 teams with playoff odds of at least 25% on July 31. For example, this year's Tampa Bay Rays have a 3% chance of winning the American League East and a 42% chance of winning a wild-card spot (through Saturday); their total chances of making the playoffs are 45%.
We took those 63 teams from the previous five years and sorted them into four buckets, based on what percentage of their total playoff odds came from their wild-card odds, specifically:
The wild card onlies (with wild-card odds that are more than 80% of total playoff odds): 15 teams
The wild card leaners (50% to 79%): 16 teams
The division leaners (20% to 49%): 17 teams
The division favorites (less than 20%): 15 teams
If we were doing this for 2019 teams, the Rays would be in Group 1, and the Yankees would be in Group 4. The Twins would be in Group 3, and the Cleveland Indians in Group 2.
Then we assigned each of the 63 teams a score, from 1 to 4, for how active they were at that year's July trade deadline:
Acquired nothing of note
Acquired some player but more of a role/depth player (e.g., Adam Warren last year)
Acquired solid, not cheap players -- a starting position player, high-leverage reliever or midrotation starter (e.g., Nathan Eovaldi last year)
Acquired a superstar, one of the two or three biggest names available (e.g., Manny Machado last year) or a comparable package of solid players
These are subjective ratings, they exclude trades made in June or August, and we didn't factor in whether a player was a pure summer rental or signed for multiple seasons. This is a very rough exercise. But we can now assay each group of teams by competitive outlook to see how active they were, on average, by our Trade Deadline Activity score.
The wild card onlies averaged a 2.7 score
The wild card leaners averaged 2.6
The division leaners averaged 2.9
The division favorites averaged 3.2
What we see -- again, based on subjective assessments and inexact definitions -- is that division favorites are more likely to empty their farm to get the biggest names at the trade deadline. They make these trades even though, by the playoff odds, they're already nearly certain to be in the postseason. That's the math that GMs have, more or less, settled on: If you're going to trade a great prospect for a rental, you strongly prefer the certainty of knowing you'll be playing in October.
But wild card onlies also are very active -- not quite as active but almost as active. The 2017 Diamondbacks' playoff odds were split 0/87 at the trade deadline, and they went out and got J.D. Martinez. The 2015 Toronto Blue Jays traded for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, though at the time they seemed to be only wild-card contenders. (As it turned out, they erased a six-game lead and won the division.) Only one of the 15 wild card onlies made no trades at all.
It is undeniable that winning a wild card isn't as likely to lead to a World Series as winning a division. The 2014 San Francisco Giants -- a wild card -- pulled off a World Series title, but the other 27 wild-card teams since 2012 have failed. Half of those 28, of course, lost immediately. Of the 14 that moved on, only six won their division series; of those six that moved on, only two won their league championship series. Division winners play, on average, 8.7 playoff games. Wild-card winners, on the other hand, play 4.7.
But there are more factors to consider. A wild-card contender isn't just playing for the (admittedly unlikely) World Series parade. The team is also playing to avoid the failure of missing the postseason completely -- and to avoid the extra failure of falling out of a pennant race before the season is over. Failing to win a World Series is disappointing, but more or less expected and terrifyingly out of a GM's control; failing to draw crowds in mid-September because you aren't in a pennant race is disappointing and a reflection of a season's worth of failure.
The second wild card was born in an interesting time. From 2006 through 2015, only four teams in the majors won more than 98 games. The median win total for a division champ was 92 games. It was easy, at the time, to see a wild card as "cheap" when the division was such a reasonable goal to chase. It was, perhaps, easy to figure that a team was better off saving its future resources and trying to make a run at the following season's division title.
But in the past three years, six teams have won 100 games, and FanGraphs' playoff odds expect three more to do so this year. The median win total for a division has shot up to 96. Next year's division title looks tough.
For teams such as the Diamondbacks, Rays, Giants and Oakland Athletics, it might be daunting to consider the odds of winning the World Series through a crowded wild-card race and then a wild-card berth. Hazen's Diamondbacks are, according to FanGraphs, only about 1-in-500 to win the World Series, and objectively, that might not be a position they should be staking themselves to.
But as long as superteams rule their divisions, the odds of winning it all any other way are close to impossible. It's a real dilemma, and over the next few days those teams -- and others -- will be trying to figure it out.