24 Wasted Wins?

What was the advantage of winning 100 games or more, again?

We've heard it time and time again. And, we generally accept it without question. Choose your favorite cliché. Win every game. Take them one game at a time. Grind through the season. Make winning a habit.

 

After all, baseball's most celebrated collapses, such as the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1964 regular season or the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS or more recently, (almost) the 2005 Chicago White Sox, are rarely, if ever forgotten.

 

Still, with baseball's kooky playoff system, nothing is certain even after getting to the dance. Just making the postseason is difficult enough, but the advantage secured by being a division winner versus simply slipping in the side door as the Wild Card is almost zero. Ok, it is at most one home game per round. Still, pretty insignificant when you think about the months and months of effort that has gone into it.

 

All one has to do is look at the recent success of Wild Cards winning the World Series to receive a vivid reminder that the best regular-season teams each year haven't usually been the ones hoisting the trophy aloft at the end of October. After all, Wild Cards won it all following the 2002, 2003 and 2004 seasons, and none of them reached 100 victories during the regular season.

 

In fact, winning 100 games does not seem to be an advantage in the postseason. The most recent 100-win team to prevail in the World Series was the New York Yankees in 1998. Since then, not a single one of MLB's eleven 100-win teams have ended their season with a win.

 

In the National League it is even worse. The last NL 100-win squad to take it all was the 1986 New York Mets, which also happens to be the year before the last Cardinals' NL championship prior to 2004. In the 20 years since, a dozen teams in the Senior Circuit have won 100 games in the regular season, only to fail to win the ultimate prize. Of course, this includes the 2004 and 2005 Cardinals.

 

Yet, the purpose of this piece is not to further my crusade for changing the playoff format, at least not directly. I will revisit that on another day. This time, I am looking back at the Cardinals' record the past two seasons and wondering "What if?"

 

What if the Cardinals had won fewer games than 205 in 2004 and 2005, but instead just enough to have made the postseason each year? Would the players have been more rested in October? Would the team have played better or worse or would it not have mattered?

 

Those questions can never definitively be answered, of course. But, it makes for an interesting projection into the future.

 

With the offseason still underway, some pundits are already assessing the 2006 Cardinals to be an 85-90 win squad. In addition to an obvious decline in talent, these predictors are also assuming the Cardinals' postseason chances are diminished as a result. That is where I have a problem.

 

Recent successes of Wild Card entrants would seem to refute that assertion as is the fact that the neither of the two 100-plus win Cardinals squads of the past two seasons could win the Series.

 

I am far from the first person to suggest that simply reaching the playoffs in one piece is what matters most and that everything after that is a crapshoot. And, I do understand some have analyzed the makeup of various postseason squads and have theories on optimal roster construction. But, that is not the focus here.

 

Back to the primary question. What could the last two seasons have looked like had the Cardinals not won 105 and 100 games, respectively?

 

Well, the 2005 team could have made the postseason with 11 fewer wins and the 2004 squad could have kept playing with 13 fewer regular season victories. In other words, 90 wins in either season would have been more than enough to make the playoffs.

 

With 10 fewer wins in 2005 and 11 fewer in 2004, the Cardinals still could have played the same exact teams in the National League Divisional Series and still had home field advantage in that first round.

 

With 17 fewer wins over the two seasons, the Cardinals still would have maintained home field advantage all the way through the National League Championship Series. As you know, home field advantage in the World Series is decided by the winner of the All-Star Game. But, I am not going there, either.

 

Now, let me be clear. I am not assuming that the Cardinals will win 90 games in 2006 and if they do, that they are assured of a playoff berth. On the other hand, keep in mind the fact that only one NL team in the last four years has won as many as 90 games and missed postseason action.

 

I am also not assuming that the Cardinals could have controlled their fate and should have tried to lose 17, 21 or 24 more games over the last two years. Those "excess" wins contributed to individual recognition like Chris Carpenter's Cy Young and Albert Pujols' Most Valuable Player Awards.

 

But, at what cost to the team? Could the Cardinals have rested key players more and been fresher coming into the playoffs the past two years without hurting their postseason chances? In 2005, might Al Reyes have avoided injury? Would Ray King and Julian Tavarez have had more time to work out their troubles? Maybe yes and maybe no.

 

Would Tony La Russa do anything different in 2006 as a result of knowing this? I doubt it.

 

Will Cardinals fans feel better if the 2006 squad wins only 90 games, but still makes the playoffs? I doubt it.

 

Will those same fans feel better if the 2006 Cardinals win just 90 regular season games if they can add 11 more wins in the postseason? No doubt about it!

 

Could it happen? Why not?

 

Cardinals

2005

 

2004

 

Totals

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actual wins

100

 

105

 

205

First round opponent 

San Diego

 

Dodgers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wins needed for home field thru NLCS

91

 

97

 

188

First round opponent 

San Diego

 

Dodgers

 

 

"Excess wins"

9

 

8

 

17

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wins needed for NLDS home field 

90

 

94

 

184

First round opponent 

San Diego

 

Dodgers

 

 

"Excess wins"

10

 

11

 

21

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wins needed for Wild Card

89*

 

92*

 

181

First round opponent (without home field advantage) 

San Diego 

 

Atlanta

 

 

"Excess wins"

11

 

13

 

24


* Actually, one fewer win would have qualified the Cardinals to play a one-game tiebreaker for the Wild Card. Since that was not a guarantee, I used the conservative number of one more win each season to assure the Wild Card.

One other assumption was made. The additional losses the Cardinals would have taken could not have been to National League playoff contenders. Otherwise, the other teams' records would have changed as well. For this exercise, I held them constant.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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