Not so long ago, wild-card teams were really a thing in Major League Baseball.
After it debuted in 1994 as a single team per league facing the top team in the league in a League Division Series, it took just four seasons for a breakthrough, as the 1997 Florida Marlins stunned the Chicago Cubs to win the National League pennant and then the Cleveland Indians in the World Series.
From there, wild-card teams went on a tear, winning three straight World Series from 2002-2004 and a fifth World Series in 2011 to make it five in 18 seasons. In those first 18 seasons, wild-card teams won seven National League pennants and three American League pennants.
Baseball then added a second wild-card team for the 2012 season, creating a play-in game, and those Cinderella stories indeed became fairy tales.
Since 2012, just two wild-card teams have made it to the World Series – both in 2014 when the San Francisco Giants beat the Kansas City Royals. Both were longshots at every baseball sportsbook both on Sept. 1 and when the playoffs began.
By creating a play-in game for wild-card teams, the league rightfully put a greater emphasis on winning the division. But for those betting on baseball, it diminished some good opportunities.
Wild-card teams, often playing critical games into the final weekend, would often use up their top two pitchers – or more – just to make the playoffs and survive the wild-card game.
Facing the top team in the league in a five-game series after the wild-card team, with a No. 3 starter facing that team’s ace, is a daunting proposition. The 2014 Giants got great pitching from players other than ace Madison Bumgarner just to make it to the League Championship series. Bumgarner had to win the wild-card game.
So with the deck already stacked against it, which wild-card teams this season might buck the trend?
Since 2012, teams have needed to be within two games of a wild-card spot on Sept. 1 to make the playoffs, the one exception being the 2013 Indians team that went 20-6 in the final month of the season.
Using that as a basis of projecting the best options, we have the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics in the American League and the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The odds at Karamba for the Yankees to win the AL pennant and World Series are +375 and +750, respectively. For the Athletics, it’s +800 and +1800. In a stacked American League, we’re not fans of the A’s, even at those odds. Of the two, we'd bet the New York Yankees at +750 to with the World Series at Karamba.
The NL is a little more intriguing. Colorado has seen its surge muted and has a brutal final month ahead of it. And with a negative run differential, that’s a red flag. Even at +750 to win the NL, we’ll pass on the Rockies.
The Brewers are +900 to win the NL, +1800 for the World Series. But with a daunting stretch with the Cardinals and Cubs ahead of it, we’re betting on a fade.
That leaves both the Dodgers and Cardinals, and we like both of them, the Cardinals most of all.
The Cardinals have indeed had a turnaround the second half of the season, and with a top-3 pitching staff and a ton of momentum could be this season’s surprise team. You can bet St. Louis at +1400 to with the World Series or even better +800 to win the pennant at Karamba.
The Dodgers have been sputtering and struggling, but they are a talented group that has been there before. We don’t think they’ll catch the Diamondbacks, but with some of the strongest pitching (Clayton Kershaw, Alex Wood), they are a legit threat still.
As the second choice in the NL at +400, there isn’t a ton of value. But if you believe they are just biding their time, bet the Dodgers at +1000 to win the World Series at Karmaba.