There has been a lot of talk around Brewers fandom about just how likely it is that the club can now make the playoffs with the addition of Kyle Lohse. People (myself included) have taken guesses at just how many games the Brewers will win. Obviously, there is quite a bit of disagreement on that number, which makes sense. What there shouldn’t be is so much disagreement on how many wins the Brewers need if they want to have hopes of making the playoffs.
We’re going to focus on what it took to win the second wildcard in each of the 30 seasons (2 each year in the 2 leagues) that have been played since the last expansion in 1998. You may wonder why we’re leaving winning the division completely out of the equation here, since it’s actually happened 8 times in these 30 playoff races that a division winner made the playoffs with fewer wins than the second wildcard team would have had. So why are we going to essentially discount this way of “sneaking” into the playoffs? The reason is pretty simple: you have to be in the right division for it to work.
Yes, it’s possible to sneak in like the Cardinals did in 2006 with an 83 win season. The thing is, though, if the Cardinals had been in either the East or the West, they would have needed 85+ to make it. Obviously, this really only happens in weak divisions and it’s hard to count on it being your division of the 3 that’s going to be weak. That’s why we’re focusing on the second wildcard slot here as the target to shoot for to make the playoffs. It is the universal target and doesn’t require hope of collapse from all of your division opponents at once.
While it’s not perfect, history is probably our best guide here. Granted, we only have one year under the current playoff scheme to go off of, but I think we can go back at least to the last round of expansion in 1998 and look at what would have won a team a second wildcard in a given year. Yes, that creates some problems. A team 6-7 games back from winning what was then the only wildcard might have tried a bit harder to win another game or two if there had been a second wildcard. But that just makes these numbers a bit more conservative than they might otherwise be.
Anyway, if there had been a second wildcard from 1998 to 2012, it would have gone to teams with the following win totals:
85: 3 times
86: 1 time
87: 3 times
88: 6 times
89: 4 times
90: 5 times
91: 2 times
92: 1 time
93: 4 times
96: 1 time
OK, so to think of it another way, winning X number of games got teams into the playoffs via the wild card the following percentage of the time:
This is intended to be a guide, not a perfect set of odds that the Brewers would actually make the playoffs at a given win total. The league environments over those years were very different and it’s impossible to know exactly how many wins it will take to make it. Despite the limitations of this analysis, I do think there is some value in knowing the historical numbers. There is a lot of talk out there along the lines of ”If they win 88 games, I think they’ll get in,” and it seems useful to at least fact check that. When we do, we see that 88 wins has only been good enough for the second wildcard less than half the time. 89 wins pushes you a little past 50%, but it isn’t until 90 wins that you can really say with some confidence that “probably” would be good enough, at least historically.
Speaking for myself, looking at the teams in the other divisions and then looking back at the Central, I would give 87 or fewer wins virtually no shot at making it, 88-91 wins is “if things break right” territory and 92+ wins would likely secure a spot. I think the NL is pretty strong this year, with about a half a dozen clubs that look really solid on paper and then a 3-4 team middle class, which is where the Brewers are. They have a shot, and Kyle Lohse gives them an even better one, but it’s not going to be easy. The Brewers will probably need every last win they can scrape out to make it.
Authors Note: In the original version of this post, I had the top win total listed as 97 instead of 96. This was due to a mistake on my part, where I transposed the numbers of the #1 and #2 WC team in the 1999 National League. It’s now been changed to reflect the actual number that year. Thank you to reader Matt for pointing out my error in the comments section.