Will Leitch took an in-depth look at the game in 2019 with a series exploring Major League Baseball's Data Decade. From the best World Series, to the best starting pitchers and more, Leitch ranked, dissected and celebrated all the things we loved most about the national pastime during the past 10 years.
When there’s a particularly exciting pennant chase, every minute without baseball feels like a waste of time. Pennant chases are all-encompassing; you spend half your time screaming for your team and the other half screaming at the scoreboard. When they’re rolling right, they’re the most fun part of the sport: Everything is connected; everything affects everything else.
Some years they land perfectly. Some years they’re a bit of a yawn. But they’re what we’re always building toward. Here’s our ranking of the top pennant races of the 2010s.
We’ll count them down for maximum suspense.
Perhaps the drowsiest pennant chase possible? The second National League Wild Card team, Colorado, won only 87 games, and the Rockies still had their spot clinched before the final day of the season. The Red Sox and the Yankees had a pseudo-race in the American League East, but the stakes weren't as high because the loser was comfortably set to host the Wild Card Game (against a Minnesota team that only won 85 games). Every team in the AL with a winning record made the playoffs. That’s essentially the definition of a no-fun playoff race.
For the second consecutive season, the NL had no real drama in its races -- the only question on the final day was who would host the NL Wild Card Game, Pittsburgh or San Francisco -- and the AL wasn’t much better: Seattle made a late charge but was unable to end its playoff drought, falling short of the AL Wild Card Game to Kansas City and Oakland.
The Cardinals mostly took care of the NL Central the weekend before the final games with a huge sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field, and most of the rest of the drama was long taken care of by the monster teams in New York, Minnesota, Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Which is why it’s so amusing that a Wild Card team -- who also long had their spot sewn up by the final weekend -- ended up winning the whole thing.
The Cubs were the team of the season from beginning to end, and they ended up winning the NL Central by 17 1/2 games. This was a motif for the year, with no division race closer than four games by season’s end, though there was a little bit of intrigue in the NL Wild Card race. The Cardinals, trying to keep a six-year playoff streak alive, won their final four games and only needed the Giants to lose once to the Dodgers in their final series to force a play-in game. The Giants swept, though, and the Cards didn't return to the postseason until 2019.
Three 100-win teams cruised to the playoffs (Red Sox, Astros and Yankees) in 2018, but the drama was boosted considerably by the NL West and the NL Central. The Dodgers just barely held off the hard-charging Rockies, beating them in Game 163 at home, but the Cubs couldn’t do the same against the Brewers. Milwaukee not only caught its division rival on the last day, but beat Chicago at Wrigley in Game 163 to clinch the division. The Cubs’ last three games of 2018 featured them losing their NL Central lead, losing the NL Central and then losing the NL Wild Card Game to the Rockies.
The first year of Houston in the American League evened out the divisions, but it didn’t stop a little madness from happening: A tie for the second Wild Card spot between Tampa Bay and Texas extended the season one extra day with a tiebreaker game. (Tampa Bay won, and then won the AL Wild Card Game over Cleveland.) Otherwise, this was a pro forma pennant chase, with the NL mostly settled for weeks, with the Cardinals, Dodgers and Braves cruising to division crowns. That trend would continue into the postseason: The Red Sox and the Cards were the teams with the best records in their leagues, and they ended up meeting in the World Series.
The Angels, Yankees and Astros all fought tooth and nail down the stretch for that final Wild Card spot, with the Yankees clinching on the final weekend and the Astros sneaking in on the final day. The real fun of this year was the NL Central, with the defending champion Cardinals battling the insurgent Pirates and the suddenly extremely relevant Cubs for the last three months of the season. All three teams won at least 97 games, with the Cards hanging on, but ultimately paying the price for it: They were worn down by the time they faced the surging Cubs in the NLDS. The real fun team of the final month might have been the Mets, who went 20-8, a run that carried them to their first NL East crown since 2006 and all the way to the World Series.
The first year of the Wild Card Game featured one race going down to the wire, with Oakland beating Texas on the last day of the season, winning that division despite being two games back when the series began. It was the culmination of a stretch of frustrating Octobers for the Rangers, which had lost the two previous World Series. The Orioles beat the Rangers in the AL Wild Card Game, and Texas hasn’t won a postseason series since. The Nationals won on the final day of the season to clinch home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs … not that it would do them much good, as they lost a heartbreaking Game 5 of the NLDS to the Cardinals at Nationals Park.
With two weeks left in the season, there was only one team (Minnesota) that had clinched a playoff spot, which is always a good sign. The AL East had a battle between the Yankees and the Rays that went down to the last day of the season, the NL Wild Card had several teams jockeying for position and, most enjoyably, the Giants and the Padres (who had led the NL West for most of the year) had a series on the last weekend to decide their division. The Giants ended up hanging on -- a loss against the Padres could have led to an NL West tiebreaker and a Wild Card tiebreaker with the Braves -- and this was definitely not the final time we’d be discussing the Giants in 2010, as they went on to win their first title since the franchise moved to San Francisco in 1958.
You knew this was obviously going to be No. 1. The most fun final day in recent baseball history...
And the madness of that fall was just getting started, culminating with the 2011 World Series, which featured the Cardinals’ epic Game 6 comeback (and then Game 7 clinch) against the Rangers.