You will remember how Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane remarked (in a half-joking, have-bitter way) that his s— doesn’t work in the playoffs. Well, across the bridge, it is now clear that San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy’s s— and the s— of GM Brian Sabean works just fine, thank you very much.*
*By s—-, I of course mean, “samp,” which is coarsely ground corn.
Look: How do you explain it? How do you explain Pablo Sandoval, 12 home runs all year, smashing six in 16 playoff games, including three in one World Series game? How do you explain Barry Zito, in year 6 of his “worst contract in baseball tour,” throwing 7 2/3 shutout innings to save the Giants in the NLCS, then pitching 5 2/3 strong innings in Game 1 of the World Series to out-duel Justin Verlander?
How do you explain Ryan Vogelsong at all?
Then again, how did anyone explain Cody Ross two years ago? Or the timing of Edgar Renteria? Or Brian Wilson’s beard?
Truth is, explaining it only serves to diminish it. The people running baseball made a conscious decision in the early-to-mid 1990s to change the basic structure of a baseball season. they made it all about this second season. They made it all about October.
The history is worth a quick review, I think, even though you probably know it backward and forward. For about 65 years — 1903 or so, until 1968 — baseball’s emphasis was on the full season. The World Series mattered, of course, but getting there was the real story of the game. The season was 154 games — later 162 games — and everyone understood and appreciated that was long enough to determine the best teams in each league. The world was much smaller then, and so was the game — for most of those years there were only 16 teams baseball, eight teams in each league.
The American League added two teams in 1961 — the Washington Senators and California Angels. Well, it wasn’t quite that tidy. They moved the first version of the Washington Senators to Minnesota and then established a different version of the Washington Senators. I guess that’s just how they do things in Washington.
The National League added two teams in 1962 — the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45s, later the Astros. So that made 20 teams total in baseball. The system remained the same. Everyone still felt like 162 games was plenty of time to determine a pennant winner in each league.
Then, came 1969 and four more teams were added. The American League added the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots (who would become the Milwaukee Brewers the next year). The National League added San Diego and Montreal. This was too much. With 24 teams, the baseball people they needed something more than just the World Series. Pro football was rapidly gaining popularity, and the NFL and AFL were chock full of playoff games. The NBA had all these playoff games. Baseball dipped its toe into a new kind of postseason, setting up for two teams in each league to play each other in a best-of-five championship series.
Well, it stayed like that for another quarter century or so. Four teams in the playoffs. That was it. That was the game many of us grew up with. Baseball kept adding teams — two more in 1977 (Toronto and Seattle) and two more in 1993 (Florida and Colorado). That made 28. But there were still just four teams in the playoffs (though they did adjust a bit: They expanded the Championship Series to seven games in an effort to add a bit more credibility to the ALCS and NLCS).
Then, you might recall, there was a nasty fight between the owners and players, and at right around the same time the owners decided to fundamentally change the game. The National and American leagues were divided into three divisions, the wild card was added, and from that day on eight teams made the playoffs. This year, for the first time, there was a second wild card added in each league, making it 10 teams in the playoffs. That’s one third of the league, if you’re scoring at home.
Look: We can argue about whether or not this is a good thing. The larger point, though, is that there was a clear break from the past. Baseball determined that October matters more than the other six months. Excellence would no longer be measured by the long season.
And it has played out accordingly:
Average victory total for World Series champions:
1905 to 1968: 99 wins.
1969 to 1993: 97 wins.
1995 to present: 94 wins
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Here’s another way to look at it:
• From 1903 through 1968, the team with the best record in baseball won the World Series a little more than 50% of the time.
• When four teams made the playoffs, the team with the best record in baseball won the World Series 28% of the time (7 out of 25)
• Since 1995, the team with the best record has won the World Series 17% of the time (3 out of 18) and one of those winners, the 2007 Red Sox, actually tied for the best record.
* * *
Here is, I think, the most telling way to look at it: Since 1905, there have been 90 teams that have won 100 games. This has been a standard of excellence for a very long time. How did those teams fair?
From 1903 to 1968, 40 of the 45 played in the World Series. Obviously. There was no hurdle between them and the World Series. And 25 of the 45 actually won the World Series.
OK, add one layer of playoffs, and it changes somewhat. From 1969 to 1994, 24 teams won 100 games. 19 of the 24 made the World Series, but only eight of them won.
And since 1995? You ready for it? Twenty-one teams have won 100 games. Two have won the World Series. Two. The 1998 Yankees and the 2009 Yankees. Even more incredible … FOURTEEN of the 21 100-win teams did not even reach the World Series.
* * *
Well, this is the natural progression of things. The more inclusive the playoffs, the less important the regular season. In 2001, the Seattle Mariners won 116 games. They were preposterously good. They were TWENTY-ONE GAMES ahead of the New York Yankees. But they played a seven-game series against those same Yankees, and the Mariners couldn’t solve Andy Pettitte, and the Yankees won in five games, and, just like that, one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history ended with a whimper.
Like I say: This was baseball’s choice. They looked at the game, and they looked at the world of sports fans, and they decided that this was what the game needed to thrive in this new era. Is it working? Well, it depends on what you mean by “working.” As a television ratings gambit, I would say that it’s not working too well. I don’t think people watch baseball the same way they watch basketball or hockey (or, certainly, the NFL). That is to say: I don’t think the game of baseball plays as well in small bursts of tension the way those games do. The ratings suggest that this is true. Of course, television ratings are affected by many, many different factors … still, it’s a severe downward trend for baseball.
Average viewers for World Series (using Baseball Almanac numbers):
1973-1982: 37.6 million
1983-1992: 31.9 million
1993-2002: 24.0 million
2003-2012: 17.2 million
This is free fall. That number — 17.2 million — would be a BAD WEEK for Sunday Night Football (which averaged almost 22 million viewers last season). And, what’s worse, the number is going down. In 2004, when the Red Sox finally won, the average viewers were up in that 24 million range of the 1990s. This year, the numbers look to be about half that — in other words, a bad week for “NCIS” or “Modern Family.”
But in other ways, baseball is more popular than ever. While fewer people are watching the World Series, more people than ever are going to baseball games. You have to believe that baseball’s incredible gate — 75 million tickets sold this year, fifth-highest total ever, and all five have been in the last eight years — is directly connected to the expanded playoffs with more teams having a shot at the postseason. There’s more hope around baseball and more teams involved and so on. Baseball as television sport? Hard to see much good there. But baseball as a live spectator sport is in a golden era.
So, business strategies can be debated. But the one thing that is indisputable is that the game has changed … and as we get back to the game itself you have to wonder if teams have to change with it.
Now that one-third of the teams in baseball reach the playoffs, maybe the thought needs to be — like it is in the NBA and college basketball and the NHL (you know, when there was an NHL) — how do you build a team that will peak at the end? Should you throw your pitchers fewer innings — maybe a six-man rotation? Should you play your hitters 140 games rather than 150 or 155? Should you be sure to keep a live arm down in the minors and bring him up to electrify September and October the way Anaheim did with K-Rod, the way St. Louis did with Adam Wainwright, the way Tampa Bay did with David Price?
And — back in that intangible world — should you get a bunch of guys who like each other and feed off each other the way these Giants players seem to do? Should building that kind of “we love each other” team be the goal of every manager? You know: Maybe set up beer pong tournaments, encourage golf outings, have mixers, that sort of thing.
Ridiculous, of course. Except: The Giants have now won two of three World Series, and they have done so in a thoroughly modern way. In 2010, they had the fifth-best record in baseball, went into the last weekend needing to win just to squeeze into the playoffs, beat Atlanta with some serious starting pitching and some late-game heroics from Aubrey Huff and Cody Ross and some sloppy Braves defense, beat Philadelphia with some serious starting pitching and some late-game heroics from Juan Uribe and some serious Phillies slumping, beat Texas in the World Series with, yes, some serious starting pitching.
This time around? Same thing. The Giants were in a three-way tie for the fourth-best record in baseball, they fell behind the Reds 2-0 and won three straight in Cincinnati (Scott Rolen’s error helped a lot), fell behind St. Louis 3-1 and won three straight (the Cardinals seemed utterly hypnotized by the Giants’ pitching and scored one run in those last three) and then crushed the Tigers four straight.
And all the while they were crackling with fun and energy and team love and inspirational speeches and … no idea if any of that made any difference. But the Giants were dead last in all of baseball in home runs hit this season. Then in the postseason, they hit more home runs than any other team (they also played more games, but the point is the point). In the regular season, Tim Lincecum couldn’t get anybody out, Barry Zito was pretty much the same pitcher who had been left off the 2010 postseason roster*, and Pablo Sandoval hit a career-low 12 home runs.
*Barry Zito in 2010: 4.15 ERA, 20 homers allowed, 3.8 walks per nine, 6.8 Ks per nine, 1.344 WHIP
Barry Zito in 2012: 4.15 ERA, 20 homers allowed, 3.4 walks per nine, 5.6 Ks per nine, 1.389 WHIP
And then, blammo, Lincecum is unhittable out of the pen, Zito is pitching and winning Game 1 of the World Series, Sandoval is crushing three homers in a single game. Is that something that can be bottled? You wouldn’t think so. But as we enter the offseason, I would think that the smart GMs are trying to figure out a way to bottle it anyway. This is the new baseball. It used to be that you wanted to build the best team. Now, though, you want to build the best October team. I tend to agree with Billy Beane that the postseason is pretty much like life in a casino. But this is the game now, ladies and gentlemen. You will want to start counting cards.