I wrote a piece yesterday about the book Death to the BCS, and this post isn’t EXACTLY connected to that. But it is in the same neighborhood. This piece is about the extra round of baseball playoffs. And how, in the larger context, I don’t like them.
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I once got in a fairly heated argument with my buddy Vackie on the following subject — one of the few times we have ever been fiercely opposed in an argument that does not involve Billy Joel. So I am fully aware that many people, perhaps most people, perhaps a vast majority of people not only disagree with what I’m about to write but disagree with a fury. But here it is anyway:
I … do … not … like … the … extra … baseball … playoffs.
I don’t like them. I don’t need them. I don’t want them. If we lived in some sort of strange baseball dictatorship where I was the only person deciding baseball’s fate, I would get rid of the wildcard, return baseball to a world with two divisions in each league, a championship series, then a World Series. I wouldn’t be opposed to getting rid of the playoffs altogether and just taking the best team from each league and going right to the World Series*.
*If we did that, by the way, the World Series since the strike would have looked like so:
2010: Rays vs. Phillies
2009: Yankees vs. Dodgers
2008: Angels vs. Cubs
2007: Red Sox vs. Diamondbacks
2006: Yankees vs. Mets
2005: White Sox vs. Cardinals
2004: Yankees vs. Cardinals
2003: Yankees vs. Braves
2002: Yankees vs. Braves
2001: Mariners vs. Astros/Cardinals
2000: White Sox vs. Giants
1999: Yankees vs. Braves
1998: Yankees vs. Braves
1997: Orioles vs. Braves
1996: Indians vs. Braves
1995: Indians vs. Braves
Now, this isn’t decisive because we don’t have a balanced schedule. Still, it’s interesting. As you can see, the Braves would have been in the World Series five years in a row and seven times in nine seasons. That might have gotten a bit old. The Yankees would have been in the World Series five times in the 2000s. Notice that 2008 match-up …
I’m going to quickly give you my reasoning before moving on to reality … I think first thing, it’s worth asking what do we want from a professional sports season? Obviously, the overall goal of any professional sports league is to entertain, inspire, excite fans. That is to say in pro sports, the goal is not to build the character of the players or teach them life lessons or make sure they have fun. These things play a role in big-time college sports (people argue about how much of a role). These things play a larger role in non-big time college sports, in high school sports, in rec league sports and so on. Not pro sports, though. If pro sports help a player grow as a person, great, that might make for a nice magazine piece. But that’s not the GOAL. The goal is to give fans their money’s worth. The goal is to provide thrilling and presumably fair competition for people to enjoy.
Or, I should say, that’s the OVERALL goal. The more specific goal of the season, then, is to crown a champion in the most entertaining and justifiable way. It seems to me that there’s no right way or wrong way to do this — right or wrong is too stark — you want whatever makes the fans happiest.
In many sports, playoffs are the best way to find and crown a champion. For instance, playoffs are great for pro football. A regular season of 16 games is enough to determine who are the better teams in football, but I don’t think 16 games against different competition is enough to determine THE VERY BEST teams. So, you put them in divisions, you play out the season, you use obscure tiebreakers, and then you have a playoff of the 12 teams that qualify. it works for the NFL for numerous reasons, one of those being that a football game — more than another American sports — is a self-contained season. The best team wins a high percentage of the time. A single-elimination playoff is widely viewed as a perfectly good — and wildly exciting — way to determine a champion.
Basketball and hockey … the playoffs work for those sports too but I think for a different reason. The basketball and hockey seasons are 80-plus games, which probably IS enough time to determine the best teams, or at least come close enough where you could pick a final four or whatever.
But to me the key is that hockey and basketball are great playoff sports. GREAT playoff sports. They are not really November games. Oh, they’re fun to watch year round, but I think that basketball and hockey are intensity sports. That is to say they are better games when played at high intensity … and it’s simply impossible for players to maintain that high level of intensity through a long season. The players CAN raise their intensity for a playoff, which takes the whole game to another level. It seems to me that in hockey and basketball, the more playoffs the better.*
*This is true of college basketball too. There’s nothing especially FAIR about the NCAA basketball tournament. That is to say that if, in a vacuum, you wanted to pick the best college basketball team in America, you probably would not throw 65 teams into a three-week, multi-site, single-elimination tournament. But it’s a blast, and the games are played with crazy intensity, and we basketball fans have happily made the trade-off: Excitement in exchange for the better team often getting knocked out in Boise or Albuquerque or East Rutherford or whatever.
Which brings us to baseball. To me: Baseball is not like football, and it’s also not like hockey/basketball. It’s not like football because the season at 162 games is PLENTY long enough to determine the best teams. When you play virtually every day for six months, you will have to deal with all of the vagaries of life — injuries, slumps, crises, good luck, bad luck and those fleeting moments when you feel invincible. In my opinion, there has never in the history of American sports been a more certain and decisive way of picking the best teams than putting them into a 162-game season. The best team is the one with the best record.
Then, baseball is also not like basketball and hockey in that in my view it is not a sport designed for playoffs. It’s not an intensity sport. There have been many great baseball postseason games, of course, but I don’t think the sport is generally PLAYED BETTER in the postseason. That’s just not what baseball is about. And beyond all that, in baseball – compared to football, basketball and hockey — the lesser teams wins short series A LOT. You know how people always say that in baseball the playoffs are a crapshoot. Well, there’s a reason they say that: It’s because the playoffs are a crapshoot. Since 1998 — an arbitrary cutoff point, yes, but I’ll give you the whole set of numbers in a minute — since 1998, teams with better regular season records are 42-42 in series against teams with worse records. You can’t get much more crapshooty than that.
I did these numbers quickly, so they may be off a win or two. But still:
Since 1995 (expanded playoffs):
Better record: 55 wins.
Worse record: 47 wins.
From 1969-1993 (Division Series and World Series):
Better record: 39 wins
Worse record: 32 wins.
From 1920-1968 (World Series only)
Better record: 24 wins.
Worse record: 22 wins.
There are a few ties in there as well — opposing teams with exactly the same record — which is why those numbers don’t all add up. All in all, the better record teams have a 117-102 record, a .534 winning percentage. Crapshoot (especially when you consider that often the team with the better record had homefield advantage). Five game series are especially so.
So, you ask, what’s wrong with a little crapshoot in baseball? Nothing. It’s just not necessary for me as a fan. Yes. I like upsets. I like do or die baseball. Look: If they played 20 rounds of baseball playoffs, I’d be the guy watching — baseball can’t lose ME as a fan.
But I still think it’s artificial. It’s not necessary. And then there’s the thing it hurts most: Pennant races.
I LOVE pennant races. To me, the most exciting games in baseball are these, in this order:
1. The World Series.
2. Important pennant race games in late September.
3. Important pennant race games in early September.
4. League Championship Series games.
5. Important pennant race games in August.
6. Cool mid-season match-ups between great starting pitchers.
7. Division Series games.
I know people disagree. I KNOW people disagree. But that’s just how I feel. I love pennant races. I love the heat between two teams coming down the stretch, one will win the championship, one will go home unhappy. I love that stuff. And that’s why I don’t like extra playoffs. Because playoffs, by their very nature, cut into the drama of pennant races. Nobody gave a damn who won the American League East this year since both teams were making the playoffs. There were people who thought it would be advantageous to NOT win the division (since not winning it would mean playing the playoff-hapless Minnesota Twins and my much admired and playoff-hexed skipper Ron Gardenhire … that’s how it turned out too).
That was the worst pennant race ever. But it might have been one of the most awesome races ever if the team that lost the division did not make the playoffs. That’s tension. That’s drama. That’s what I love. And very, very, very few pennant races have even a bit of that edge these days.
And wildcard races, well, they just don’t have quite that same tension for me. I mean, they’re often all we get — like this year’s bit between San Diego and Atlanta — and I’ll take whatever pennant race morsel I can find. But playing for that spot as the best team that does not win a division … meh. I would happily give up the extra week of playoff baseball just to go back to two divisions in each league and have only a Championship Series all to get pennant races back.
BUT … despite what seems apparent from my writing, I’m not stupid. Or, anyway, I’m not THAT stupid. I know baseball ain’t cutting cutting back on the playoffs. I know baseball ain’t giving up the wildcard. I know it, I get it, so the real question is how can we get back the pennant races? I don’t think it’s an easy fix.
The thing you would have to do, I think, is put the wildcard team at a powerful disadvantage. But how? Bob Costas suggested quite a while ago that you could make it so the wildcard teams did not get a home game in the playoffs (or maybe it was just one home game, I can’t remember). I think there’s something to that, but frankly homefield advantage in baseball is just not big enough. Home teams the last 10 years have won about 55% of the time. Even the very best home teams win less than 70% of the time at home. It’s not like football, where good teams can go undefeated at home or the NBA where the best teams can win between 90 and 95% of their home games or even hockey where good teams will only lose five to 10 time at home a year.
So what else could you do? Well, there has been some controversial talk about adding a wildcard in each league and having a one- or three-game playoff between the two wildcards. The hope is that it would add importance to winning divisions which might give September more meaning. The Yankees would definitely have played it a bit different down the stretch if losing the division meant having to face the Red Sox in a playoff.
But, this has obvious problems too … I already talked about how I don’t like baseball playoffs, so do we really want to add MORE playoffs to an already playoff-soaked October? I suspect not. And it might take away the little bit of wildcard drama we actually have now — such as the Padres-Braves race in the NL. Plus, it brings up another issue that a lot of people have emailed me about: If we’re doing two wildcards anyway, what’s the point of having divisions in the first place? Shouldn’t the teams with the five best records in each league get in?
And if we do THAT then we have to go back and look at ANOTHER spent topic … is it fair that some teams, because they are in larger cities and have bigger television deals, make significantly more money and can easily spend a lot more money to build their teams? Is it fair to have small-market teams competing more directly against the Yankees or Red Sox or Phillies or Mets? That’s the one advantage of the division setup. Kansas City fans can complain about the Yankees, but they don’t have to BEAT the Yankees to get into the playoffs.
You can go round and round and round on this thing. Like I say, there are no easy answers. And let’s be honest: These are mostly wasted words because I think a lot of people are fine what what is out there now. I think a lot of people prefer playoffs to September ball. There is clarity in playoff rounds. The do-or-die games are much more obvious. There is no question that the first round of the baseball playoffs have offered thrills that would not have been possible without them. As one friend tells me: “Just pretend that the first round of the playoffs are the last week of September, and each team has to win three of five games to get to the Championship Series.”
I guess I could do that. It doesn’t have the same heat as a pennant race for me though. Whatever the case, I’m glad the first round of playoffs is over. I am preposterously excited for Saturday’s Tim Lincecum-Roy Halladay game in Philadelphia. I’ll be there. I’m interested to see what Texas can do against the Yankees even if the Rangers’ one hammer, Cliff Lee, cannot start until Game 3. I understand the value of the first playoff round, I know it brings more cities into the baseball postseason, it gives us more chances for baseball thrills, it increases champagne — or ginger ale — sales. I know.
But for me: The baseball playoffs start now.