Look, the games on Friday were exciting. Good TV. Generally bad baseball, but entertaining. And I hate the fact that they happened at all.
When the new system was announced about eleven months ago, I wrote about why I didn't like it, and why I was unconvinced by the arguments in favor of it. There are a lot of reasons, and I continue to stand by all of them, but the main point is that after a grueling 162-game season, making four teams' fates depend on just one game in which almost literally anything can happen is lunacy. Part of the beauty of baseball, as I'm sure I've written before (and I know many others have), is how incredibly long the season is. Six months, with a game almost every day. There's still a lot of room for weird, hard-to-explain stuff to happen (Ex. A), but there's much less room for it in a 162-game season than there is in one that's only, say, 82 or 16 games. After 162 games, generally speaking, you've got a pretty good idea of who the best teams are. In one game, though, even the worst team -- let alone the second wildcard team -- would have a pretty substantial chance of beating even the best team. It's not much different than a coin flip.
I didn't (and, really, still don't) think we'd understand exactly what this system is doing for years now, but my fears and pessimistic expectations were almost perfectly illustrated on Friday. The Atlanta Braves, over the course of the preceding six months, proved pretty conclusively that they were one of the four best teams in the league. They tied for the third-best record in the NL, but did it in what was probably the best division in the league, so you could argue they were second-best to the Nationals. And they were certainly better than the Cardinals, who finished with just 88 wins to Atlanta's 94. You might argue that by pointing out that the Cardinals and Braves had similar run differentials, finishing with identical 93-69 pythagorean expected records; but, again, you've got the massive difference in the divisions, and the unbalanced schedules; the Cardinals got to play the MLB-worst Cubs and Astros 32 times, and went 21-11 in those games. (The Braves had similar success against the bottom of their own division, New York and Miami, but those teams just weren't nearly as bad as the Central's worst.)
The Braves were a considerably better team than the Cardinals, and deserved more than a single game to prove it. It's a bit harder to stick up for the Rangers, since they didn't look like they had any interest in doing much of anything over the second half or so, but I still think they were the most talented team in baseball, and having qualified for the playoffs, they deserved more than nine innings to show it. After six months and 162 largely successful games, with one bad day -- and one extremely questionable call, to say the least -- the Braves were done. That makes no sense to me. It's intuitively, plainly foolish. It might fabricate some extra excitement, but that's not the only goal here -- it completely discards any sense that the postseason is much more than a kind of lottery. For at least those four teams, the regular season -- that long, wonderful six-month trudge -- suddenly means much less than it ever has before.
The response I've gotten most often to this goes something like: "it's a disadvantage, but wildcard teams deserve a disadvantage. If you want to be treated fairly, win your division!" And I'm on board with this if we make "winning your division" a thing that means more or less the same thing to every team in the league. Want to ditch the divisions and playoffs entirely, and go back to the system where the best record in each league advances straight to the Series? Baseball's obviously never headed back to that, but it'd be fine with me. Want to reorder the "divisions" each year to make three groups of roughly equal strength based on last year's record? That's kind of weird, and travel would be a nightmare, but at least it'd give us roughly equal divisions. I can't think of any other ways to do it.
For now, though, it makes no sense to me to put weight on a thing -- winning one's division -- whose meaning drastically changes depending on where you are in the country. The Rangers won 93 games, five more than any team in the AL Central, and it's safe to assume they'd have won even more games had they gotten to play in the Central (which makes geographic sense, just incidentally) and had the opportunity to feast on Cleveland, Kansas City and Minnesota a total of 54 times. The Tigers won their division with 88 wins; the Rangers did not win theirs, with 93. To pretend that the Tigers were able to accomplish something that the Rangers were not is, quite simply, to make stuff up for convenience's sake. Both teams doubtless did everything they could; the Rangers were better; the Tigers were blessed with tremendously easier competition. In a lot of cases, "if you want to be treated fairly, win your division" translates to "if you want to be treated fairly, get MLB to find you a more favorable division!" You're rewarding and punishing teams based on little more than geographic location, and I can't think of a reason we should want to do that.
So given that we're not going to go back to the two-league, straight-to-the-Series format (and I'll admit, on balance, we probably shouldn't), or the two-division, no-wildcard format, or even the most recent one-wildcard format, what do we do to make this not terrible? I think the answer is pretty obvious: you need more games. The excitement of a one-game playoff is great and everything, but I think you need to retain some of the transparently false pretense that the goal of the whole thing is to find out who the best team is. A best of three would still be kind of ridiculous -- the Astros won three-game series against the Reds, White Sox and Cardinals this year, among others -- but three is better than one. Five is better than three. Seven games in all rounds would probably as close to ideal as we'd get (balancing the competing interests of a short, exciting series and favoring sill over luck).
Of course, you've only got four of the ten playoff teams active in this initial Wildcard round, so even three games mean the division-winning teams sit idle for probably four or five days, which some people view as a disadvantage, and a five- or seven-game series would probably be completely impossible. To which I say: not my problem. I had no interest in adding another wildcard team. I'm just here to tell you that the one-game play-in is profoundly silly and completely unworkable: make it better, somehow, and soon.
I totally agree and I am a big Cardinal fan. It wasnt much fun for me knowing the way we won it. It was like I didnt really care as much if we won or not because of the way we won it. I like the one wild card because its needed and we dont have any other option, so I think its well deserved. So many names I respect are for the 2nd wild card. I wonder if Im missing something but I know its just not right and think its lottery like-like you said. Im with you. Good article. Brian
I'm still in favor of the current playoff structure, and I'm a Braves fan.
Having a 2nd WC not only drives up revenue, it drives up players salaries, as teams have more reasonable incentive to spend money to get to the playoffs. Having the WC round be a 2 out of 3 would not only put the World Series into November every year, it would actually be a disadvantage to the non-WC teams, as all their starting pitching would be way out of sync. (Also, everyone remembers the Rockies' hitters couldn't even time a fastball in Game 1 of the WS after their long break). This format actually increases the integrity of the regular season, not undermines it. Wild Card teams once won the World Series 3 years in a row in the old format. Now teams have to go full strength to end the season in order to avoid not only a one-game coin flip, but using your ace starter as well. The A's/Rangers and O's/Yankees went down to the last day. I was at Turner Field for two games in September when they played the Nationals. It felt like a playoff atmosphere for these teams trying to avoid 2nd place. If that's not upholding the integrity of a 162 game season, I don't know what is.
A balanced league schedule sounds intriguing, but the geographical divisions really do lessen the burden of traveling constantly for six months. If the M's had to play the Yankees as much as they play the A's, fatigue would surely be an even bigger problem for all teams than it already is. The 2nd WC allows teams in a loaded division(Blue Jays) to have reasonable hope to make the playoffs despite being located in the wrong time zone. If the O's can make the playoffs, the game has changed for the better.
A bullshit game like last Friday is an unfortunate consequence to the numerous advantages of the new playoff format.
I view the new format a bit differently to you.
First, the Rangers didn't lose their division to the Tigers. They lost to the A's, to whom they had a similarly difficult schedule. They are not being put at a disadvantage as compared to the Tigers: they are being put at a disadvantage as compared to the A's. It works out as a disadvantage compared to the Tigers, but there is a fundamental difference.
But really, I view the new system more as giving teams more incentive to win their divisions. Under the previous system, the wild card teams were treated more or less the same as the division winners, meaning once you qualified for the postseason, it didn't really matter if you went in as division winner or wild card. Now there's a real incentive to win the division, because if you don't, sure you still have a chance at being the wild card team, but to get the Division Series Wild Card, you need to win the one-game toin-coss playoff. Sure, teams will still take one of the wild card game spots if they can get it, but they will much prefer to win the division and skip the lottery game.
Do you think the end of this regular season would have been so good if the threat of the playoff was not hanging over the A's and Rangers during their last series? Or if the O's hadn't been challenging the Yankees for the AL East for the same reason?
So, I like the new format, I think it adds more drama to the end of the season, and gives a massive incentive to fighting to the end to win the division. If you want to talk realigning the divisions to make it more even, sure, I think you'd have some takers for that. But it's not like the WS is usually won by the best team anyway. Just look at the Cards last year! It's usually won by the team that peaks at the right time. And I think that's just fine. If it was always the best team every year, frankly it would get boring. The chance of an outsider pulling off an unlikely run and winning against all odds is what makes sport so good - just look at the A's this year, or the Cards last year. 2011 Games 6 and 7 were just awesome sport.
So, give chance a chance!
I don't think any system is going to be great, but I'm not hating this one. In a way it sorta bridges that 'best team in the league' with the tournament style playoffs we have now. In the current system, if you're the best team in the league, something a wild card team will never be, you're protected, even favored. (And this is why I hate the 'rivalry' bit of the new schedule, despite liking Interleague. I think intra-division schedules should be balanced) The best team will obviously not have that single-elimination game to burn a pitcher, plus they may actually get to play the 5th seed instead of the 4th. So the premium here isn't just on winning the division, it's being the best team in the league, something that hasn't been that important since 1968.
Agreed. A one-game, sudden-death format is not fair to a team that plays excellent baseball for 162 games to get there.
I'm not nearly convinced that we "know" we're helping the best team. Say you've got the two best teams in the AL in the West. The Mariners win 106, the A's win 105. The A's won the season series with the Mariners, 11 to 7, but finished with fewer wins because it had one series in April where their four best players were hurt and they were swept by the 110-loss Astros.To me, it seems highly likely that you're giving a huge advantage to the second-best team in the league and seriously disadvantaging the best.
More to the point, though: I can see the value in giving an advantage to the best team, but that seems to go away when you might ALSO be giving an identical advantage to the 5th or 6th or 9th best team who happened to win a weak division, while disadvantaging the 2nd-best team for winning the wildcard. That makes no sense to me. If you want to help out the best team, we could always go back to the old no-division format (and give up millions upon millions in revenue, but you know).
@Bill_TPA Well, I wouldn't want to give up the playoffs either, more baseball is always good.
And because it's baseball..the 'best' team only has a marginal better chance of winning it all anyway. So often the team that plays better in August and September continues that. 162 gives a larger sample, but often (throwing out the extra 15guys) rosters are very different in April than in September. Even a balanced schedule is barely that over that time frame. Look at this year, what if one team in the NL East plays the first half injury-laden Phillies 9 times, and another team gets them in the second half when everyone's healthy? Is there something to having the best team on the last day of the season, or the best team over the entire course of the season?
But like I said, I'm not sure there's any 'good' solution. There are probably a slew of different and perhaps less bad, solutions but nothing that's going to make everyone look at it and be happy and think it's fair. A 3-game wild card round might make sense, it more mimics what teams do during the regular season at least.
So really the system is not trying to find the best baseball team, but is defining certain criteria for them to be the best at. Some of it certainly requires a bit of luck to work in their favor as well, but that's true of a lot of baseball anyway. Even playing a nine-game World Series of the best team in two leagues with no playoffs is going to award the title to the less of the two many times, and that team may not be the second or third or even fourth best team of the 30 anyway.
@Bill_TPA When I first heard they were doing the second Wild Card thing, I was thinking a three-game in two day melee might be a fun way to do it and would minimize the time needed before the division series. It'd be craziness though, but it'd also require more of the full roster and would be less subject to the lesser team having the better pitcher and the timing being right to use him in one game.
I don't know what the numbers say, but I imagine this would favor the better team.
Sure, there's no perfect solution. If you want to know who the best team was, the final regular season standings are always going to be the place to start.
It's just that this one, to me, is just about the worst possible "solution." Ben Duronio had a good, or at least an interesting, alternative on Twitter: in years where the first wildcard is clearly better than the second, make them play a doubleheader, with the inferior team needing to win both to advance (so obviously if WC1 wins game 1, it's not a doubleheader). That has all kinds of problems itself, but at least it does something to acknowledge that, now and then, things are going to happen like the 2001 AL, and that making the league's second-best team play one game for its life makes no sense at all.