Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Watering Down the Playoffs

Well, the baseball season is over and the San Francisco Giants have won the World Series. Fortunately, they are a deserving team, having won their division. Their 92-70 record wasn't spectacular, but it was good. That makes sense as they are a good team, and it showed in the playoffs as they won 3 series in convincing fashion.

Now comes word that Bud Selig is pushing for an extra wild card team in each league starting in 2012. As a Blue Jay fan, I should be happy with this idea as it gives them an increased chance at the playoffs. But instead, I am opposed to the idea because it makes the long season that much more meaningless and admits poorer teams into the post-season, where anything can happen. I suggested a fix to the wild-card a month or so ago, but obviously Mr. Selig is not a reader of this blog.

Quoting from the ESPN article linked above, Selig asks "Is eight out of 30 enough? Is that fair?" and then when asked what he thought of 10 playoff teams, answered "It's more fair than eight".

Fairness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What Selig is missing is that inviting two weaker teams to the dance is not fair to those better teams who won their division. This year Minnesota was defeated by the Yankees, who took the Wild Card. Granted, New York had a better record than Minnesota, but they weren't good enough to beat Tampa over 162 games. Division play and unbalanced schedules will always be inherently unfair and teams with better records will often miss the post-season while weak teams will get hot and take a championship (see the 2006 Cardinals who finished 83-78), but watering down the playoffs with more teams is not the answer.

Baseball is a sport where anything can happen in a short series. That is why a long season is required to eliminate all but the best teams in each division. Allowing a second or third-place finisher to beat a division champion in a short series is really what is unfair here. (The NHL does the same thing; I'll address that separately).

I've gone back through the major-league standings since 1996, the first full season under the current divisional structure, to find the record of the team that would have finished 5th overall in each league. The average in both leagues is about 89 wins, with the range from 84 to 96. I just don't think that we are missing quality teams in the playoffs if the average 5th place finisher is coming in at 89 wins. There's also the problem of reduced playoff races - just look at this year in the NL, where San Diego, San Francisco, and Atlanta were fighting for just two spots. Add a 5th team makes the playoff race meaningless. There were also three single-game playoffs over these 15 years that would have been lost if 5 teams were admitted to the post-season.

Another issue is the extended length of the playoffs. A three-game series would be necessary to eliminate one of the two wild-card teams, this adds at least 3 days to a schedule that is already too long. It's also unfair to the teams who clinched early and had a chance to set their rotation for the playoffs. If the top 3 teams all get a nice 4-day rest, they can set their starters as they see fit, so there is no advantage to an early celebration.

Summarizing: four teams is more than enough in the MLB playoffs! Fix the divisions and balance the schedule if you want to make things fair, Bud!

Look to Japan

For those who want to see how watered-down playoffs reward mediocrity, the Japanese leagues are a fine example. Where once there were just two pennant winners meeting in the Japan Series, there are now 3 teams (out of 6) making the playoffs in each league. The first round of the playoffs (inaccurately known as the Climax Series) sees the second-place squad host the third-place team in a best-of-3 series, with the winner traveling to the top team for a best-of-6 (the pennant winner is given a 1-game lead to start).

This season, the Chiba Lotte Marines finished 3rd in the Pacific League with a pedestrian winning percentage of .528, but after going 6-2 in the playoffs behind some admittedly stellar pitching, they are in the Japan Series (tied with Chunichi at 1 game apiece as I write this). To be fair, this season in Japan was strange, with no team finishing above .560, but a short winning streak after an average season should not be enough to earn a championship. I understand that the fans of all clubs want their teams to be involved in playoff races, but it has to be earned.

Fixing the NHL Playoffs

I'm not done ranting yet. The NHL is the poster boy for watered-down playoffs, a two-month marathon that lasts well into June. This is because NHL players are not paid after the regular season ends, so this is when the owners make their money. So there's no chance of reducing the length of series or the number of teams that make it.

Again though, there is no reward for finishing top of the heap, other than the meaningless President's Trophy. Quick, tell me who won that in 2000!

Each playoff series sees the higher-seeded team get an extra home game in a best-of-7. That's the measly reward and it's not enough, especially given how close these teams are. The system should be as follows:

1st place in the conference gets 6 home games (3-1-3)
2nd/3rd place in the conference each get 5 home games (3-2-2)
4th place in the conference gets 4 home games as usual (2-2-1-1-1)

This is only for the first round, after that the regular format returns. I'm not sure this will reduce the number of early upsets, but at least those teams that did well are rewarded financially.

Oh, it was St. Louis who won the President's Trophy back in 2000; they lost their 1st round series to San Jose in 7 games.

Next Up

Good news, the ranting is done for now. I'm going to the Nabisco Cup Championship tomorrow and then the AFC Champions League final next weekend, so there'll be some game posts shortly. I've also finalized the trip in December and January, so check back for the schedule in a few days.



1 comment:

  1. Agree. The words "Pennant Fever" with quality teams pursuing quality baseball late into the fall just do not exist anymore. This approach in the past made the season relevant and worthwhile....now a good part of August into September will focus on the fates of teams in the 80 to 90 win range - big deal and big yawn, while the teams at the top and their fans sit around bored starting in mid-August waiting until October to begin. Thus, for the average fan, you can stop watching baseball in and around mid-August until the playoffs as you pretty much know the whole thing is set.

    If they expand, they may as well play a far shorter schedule and get to the playoffs sooner rather than later.