Friday, June 24, 2011

Baseball Realignment?

As you may have read, MLB is toying with the idea of realignment, moving Houston to the AL West and eliminating divisions, so that we would have two 15-team leagues with 5 teams making the playoffs in each league. I cannot describe how much I find this idea to be foolish and poorly considered. As I’ve argued before, the excitement over a long baseball season is the pennant race. Of course, players chasing milestones and batting titles is interesting, but it is a team game and having two or three teams battle it out down to the wire is the essence of a baseball season.

With this new idea, there will be a race for 4th, 5th, and 6th in each league. Oooh, the thrills of watching a team strive for that 84th win to sneak into the final wild card spot! Some argue that this new system will help teams like Toronto who are always frozen out by playing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox. That might be true, but it will be at the expense of a meaningful season. Instead of six potential pennant races, we'll have two races for the final spot.

Look at the standings now. We have four divisions with the top two teams within a game and the biggest lead is Philly's 4 game advantage on Atlanta. This season could have races in each division right down to the wire.

On the other hand, if we combine the AL into a 14-team league, we have one race with Detroit and Texas fighting it out for 5th. That would doubtless capture the attention of the nation. Certainly Toronto is in a better position, lying only 4 games out of 5th instead of 8.5 games out of first, but they are 36-39. They are not good! They should not be in a race until they are a solid and consistent team! I really, really want the Jays to make the playoffs in the AL East, not in some watered-down 15-team system.

For evidence of just how bad this idea is, one only need to look at Japanese baseball over the past few years. Where once there were two pennant races every season, with two or three teams fighting for a cherished spot in the Nippon Series, now a full 50% of teams make the playoffs every year, rendering the regular season essentially meaningless. The battle is for 3rd place between two mediocre teams. First and second place are still important as they come with advantages in the playoffs, but there’s little point paying attention until then. Last year was a perfect example where a middling Marines team finished 3rd in the Pacific League, just a half-game in front of the Fighters. They then got hot at the right time, taking advantage of a silly playoff system that had them play 15 games over 30 days. The 144-game regular season was simply not meaningful.

So take it from me MLB, keep the divisions and keep the pennant races. It's one baseball tradition that should be saved.



Sunday, June 19, 2011

Comparing the NHL and NBA Playoffs

I haven't posted anything for a while, since I've been doing little other than a game at Jingu for Stadium Journey. But I did follow the NHL playoffs quite closely and caught a lot of the NBA finals as well. During the past two months, I noticed a number of commentators on Twitter and elsewhere trying to argue for one of these events being "better" than the other. So I'd thought I'd share my take.

As I mentioned last month, the two tournaments are quite different. The NHL is a league where parity reigns: 15 out of 16 playoff teams had win totals between 43 and 49. The NBA, on the other hand, has a few great teams that dominate during the regular season. The result is that the first round of the NHL is filled with upsets and close games, while the first round in the NBA usually follows form. This year, the NHL saw four 7-game series in the first round while the NBA had none. Two of those 7th games finished in overtime, and there is nothing more exciting than a 7th game going to sudden death. Interestingly, both winners went on to meet in the final.

The NHL reseeds for the second round while the NBA follows the bracket formula. This can lead to some odd matchups, such as in the NBA Western Conference this year, where the #2 Lakers took on #3 Dallas while the 4th-seeded Thunder got to battle the #8 Grizzlies in the West. Despite the reseeding which matches the top team against the worst, upsets happen in this round about twice as often in the NHL as in the NBA, and that was true this time around, with Boston and Tampa Bay knocking off higher seeds while only Dallas could do so in the NBA. Both leagues had just one 7-game series.

It isn't until the conference championships that the NBA becomes truly compelling and it is around this time that the NHL loses a lot of its luster. There are a couple of reasons for this in my mind. The first is that the NBA's top teams are composed of star players. It wasn't Dallas vs. Oklahoma City and Miami against Chicago; it was Dirk vs Durant and LeBron and D-Wade against Derrick Rose. Although the NHL semi-finals had some top talent such as Stamkos, Chara, the Sedins, and Thornton, those players are not on the ice nearly as much as in the NBA and they often have little impact in a game where defense is stressed. In the NBA, you are going to see these future Hall of Famers going head-to-head for 40 minutes or more and reputations are made or destroyed in the late rounds of the NBA playoffs.

The other thing that starts to hurt the NHL is the grind. The playoffs are physically punishing and after 82 regular season games and up to 14 playoff games, players are starting to get tired. The NBA stretches their playoffs out a bit more and with fewer games being played in the early rounds during that time, the quality is higher as the tourney winds down.

The finals this year were interesting in both leagues with similar storylines - the star player fading during criticial situations. I am not a hater but LeBron's 4th quarter disappearing act was fascinating to watch. Of course, being a Vancouver fan, seeing Luongo give up easy goals was painful, but even then, not as interesting as watching Miami lose. Each of those 6 NBA games was close and could have gone either way. It was also great to see Mark Cuban and the Mavericks get their reward after being ripped off by the referees in 2006. The Stanley Cup Final went to 7 games but seeing the Canucks fold was not a good way to end the season (unless you are a Bruins' fan).

So there you have it. The NHL is far better in the first two rounds, while the NBA playoffs take over at the end. Take your pick which one is better overall, I'll stick with hockey simply because of sudden-death overtime.

Meaningless Stats

Overall, there were 81 games in the NBA playoffs with 54 being won by the home team, and 6 overtime tilts. There were 188 points scored in the average game, with the average point difference at 9.5.

The NHL saw 89 games with 48 won by the home team (thanks to the Stanley Cup Final) and 22 going extra periods. The average saw 5.6 goals with a difference of 1.88. There were 16 shutouts and ten games where a team scored 6 or more. Home teams averaged 2.86 goals per game to 2.76 for visitors.

Both championships were won by 3rd seeds on the road.

Next Up

Not much. I'll be watching a few NPB games here to do the Stadium Journey reviews, but no trips back home until October, when the NHL season starts. I'm planning a Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton jaunt and will have that planned once the schedule is released in the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, I'll be writing on some of the issues that arise in the world of sports, so check back on occasion to see what's up.