We are now less than a week away from the end of the regular season of Major League Baseball.1 Unless something dramatic happens in the final week2 the standings will showcase the folly of the new format that was introduced for this season.
This year marks the debut of the second wild-card team, promoted by Commissioner Bud Selig and others. Instead of four playoff teams, there are now five. However, two of them–the wild cards–square off in a single game to determine which one goes on to play one of the division winners. The ostensible purpose is to be to make winning the division a greater imperative in cases where two teams are neck-and-neck down the wire, but both would advance anyway.
The basic goal is laudable, but stands on a flimsy premise: that division winners are necessarily more deserving than wild card winners. A secondary premise, though one I have not seen stated, is also flimsy: that both of the now two wild cards are about equally (un)deserving. So let’s throw as many teams as we can into “exciting” end-of-season races, and then have an “exciting” one-game playoff to eliminate one of them and then get on with games involving the more “deserving” teams.
Each league shows the flaws in one these premises. The AL shows the worst case. If the season ended today, a team with the seventh best record in the entire league (Detroit Tigers, leading the Central by two games) would enter the postseason with the advantages of a division winner, while the teams with the fifth and sixth best records (Los Angels Angles and Tampa Bay Rays, currently tied at two games out of the wild card) would miss the playoffs entirely. The two most surprising teams of the season–the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics, with the third and fourth best records, would play a single elimination game. This season’s AL is not a rare case. Many past wild cards over the previous sixteen years had their league’s fourth or better–sometimes second–best record. And several division winners have been fifth or worse. The new format makes this worse, by vastly increasing the penalty against a superior team for being a superior division, while rewarding the winner of a mediocre division.
It actually gets worse still, because this season the Division Series will deviate from its usual 2-2-1 format, whereby the higher-seeded team–never the wild card, even when its record is better–gets to open at home and also gets the decisive fifth game at home if the series goes the distance. Instead, this year, it is 2-3, with the higher-seeded team getting (up to) three home games, but only after the lower-seeded team has had two guaranteed home games. In other words, the Tigers, with the seventh best record, open at home, after an extra off day, on which the A’s and O’s have decided which of two better teams will travel to Detroit to play the relatively more rested Tigers.
In the NL, we see how flawed is the second (implicit) premise: that both wild card teams are equally (un)deserving. At the moment, there is a seven-game gap between the first wild card team, the Atlanta Braves, and the second wild card, the St. Louis Cardinals. A seven-game gap is currently larger than the gap between any two teams that will play each other in a Division Series.3 And, in fact, the top wild card team now is tied with the West-winning San Francisco Giants for the league’s third best record. Yet all this earns them is one home game in which a team with the fifth best record gets a shot at knocking them off. Of all sports, baseball is the one that least should use a single elimination game instead of a series of 3-to-7 games.4
It does not seem that this new format is well thought-out. Moreover, introducing the format this year too late to adjust the dates of the various series, which is the ostensible reason for a one-year use of the 2-3 Division Series format, really was inexcusable.
I would still prefer my alternative proposal of Two Divisions, Two Wild Cards (2D2W). The AL would be featuring a good wild card race for two slots between the A’s, Orioles, Angels, and Rays. The Tigers and White Sox would only recently have faded from the race (rather than one of them being ensured a Division Series slot). The Rangers and Yankees would be leading their respective divisions, just as they are under the actual format. The NL would actually not have races involving in vs. out of the postseason, because the top four are so well separated from the rest of the pack. However, in the actual format we have hardly had any division races for at least the last two months.5 Under 2D2W we would have a good contest in the East division between Washington and Cincinnati, with Atlanta now four games out.6 We would not have a race like the one we have had, at least until about a week ago, among the Dodgers and the surging Brewers7 for a wild card slot. But really, why is a race for fifth place among teams barely above .500 something to cheer?8 In articulating my proposal for the 2D2W alternative in September, 2010, I suggested some ways in which winning the division could be made more valuable than a wild card than was the case in the rules in place through 2011. These mechanisms could still yield significant battles to secure a division rather than wild card slot in the final week.
Bud’s format is a dud. It should be revisited, to maximize the chances that the four best teams advance to the Division Series, under whatever seeding mechanism, and that races do not involve fringe teams, or set up single elimination games between teams that were widely separated in the regular-season standings.
Wondering if any of my baseball-fan readers want to discuss the changes announced in MLB–Astros moving to the AL, inter-league play almost every day. Probably a one-game playoff between two wild card teams in each league.
(The latter idea is one I have argued against–just click on “The Ballyard” above and scroll down a bit.)
We have just had one of the most incredible sixth games of a World Series–or really any baseball game–ever played. Can Game 7 possibly live up to it?
Drawing from two relatively recent World Series (meaning those of which I have vivid memories), with an honorable mention for a third, we can ask: Will this Game 7 be like 2002 or like 1975? (The third example will come from 1986.)
In 2002, I had the distinct honor of being able to attend both the sixth and seventh games. In Game 6, the Angels came back from five runs down in the seventh inning, and won, 6-5. It was, and remains, the biggest late comeback in an elimination game in the history of the World Series (or, I believe, any other postseason series).
Game 7 started off with an unbelievable buzz in the stands. But once the game began, it just seemed like the visiting Giants were shellshocked, and just standing around waiting for something to happen. That “something” would be a double in the third inning by Garret Anderson that cleared the bases and gave the Angels a 4-1 lead that was never challenged. Game 7 had not come close to Game 6 in its excitement. (No complaints: The Angels won the World Series!!!)
In 1975, we also had a fantastic Game 6, with frequent lead changes, dramatic home runs, and extra innings. It was and remains, by all accounts, one of the great baseball games at least of recent decades, if not all time. The Boston Red Sox blew an early 3-run lead, then overcame a 6-3 deficit in the 8th to tie it. They won on the famous “will it fair” home run by Carlton Fisk in the bottom of the 12th.
Game 7 was not too shabby, either, even if is not nearly as well remembered as game 6. The Red Sox took an early 3-0 lead, but never scored again, eventually allowing the Reds to score the go-ahead run in the top of the 9th, so that Cincinnati won the championship. Thus did they miss a chance to win their first World Series since 1918–they would not win till 2004. (The Giants, on the other hand, waited only 8 years to brush off the tough loss of 2002, and finally win their first since their move to San Francisco in 1958.)
Following last night’s unbelievable Game 6 defeat, will the Rangers be more like the shellshocked 2002 Giants, or the quick-recovering 1975 Reds?
We could also add to the conversation 1986, when Game 6 featured the implausible “one pitch away” meltdown of the Red Sox as they were on the verge of clinching that elusive championship in Game 6. They took a 5-3 lead over the NY Mets in the top of the 10th–much like the Rangers last night (who had also blown a 2-run lead in the 9th). Game 7 featured a 3-0 lead for the Red Sox that held from the second inning till the sixth. They never led again, but made things interesting in the 8th. So in 1986 the in-game events of Game 7 bore a bit more in common with 1975. But like 2002, it featured the shocked loser of Game 6 losing again.
There have been some great sixth games, and some great seventh games. Only a few series have been great in both games 6 and 7.1 Here’s hoping that, whatever the outcome, this is one of the latter!
1991 springs to mind. No implausible comebacks in either game, just two spectacular baseball games with it all on the line. [↩]
There have been some great sixth games: 2002, 1991, 1986, 1975 (and those are just the ones I’m old enough to remember). Was this one better yet? Twice down by two runs in a would-be final inning. Twice down to the last strike. Wow.
I’ve never been so nervous watching a game that did not involve the Angels. And the tension kept on coming and coming…
This has been some Series. It had to go seven, and what a way to get there. Wow.
It has been just over a week–and a week in which we have had some pretty good playoff games already–but I still can’t believe the incredible games we were treated to on the last day of the regular season.
Here’s hoping that this epic finish to the wild-card races in each league put to rest the plan, first broached just over a year ago–to add a fifth team to the postseason. Had such a format been in play this season, the collapses by Boston and Atlanta, and late surges by Tampa Bay and St. Louis, would have been meaningless. Each pair merely would have been slated for a new playoff round rather than a loser-goes-home sprint to the finish line of the 162-game season.
I would still advocate my “two divisions, two wild cards” format (which still has four, not five, teams advance). It would not have deprived us of the great season’s finish this year. In a year when the wild card team has the 4th best record, it would never deprive us of a race, under the current format, for that slot. However, in a year when the wild card has a better record than a division winner, which is a common occurrence, it can only enhance the races, by reducing the chance of a division winner with only the 5th or worse record in its league.
Two divisions, two wild cards. Not three divisions, two wild cards.
The Dodgers had a “throwback day” today, in which they played in old Brooklyn uniforms.
The old-timey feel meant only organ music between innings. None of the ear-splitting recorded music that invades the between-innings, and between-batters, experience in regular games nowadays. None of that bone-rattling bass that the stadium sound system is (in)famous for.
And on the TV broadcast, none of the juvenile sound effects that normally go with any on-screen graphic or replay on Fox sports channels.
Bert Blyleven has finally made it to the Hall of Fame. It is about time.
He barely made it in, with 79.7%, where 75% is required. But that’s good enough. Last year he just missed, with 74.2%. His surge in votes last year, and ultimate election now, is a real victory for the sabermetric revolution in player evaluation.
Robert Alomar was also elected, easily: he moved from last year’s 73.7% to 90%.
The next closest is Barry Larkin, whose percentage grew from 51.6 to 62.1. I am not sure he is a Hall of Famer, but I am also not sure he is not. The votes changes suggest the HoF electorate has a similar collective conflict.
Two other “may be deserving but unclear” candidates, Jack Morris and Lee Smith, barely moved in the voting compared to last year.
Weaver’s fifth-place finish is too low, but the only one that matters is no. 1, and the writers were not swayed by 13-12. That someone with such a poor record, through so little fault of his own, would win the Cy shows that the sabermetric revolution has had considerable success.
It was nice to see both League Championship Series go to six games. We had not had that happen since 2004, when both went seven (for the second year in a row; we were spoiled back then). 2003 was the last time both leagues’ championship series and the World Series went at least six. So here’s hoping for at least six games in the World Series this year!
I think we all knew the Yankees pitching was suspect, but I sure did not see a 2:1 ALCS run ratio coming. The Rangers outscored the Yankees, 38-19. Had the Rangers’ bullpen found a way not to squander a 4-run 8th-inning lead in Game 1, it would have been a sweep. As it was, the Yankees managed to win two and make it a long series. But it was not a close one.
There is a pattern with the Rangers: despite their division series against Tampa Bay going the 5-game distance (and with the road team winning every game!), that series also was not close in runs: 21-13. So that’s 59 runs scored in eleven games, against 32 allowed.
Speaking of run differentials, the NLCS was about as close as they get. The Phillies actually led the run-scoring, 20-19. Close games are a pattern with this Giants team. They only outscored the Braves in the 4-game Division Series, 11-9. That’s thirty runs scored in ten postseason games! And 29 allowed.
One particularly enjoyable thing about postseason baseball is the appearance of starting pitchers in relief. Roy Oswalt did not do so well in his appearance. Tim Lincecum did not fare so well in Game 6, either, despite the better result for his team. Madison Bumgarner, however, was sharp.
I was hoping the NLCS would go to a seventh game, because we might have gotten to see Roy Halladay in relief.
The Rangers’ offense might have some trouble with that big sea-level ballpark in San Francisco. The NL has the World Series home-field advantage this year, so that factor could be a difference-maker. On the other hand, the Rangers pitching is going to like it there. And, averaging not even three runs allowed against good lineups in the postseason, the Rangers’ pitching is good.
The Rangers have never been in a World Series, and the Giants have not won one since 1954 in New York.
Did I mention I hope the series goes seven, or at least six?
Here we are, on the last day of the season, and three teams are still in contention for two slots. We could still have all three teams involved in a tiebreaker “tournament,” something that has never happened before.
In my previous discussion of playoff formats, in which I suggested a change to two divisions and two wild cards (instead of three divisions and one wild card), I did not mention the current NL races. I overlooked the 2010 NL because, under my proposal, the same five teams would be involved in the battle for four slots. However, instead of the one wild card being between the SD/SF loser and Atlanta, we would have the two wild card slots being between those teams plus Cincinnati.
Under the actual format, the Reds, like the Rangers in the AL, wrapped their division up a while ago. Yet the Reds start the last day of the season with the same record as the Padres and Braves, one of whom will not be advancing.
It is hard to believe that as recently as 25 August, the Padres enjoyed a 6.5 game lead in the National League West and had the League’s best record. The next day a funny thing happened. I attended a game. It was my first Padre game of the season, days after I returned from months in Israel. They lost that day, to the lowly Diamondbacks, and would lose nine more before their next win.
Today they are on the precipice, having evidently forgotten what little they ever knew about hitting.
Let me see if I have this straight…
The Padres could win all three in San Francisco this weekend, then come home for an “overhang game” against the Giants, win their fourth straight, and be the division winner.
Or the Padres could win all three in San Francisco, and avoid needing to make it a 4-game streak, if the Braves lose three in a row at home against the Phillies. Then the Braves would be eliminated from the Wild Card, and the Padres would be the division winner without a tie-breaking game (because they would have won the head-to-head with the Giants, 13-5, making SF the Wild Card team).
It gets yet more interesting if the Padres sweep while the Braves win one of three. Then we have a three-way tie. Now that would be fun to watch, but it still means a 4-game winning streak against the Giants to win the division. (If they lost their overhang game against the Giants they’d get one more chance in this scenario, in an overhang game against the Braves for the Wild Card.)
Or the Padres could win just two of three from the Giants, while the Braves get swept. Then they play the Braves in an overhang game to decide the Wild Card.
See, still various ways to get to the playoffs even after a miserable five weeks. But the best we can say for the Padres is they simply need a miracle.
Hey fans, as they like to say at the Padres’ ballpark, “keep the faith!”
In keeping with the theme that sparked considerable interest earlier in the week, I just wanted to make an observation about the current system of baseball championships, compared to the one it replaced.
I have always thought there was a certain “divine justice” in the way the 1993 and 1994 championship races unfolded. With it known that 1993 was going to be the last year without wild cards, we were treated to a NL West race that went down to the last day of the season. Two teams winning over 100 games, but it was winner-take-all. One of them was going to go home while the other advanced.
Then in 1994, the first year of three divisions and one wild card, we were spared the embarrassment of a possible first-ever playoff team with a sub-.500 record only by the player’s strike that ultimately resulted in there being no playoffs at all that year. The Rangers were in first place in the AL West at 52-62 when the season was called off. That was the eleventh best record in the league! They, or whoever might have ended the West on top, surely would have climbed the overall standings if the season had continued, but not inevitably into the top five or even top seven. We will never know, and it is probably just as well.
While the 1993 NL West race was a thrilling old-fashioned “pennant race,” all it got the Giants, who finished one game out in the West with 103 wins, was an early winter vacation. The Braves went on to lose to the Phillies (97 regular-season wins).
So at the conclusion of one great season, we got both our last great winner-take-all race, and a demonstration of why having winner-take-all divisions, with no wild card, can be inherently unfair. Just because the two best teams in the league happened to be in the same division (the “West,” despite Atlanta’s actual location), a 103-game winner sat out the postseason in favor of an inferior team.
The 1994 races gave us a clear demonstration of the problem of small divisions. If several mediocre (at best) teams happen to be concentrated in one region, especially one that comprises a division of only four teams, a manifestly undeserving team can enter the postseason as a “division champion.”
The only reason I did not invoke 1994 in the earlier discussion was not that the season was incomplete, but that it was played under a “balanced schedule” that meant teams within a league played each other team the same number of games. Some years into the new format, an unbalanced schedule was brought back in to ensure more games against each intra-division rival than against other teams. The unbalanced schedule makes clearly undeserving division winners less likely than the 1994 format. But as the 2005 Padres showed it is not a guarantee that a team in the middle of the league’s overall standings pack won’t be crowned a division champion. And that was the main problem that my proposal of two divisions with two wild cards was meant to address.
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4