Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig says he is open to a proposal to expand the playoffs by adding a second wild card team, in addition to the three division winners. The idea, advanced by ESPN’s Jayson Stark, is to make the division races matter more, by putting a wild card winner through an extra hoop: instead of immediately advancing to the Division Series, these now two wild card teams would play each other to decide who goes farther. Various proposals suggest either a one-game wild-card playoff or, more likely, a best of three. During these few days the division winners would rest while the wild cards beat up on each other.
I am all for having two wild card teams, but not for expanding the postseason.
I would offer a simpler solution than Stark’s to the problem–assuming it is one–that teams like this year’s Yankees and Rays may not have enough of an incentive to work for the division title rather than the wild card. It has been evident for some time that both teams were going to the postseason regardless of which one finished first.
Go back to two divisions, and have two wild cards. The wild card teams could come from the same division, if the two best teams aside from division winners were in the same division.
I have never liked three divisions and one wild card, anyway. The risk is too great that one of the division winners is inferior to the wild card winner. So why penalize the wild card team that, in some years, has the league’s second best record? With a division of five–or even four, as with the AL West–what it takes to beat out your intra-division opponents is often far less than it takes to finish second in a tough division–or even third.
Consider this year’s AL, which has been the talking point for advocates of introducing a wild card series. The Yankees, and Rays would still have been assured, for much of the season as it developed, of a postseason berth under either the status quo or the two-division, two wild cards (2D2W) proposal. So would the Twins, who would be in the West Division, and leading it by four games as of today. But the Rangers, who have had a fairly easy time of it in the actual West, thanks to the other three teams never really getting a title chase going, would be in a fight to the finish under 2D2W.
The Ranges are currently 88-70, with a ten game lead over the second place Angels. They clinched early this week in what has been a runaway. Yet they have not played so great for the past two months. Under 2D2W they would be in a good race for the second wild card with the Red Sox (87-70), assuming they did not make up their current four-game deficit against the Twins. The White Sox (84-73) also would still be alive.
So if the objective of having wild card titles, whether one or more, is to generate more interest, the 2D2W proposal does so better than the Stark proposal. The Stark proposal would force the Yankees or Rays (whichever one finishes second in the East) into the shortest of short series (or even one game!) against a team that they may have beaten by a wide margin, while a team with an inferior record, the Rangers, gets to set up its rotation and gain the advantages that accrue in the postseason to a division winner.
The 2D2W would guard against travesties like the 2005 National League West, which was won by the Padres with a barely .500 record. Given that year’s standings, the NL postseason teams were the Cardinals, Braves, and Padres as division winners, while the Astros won the wild card. The Padres were a division winner in spite of having the seventh best record in the league. Yes, seventh. Under 2D2W, the Phillies, with a record of 88-74, would have replaced the Padres (82-80) in the postseason. The other three teams would have been the same.
(Naturally, with unbalanced schedules, the records under 2D2W would not have been precisely the same, because each team would play a slightly different schedule, but the above scenarios give a general picture.)
There are many years when one division winner has, at best, a fifth place finish in the overall league standings. Under 2D2W, the playoff teams would almost always be the top four.
One could still introduce a first-round playoff structure that rewards division winners over wild card winners, if one wanted to do so. For instance, the first round could be a best of seven with the division winner having the first three games at home, instead of only the first two–while still having the last two if it went that far. Or under a best of five, one could similarly ensure the division winner four home games if the series went the distance. Another thought it an asymmetric series: the division winner advances after winning two games, but the wild card has to win three. I will not consider any of these integral to 2D2W; they are additional considerations.
The two divisions, two wild card format would make division races more meaningful, in that it is harder to beat out five (AL) or seven (NL) intra-division competitors than three or four (in all but the current NL Central). It would force the leader of an inferior division into a wild card race (if it could contend at all under this realignment) rather than crown it a division winner. It would avoid the gimmicky wild card one-game or best-of-three playoff idea.
I wonder if Bud would like to consider this as an alternative.
As September began, it did not seem likely that any race would go down to the last day this year. But then, on came the Twins, the Rockies, and the Braves.
The Rockies’ and Braves’ battle for the NL Wild Card was especially exciting given that they had no scheduled games against one another after the All Star Break. And the last week in the West sure has been a tense thriller, as we awaited the determination of which of (Rockies, Dodgers) would win the NL West and which the Wild Card (once the late-surging Braves lost their momentum).
But here we are on the last day, and the Tigers and Twins still have their epic battle for AL fifth best record going strong! It may even go all the way to Tuesday, in order that the final regular-season baseball game ever to be played in the Metrodome can wait for a football game to be played.
Another year of inter-league play comes to an end today. With just two games yet to be played, the AL will finish with at least a .540 winning percent against the other league.
And today’s last Angels interleague game (which left them 13-4 for this soft part of their schedule) was a poster-game for the imbalance of the leagues–especially the fifth inning, when the Snakes had the sort of inning that even a decent Little League team rarely inflicts on itself.
Now on to a tough big-league schedule for the remaining 89 games.
A week ago, with the Angels a few games past the one-third mark of the season and at .500, I began to wonder if it was possible that this team was just “a .500 team” after all. The team should be better, and when they held their own through the first several weeks of the season despite a starting rotation devastated and a bullpen in name only, I was confident they’d still end up dominating the division–eventually. But they kept reverting to .500, and the thought came to mind that maybe they were on a two-year process of correction. There was, after all, no way that last year’s team was really “a 100-win team.” Yet it won 100 games. Somehow. Take 100 in 2008 and the prospect of 81 in 2009, and you have about a 90-win team. Which seems about right–if not still a bit on the high side for the core roster this team has played with recently and its implausible (but somehow successful) hitting philosophy of situational contact.
Then the team entered the soft part of its schedule otherwise known as interleague play. What a difference six games against the Padres (a dreadful team* that somehow can play .400 ball in the NL) and the Giants (who could even be called contenders for the league’s wild card) can make. Suddenly the Angels are at .545 and a game and a half out. And this season the team will cross the 40% mark of its season while playing the dominant team in the subordinate league. (Can anyone really see the Dodgers as a “.650 team”? A 105-win pace? Really?)
The Angels still should win their division. But if they lose it to the surprising Rangers, I shan’t shed a tear, not with the latter team’s president being Nolan Ryan, who–more than any person other than my mother–was the one most responsible for my learning to appreciate the joy that is the game of baseball. Not only is it inherently hard to root against a team that has Nolan Ryan as its president, but I want Nolie’s philosophy to win.
* Despite Adrian Gonzalez’s 60 homer pace. What an amazing (40% of a) season.
Reporting from Goodyear, Ariz. — There was one benefit to being whacked in the nose by a ball that caromed off the center-field wall Wednesday.
That sinus infection bothering Torii Hunter? Not an issue anymore.
“It’s crazy, man,” said Hunter, who was back in center field Thursday, the swelling around his right eye having subsided. “You go to the doctor for a sinus infection, then you get hit in the nose. I get an X-ray and they say, ‘Well, one thing I can tell you is your sinuses cleared up.’ That was pretty funny.”
My interest in the WBC teams is roughly inversely correlated with the presence of major-league regulars on the roster. For that reason, I am sorry that one of the still-contending teams in the pool now nearing its conclusion in San Diego will be eliminated. Korea, with hardly anyone I have heard of on the roster, but many players who are a joy to watch play the game (and play it really well), is already in the final four. I suppose my first sentence gives away my rooting interest for tonight, but it will be really hard not to root for the team I am not rooting for. (This international baseball fan stuff is hard!)
Naturally, given the interest mentioned in that first sentence, I have not paid close attention to the pool of teams playing in Miami (especially since the expected early exit of the surprising Netherlands team). But last night’s USA comeback in the bottom of the 9th against Puerto Rico was, well, a classic. And the advance of Team USA to the final four is great news for increasing interest in the tournament; it should certainly help ticket sales and TV ratings for this weekend’s games in Los Angeles. And if they were to play Korea in either the semi-final (seeding to be determined by USA-Venezuela game tonight) or the final (or both), the presence of a very large Korean community in Los Angeles would make for an intense and exciting atmosphere. But really, any of the still-possible match-ups would be interesting.
For various reasons, I have not been able to write about the World Baseball Classic 2009 the way I did in 2006.
But, with the first round over but for one slot in the next round to be determined tonight (and a couple of games only about Round-2 seeding), this has been a thriller so far.
Who knew that The Netherlands1 would have the best pitching and just enough offense to beat twice–and thus eliminate–a Dominican team loaded with all-star talent? They even held a Puerto Rican team, also loaded with top talent, scoreless till late in a game eventually won by also-advancing Puerto Rico. (Maybe the Dutch pitching coach can add this to a Hall of Fame resume that continues, for unfathomable reasons, to fail to impress the Hall electorate.)
And Australia? We don’t usually think of our friends down under when we think of baseball powerhouses (though the number of Australian players signed by MLB organizations in recent years seems to be sharply up). Yet tonight they have a chance to advance if they can beat Mexico a second time. That seems like a tall order, but given that they not only beat, but dismantled, the Mexican team earlier in the week, who can rule it out? Their team looks good, if not exactly deep. They even gave the Cubans a hard time last night (though Cuba got a clutch 3-run homer and thus assured itself of moving on to the next round).
Even Italy2 pulled off an upset, beating Canada (though not advancing). And Chinese Beijing won its first WBC game, and has some players who look like they might have a shot on this side of the Pacific.
The world of baseball is looking good. And the final Netherlands-DR game and last night’s Cuba-Australia game were as tense and exciting as anything I could hope for over the coming regular MLB season. Too bad that, after this tournament ends, we have to wait four years for the next one.
1. Many of the Dutch players are from the Netherlands Antilles (Aruba and Curacao–don’t they play baseball on Bonaire?), and a few are Americans with perhaps somewhat tenuous connections to their family’s European roots. Yet several are directly from the European country whose name the team bears. Regarding that pitching, remember these names: Tom Stuifbergen, Alexander Smit, Rob Cordemas, Dennis Neuman, Diegomar Markwell and Leon Boyd. (And not to be forgotten: Sidney Ponson.)
2. While still featuring several Italian-Americans (e.g. Nick Punto) and even a Venezuelan (the country name means Little Venice, after all!), there seem to be more Italian-born players who actually play in Italy’s professional leagues than at WBC ’06.
The Angels have withdrawn their offer to Mark Teixeira. I can’t say that I am happy that the first real combination of power and patience at the plate that the team has had in many seasons will not be back, but if he thinks eight years and a reported $160 million is not a good enough offer, then good riddance. Such a contract makes little sense. I hope he winds up a proud member of the Nationals (though I fear he’ll be with the Red Sox or Yankees, and at this point I am no longer sure which is the worse outcome).
Moving forward, the midseason deal is now Casey Kotchman and a minor-league pitcher for two draft picks. Use them wisely, Arte and Tony.
Well, Bud, Fox, and Company averted a near-disaster scenario for Major League Baseball last night when BJ Upton somehow was able to steal second base and then score on Carlos PeÃ±a’s single, despite an infield dirt that had the look of a slip-and-slide. He was not safe by much, and had he not scored, MLB would been faced with three bad options:
1. Slog through with already unplayable field conditions.
2. Call the game, thereby handing the 2008 Championship to the Phillies with a 5-inning, 1-run game.
3. Make an ad-hoc rule that even a game with a team in the lead after five innings is not “complete” if it is a World Series elimination game.
Not good choices.
It wound up as a suspended game due to the tie, and also due to a rules change just over a year ago. Prior to the recent change, stopping play part way through an inning would mean any change in the score in the top of that inning gets wiped out (i.e. officially it did not happen!). That would have put us at option 2, but by an even more unjust path.
It is remarkable that MLB has never before had a rain-shortened (or suspended) World Series game. This is a possibility that should have been addressed long ago with a simple rules change stating that any postseason game must go at least 9 innings, even if that means it has to be suspended (and even if one team leads after 5 innings).
Such a change is likely to happen now. It almost happened too late.
Somehow the Rays survived 6 brilliant innings by the best pitcher in this Series, Cole Hamels, and 4 less-than-brilliant innings by their own Scott Kazmir, to forge a tie and suspension. Whenever the weather permits a completion, the Rays once again have a fighting chance of sending the Series back to the dome in which they were 57-24 during the regular season (against 40-41 on the road).
ESPN reported this morning that last night’s comeback by the Red Sox was the “second greatest” in postseason history. Hogwash. It was the greatest. I still can’t believe what I saw.
Postseason comebacks have to be judged in the context not only of the number of runs, but also of the situation: the number of outs remaining till you either come back or go home.
By that standard, the previous greatest comeback was by the Angels in 2002. Down, 5-0, in the seventh inning, and trailing 3 games to 2 in the World Series, the 27th out of the elimination game was closing in. Then Scott Spezio hit his three-run homer to start the six-run rally.1
Last night’s comeback was similar: 7th inning, elimination game. The difference is the Red Sox were down by seven runs. Did I mention that I still can’t believe what I saw?
For the record, here is the comeback ESPN was claiming was the best ever: In 1929, the Philadelphia Athletics were down, 8-0, in the 7th inning. They scored 10 runs in that inning (highlighted by Mule Haas’s 3-run inside-the-park homer) and won the game. Impressive indeed. But at the time they led the series, 2 games to 1. They would finish the Series win in five games.
ESPN also noted two comebacks from down 6-0. One was in the 1996 World Series. In a game I remember well, the Yankees were down, 6-0, but mounted a comeback starting with 3 runs in the 6th. They won the game, 8-6. They were trailing in the Series, but it was not an elimination game. It was game 4, and they would go on to win the Series in six games. The other comeback from 6 runs down started earlier in the game, and the game was earlier in the Series: The 1956 Dodgers were down, 6-0, after the top of the second inning and mounted their comeback in the bottom of that inning, and won, 13-8. It was Game 2, and a lot of good it did them: they lost the Series in seven.
Of course, for the time being, at least, the Angels still have the honor of best-ever World Series comeback from the precipice of a long winter. After that comeback, the Angels had only one more win to get to take the Series, and it was, of course, at home, just like their comeback game. The Red Sox now head to Tampa Bay, needing to extend their winning streak to three, to claim the AL pennant.2
Yes, I was there, and yes, I thought the ball was gone shortly after it was hit. But I sometimes still feel like I am waiting for it to clear the fence! [↩]
And counting on the evidently tired arm of Josh Beckett in game 6–an odd choice with Jon Lester rested, it seems to me. [↩]
Fall is here. I know it because we finally have a series turning into a Series. Thanks to the Rays’ ability to be one run better than the relentless White Sox, we were spared the indignity of a possible 4-0 or 4-1 romp. We could still get the latter, of course, as Boston’s home record during the regular season was almost as good as Tampa Bay’s. They could sweep the next three. But the first two games, in Tampa, show the closely matched teams I expected, and leave open the realistic possibility of a six- or seven-game thriller.
And, yes, I am rooting for the Rays, albeit somewhat reluctantly. I do not believe I have ever rooted against the Red Sox in any postseason series that was not against the Angels. But after a season of 100 wins, and the league’s best record, was turned to waste by a 3-games-to-1 loss at the hands of the Relentless Ones, I am just tired of that shade of red. That ALDS was one of the most gut-wrenching postseason series I have watched. Make that the most gut-wrenching since 1986. It was closer than the games result appears (18-13 Boston in runs), and each game had a turning point that could have changed the outcome. But a too-familiar outcome nonetheless.
When World Series time comes, I might turn into a Philles phan for just 4 or 7 games. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The Dodgers, down 0-2, are returning home, so they are not out of it the same way Tampa Bay would be had they not won Game 2.
I also know it’s turning towards fall because Saturday saw a high of under 70 for the first time since 26 May and Sunday morning it was under 45 for the first time since 22 April. (And down at the cool spot at the bottom of the finca, it was 38.)
But ultimately, the best evidence that fall is in full swing is that the calendar is turning towards Sukkot. I trust that my Jewish readers had a successful season of t’shuvah, and are now ready for the Festival of our Joy. The harvest is just about all ingathered here at Ladera Frutal. Rejoice!
Sukkot is probably my favorite holiday, and the weather now feels like the season. Even if only for a day. It is supposed to get quite hot again by the first day of Sukkot. But then that’s the nature of a Mediterranean climate: fall is the most unpredictable time of year. But the one thing that is predictable is that the full moon will appear in a few hours time. Chag Sameach!
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