The Sports Revolution: Fixing Baseball’s Playoffs

Let me set the scene for you: It’s the Division Series, and a team that’s 15 games better than the team it’s playing has just been eliminated in four days. Some people notice.

Let me reset the scene for you: It’s the Division Series, and a team that’s 15 games better than the team it’s playing has just survived quite the scare in a taut seven-game series that drew national attention.

We must face a simple truth, sports fans: Baseball’s playoff system is broken. In this, the Fifteenth Year of the Wild Card, it is time to finally discuss change.

The main flaw with Major League Baseball’s postseason is its reliance on Chip Caray as its announcer. Pierre kids…maybe.

The main flaw with Major League Baseball’s postseason is that the regular season’s best team rarely if ever wins the World Series anymore. My evidence: The team with the best record in the regular season has won the World Series just twice since the inception of the Wild Card in 1995. Those two teams are the 1998 Yankees, who won 114 games and are the second-best regular-season team in American League history, and the 2007 Red Sox, who won 96 games. I’m tempted to exclude the ’07 Red Sox from this “Best Team” discussion because their 96 wins not only tied them with another team (the politically incorrect Indians) but also marked the fewest wins by a league leader since at least 1978, and that includes the strike-shortened, 144-game 1995 season.*

*But not the strike-shortened 1994 and 1981 seasons, where winning 96 games would have been a remarkable achievement in each case.


Furthermore, since the inception of the Wild Card, there has been exactly one meeting in the World Series between the best team from each league. That happened in the first year of the Wild Card, when the Braves upset the Indians. This is, if I recall, the purpose of the World Series. Moreover, that Cleveland-Atlanta matchup was one of nine instances in which a team that was 10 or more games worse than its opponent won a series. Such an upset occurred four times in the preceding 14 seasons.*

*The primary culprit was the 1987 Twins, who with 85 wins upset both the 98-win Tigers and 95-win Cardinals.

This issue leads us to a fundamental question about playoffs: Do we want playoffs to iterate the regular season or to reveal a hitherto undiscovered best team?

The answer, of course, is shrouded in gray. If the point is to reproduce regular season results, playoffs become, well, pointless. Simultaneously, the point cannot be to invalidate said regular season results because six months and 162 games should represent something. The playoffs, then, have to strike a balance: The team that wins the World Series should be very good, and if it isn’t the team with the best record in the regular season, it should have to beat that team. That is, after all, how it almost always works in the NBA and NFL.* This has not been the case in Major League Baseball, where there have been more World Series champions with fewer than 90 wins (2) than champions with more than 100 wins (1) since 1995.**

*Super Bowl XLIII, excepted.

**Champions with <90 wins: ’00 NYY (87) and ’06 STL (83)

Champions with >100 wins: ’98 NYY (114)

I can’t imagine you disagree with my claim that the playoffs should be more than a crapshoot. So here’s how we fix them:

1. Punish the Wild Card.

Unfortunately, we’re beyond arguing the legitimacy of the Wild Card. I begrudgingly accept it at this point. Most people agree by now though that the Wild Card shouldn’t be on an equal plane with the rest of the division champions. These people, however, argue that the means to this end is a one-game playoff between two Wild Card teams. I pray I do not need to outline the flaws in this system.*

*There’s really only one flaw: ONE GAME??! What will your reaction be when the 98-win Yankees lose to like an 85-win White Sox team in a ludicrous one-game Wild Card playoff?

Here’s a better idea: The Wild Card doesn’t get any home games. Crazy, right? Want a home game in the playoffs? Win your division.

2. Make the Division Series seven games.

This is another no-brainer that everyone pretty much acknowledges is the right move. Bud Selig has said he can’t make the division series seven games without shortening the regular season; Bud Selig apparently can’t do math. He doesn’t have to shorten the regular season so long as he decides to…

3. Get rid of the plentiful off-days during the playoffs.

The number of off-days during the baseball postseason is absurd. Teams have more off-days in October than they do from July through September. Play the seven-game LDSs in eight days instead of five games in seven days. You lose one day. Problem solved.

Furthermore, getting rid of off-days infuses the postseason with more of a regular-season feel. Short series—and even seven games is relatively short when compared with other sports (even football)—tend to be dominated by great pitchers. If you play a seven-game series with only one day off (before Game 5), no pitcher can start three games unless he goes on two days’ rest. Make teams use four starting pitchers; after all, that’s how most teams win in the regular season.

4. Actually give teams a home-field advantage.

The fact that being 13 games better than the Dodgers last year meant the Cubs got to play one more game at Wrigley Field in a five-game series is laughable. That’s the reward for 162 games? Play the non-Wild Card seven-game division series in a 2-2-3 format. That way, home-field and September mean something, as teams with division leads would battle for the much more crucial home-field advantage.

Now, Pierre knows what you’re thinking. This format, combined with one day off, is travel hell for cross-country series. You’re right. Here’s my rebuttal: So what? A baseball season is travel hell for six months. If you have a cross-country series like Boston-Los Angeles, have a getaway day game, just like in the regular season. Play Game 2 in the afternoon in LA, fly to Boston, and play Game 3 the next night. Teams occasionally have to do this during the season, and the day game after a night game brings the bench into larger focus, as it should be.

5. Seed the teams without regard to division.

Let’s abandon the whole “Wild Card can’t play team from its own division” rule right now because it has no basis in logic. Why not? Why shouldn’t the best team get to play the worst playoff team in its league, regardless of what division that team was in? It works out properly for baseball this year but didn’t last year, when I imagine the Angels would have preferred to face the team socked in white and not red.

These are five fairly simple changes to the Division Series that limit upsets without eliminating them. An underdog team would have to win at least two games on the road; four for a Wild Card. In doing this, we reward teams for winning their division and make the regular season more meaningful. We also lend an ebb and flow to the Division Series, which nowadays tend to end before fans can become interested. I mean, what are the five most memorable Division Series of the last 14 years? I’ll wait.*

*It may seem simple, but then you realize how all the years kind of run together. I’ll give you ’95 SEA-NYY, ’97 CLE-NYY, and ’99 BOS-CLE. But what are the other two? The NYY-OAK series were generally captivating but indistinguishable. The Braves and Astros had that 18-inning game, but I only know that happened some time between 2003 and 2006. Tony Womack had a big hit against the Cardinals, but that happened at like 1 AM EST. Even I, sports historian that I am, cannot remember how many games the various LDSs lasted just last year.

Ahh, but we have one more big change:

6. Make the World Series a nine-game series…again.

When the Fall Classic was instituted in 1903, it featured a first-to-five nine-game series. It abandoned this concept in 1905, brought it back in 1919 for three years, and abandoned it again in 1922.

But why? Determining the champion of a 162-game season shouldn’t come down to a mere seven games, which represent a smaller proportion of the season than the championship in every other major American sport (the NFL’s 1:16 > MLB’s 7:162). And while the number seven has a greater hold on our imagination in general, nine is so much more special in baseball. Nine players, nine innings, nine games to determine a champion. You essentially play three three-game series, with the middle one at the underdog’s stadium.

As for home-field, give it to the team with the best record. Again (negatively), why not? You can’t claim unbalanced schedules, because that’s true across divisions within leagues.* Every other sport gives home-field to the team with the best record. Major League Baseball shouldn’t be different or gimmicky.

*For instance, teams in the AL East play teams in the AL East a lot more than teams in the AL Central, and vice versa. One could argue—and John S probably would—that in a year in which the Central produces the team with the best record, it shouldn’t have home-field because it didn’t play competition as difficult as the winner of the AL East.

There you go, six simple steps to make the postseason watchable again. Of course, Selig could skip all these and achieve the same effect if he just axed Chip Caray.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on October 7, 2009 at 4:26 PM

    Pierre, I appreciate your openness to radical change, and I agree with some of you basic points (make the DS longer, make the WS longer, limit off-days), but your point about the Wild Card is a little off. As I see it, the Wild Card helps make up for divisional imbalance. Look at the AL this year: Under your system, the Red Sox would have to play seven games in LA despite finishing a mere two games worse than them, while the Twins would get a more even series while finishing 15.5 games behind the Yankees. And that’s not even accounting for the quality of wins in each division, given the unbalanced schedule.

    Why not simply seed the playoffs independent of the Wild Card? That would emphasize the regular season (albeit in a different way, highlighting interdivisional races) and it would result in a more fair DS structure. I guess if you really want to emphasize the regular season, then you could still have the 4-seed play all road games, but that seems excessive.

    Reply

  2. Posted by John S on October 7, 2009 at 5:22 PM

    I know I just commented, but Around the Horn just provided a perfect illustration of why these changes will never ever happen, with most of the panel (save Jackie McMullen) acting as if making the Twins play in NY the day after their playoff was the worst injustice since Rwanda. Apparently, 16 more wins should not give the Yankees any advantage whatsoever.

    Jay Mariotti’s Argument: “They don’t do this in other sports. Does the NFL let the best team pick when they want to play.” Yeah, and another thing. Why do they use bats in baseball? THE NFL DOESN’T USE BATS. (The NFL DOES give its best team a BYE, which I guess Jay forgot).

    Woody Paige’s Argument: “Why should the Twins have to play the day after an extra-inning game vs. Detroit?” EXACTLY. Everyone knows about MLB’s “If you play a long game, you get the next day off” rule, right? It’s not like baseball teams ever play on consecutive days in the regular season.

    Tim Cowlishaw’s Argument: “The Twins shouldn’t be punished for having to play on the Tuesday before the playoffs.” This is slightly more sensible; the Twins shouldn’t be punished because the Vikings had to play MNF, but why shouldn’t the Yankees get an advantage for clinching their division earlier? That makes perfect sense to me.

    If people can’t swallow such a minor rule change that results in even the slightest disadvantage, who’s going to accept making the Wild Card team play every game on the road, or limiting off-days, or having a more grueling travel schedule in the postseason?

    Reply

  3. [...] year about this time, I laid out my plans for an entire postseason overhaul. This year, while standing by most of those innovative suggestions — the nine-game World [...]

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