The Sports Revolution: Saving the Division Series

Last 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 Series, in particular — I want to revisit the aspect of the Major League Baseball postseason that I, and every baseball fan I know,* continues to find most troubling.

*I do not know John S.

I speak, of course, of the Division Series.

The Division Series — scourge of the favorite and the underdog alike, a duality best occupied, it seems, by the Minnesota Twins. The Division Series — where a season of tidings of comfort and joy can come crashing down in four days. The Division Series — where baseball’s postseason most trivializes its regular-season and creates fundamental questions regarding the justice of its champion. The Division Series — why does it drop the “League” when the LCS never does?*

*Methinks the answer lay in an aversion to a certain FX television program. Perhaps I’ve anthropomorphized too much. That, or they don’t want to confuse members of the Latter-Day Saints.

Like last season, I shall organize my thoughts in bulleted, emboldened form. While this is not Pierre’s normal modus operandi, it is in his mind the only way he can properly and cohesively address all the issues presented by this improper and incohesive round of playoffs.

1. The Division Series must be seven games.

I made this point last year, but it bears repeating. This might be the only instance in the history of professional sports where a league had a postseason round that was shorter than it should be. The Major League Baseball season lasts 162 games. The Division Series lasts five. This postseason shrinkage is the equivalent of the NFL’s Wild Card Weekend games lasting roughly one half. Or the NBA and NHL’s first rounds being a race to 1.5 wins. It is, in short, absurd. That six months of achievement are boiled down to as few as three games causes Pierre to sympathize for those fans whose teams lose in the round — his, of course, never has and never will. Is it even worth making the playoffs at all? Congratulations, Cincinnati, after a 15-year drought, it rained playoff baseball for three days?

Furthermore, making the Division Series seven games adds at least one game of extra ticket revenue, more television revenue with more broadcasts, and guarantees that each team hosts at least two games.

I do, however, stand by what I said last season: The format of the Division Series — and the LCS, for that matter — should be 2-2-3, with the team with the better record receiving five home games. Additionally, there should be a single off-day in the series, positioned between Games 2 and 3. The series should start on Tuesday and Wednesday, not Wednesday and Thursday, following the end of the season. The games should be carried by two networks instead of one, and they don’t need to be broadcast separately of one another; hasn’t MLB learned anything from college basketball? Stagger the games, so that you miss the first few innings of one while watching the end of another.*

*On separate stations, obviously. Hypothetically, TBS would carry games scheduled 3.5 hours apart, and FOX would carry others scheduled 3.5 hours apart. Every inning of every game would still be broadcast nationally; it’s just more than one game can air at the same time.

2. The Wild Card must be punished, but wisely.

The Wild Card is celebrating its Sweet Sixteen this year, and yet we still don’t know how to deal with it. Clearly, the team that claims the Wild Card in each league should not have just as easy a road to the World Series as a team that wins its division — regardless of their records.* Sixteen years of data, furthermore, have illustrated with nary a doubt that playing one extra game on the road in each round — virtually the same treatment as the division winner with the worst record — is not sufficient punishment for the Wild Card. Something must be done.

*You want to cry about divisional imbalance? Well, fix the problem; don’t compensate for it. And you fix it with a salary cap.

And rumor has it that something will be done by Major League Baseball for 2011. Unfortunately, this something is to add a second Wild Card team in each league, which would then face off with the first Wild Card in either a sudden-death or best-of-three series. Pierre briefly mentioned this idea last season, but dismissed it, saying simply, “I pray I do not need to outline the flaws in this system.” Now, however, it is gaining serious traction, even among astute baseball minds such as Baseball Hall of Famer Bill Madden and NPI Hall of Famer Joe Posnanski.

Why is this idea bad? Do you mind if this becomes an outline?

A. The reason a Wild Card was added in the first place in 1994 was to even the playoffs out and avoid any kind of bye system with three divisions. If you add a second Wild Card — unless you add three more on top of it — you undercut that basic premise. You’d do just as well — nay, you’d do better — to eliminate the Wild Card altogether. In this way, you punish the Wild Card (by not even letting it in the playoffs), and you bring back a sense of a pennant race again.

    B. Further dilution of the playoffs renders the regular-season less and less significant. The Yankees and Rays just played out one of the least exciting division races in baseball history, and adding a fifth playoff team in each league would suck even more drama out of the final weeks of the year. Would it really have been more fun in the National League if the Giants, Braves, and Padres were all guaranteed playoff berths before what turned out to be one of the best final weekends in years?

      C. You find me a team that has been left out of the playoffs over the last 16 years that really deserved to be in, and I will ask you to find me someone after the 1999 Cincinnati Reds. (who won 96 games, three more than any other team left out of the playoffs. Only 11 of the teams that would have earned the additional berth since 1995 would be 90+-game winners). Do you really think the Boston Red Sox, with their cavalcade of has-beens, never-wases, and never-will-bes in center and left, deserved a postseason berth this season?

        D. If you want to talk about divisional imbalance, the obvious distinction should be made between the fourth and fifth teams in a league. Pierre does not agree with you that a 95-win Yankees’ team necessarily deserves a playoff berth because they would have won another division, but he can sympathize with the point of view. The same cannot be said for arguing that a third-place team (Boston) or a second-place team that didn’t finish ahead of any division winners (San Diego) also merit postseason action.

          E. Reducing a 162-game season to three — or God help us all, one — is the only thing more absurd than reducing it to five. This does not compare to the so-called Game 163s that have been played with increasing regularity; in those instances, the teams were tied, and it makes sense to have a one-game, sudden-death playoff. In a double Wild Card system, the difference between the first Wild Card and the second Wild Card is apt to be every bit as big as the difference between the best and worst playoff teams now (seriously, in 2001, the 102-win A’s would have been forced to play a one-game playoff with the 85-77 Twins???).

            So, what does Pierre advocate? Well, let’s take the primary idea behind the otherwise incredibly doltish “Second Wild Card” concept and apply it without changing the postseason. They — here defined as Madden, Posnanski, and a loose group of American Tea Partiers — want to punish the Wild Card by forcing it to use its top pitcher in a one-game playoff with an inferior team. It stands to reason that this is enough punishment. So, let’s eliminate the one-game playoff with an inferior team, and keep the caveat: The Wild Card cannot start its best pitcher in Game 1. How do we define its best pitcher? We don’t have to; the Wild Card’s opponent will do that for us. Minnesota, then, can say, We’d actually prefer not to see CC Sabathia in Game 1. Sorry, you’ll have to hold off on him. That starter can still appear in any other games of this Division Series, just not Game 1. I admit it’s not a huge punishment, but it is something, especially when combined with the 2-2-3 format and the decreased number of off-days.

            3. Forget seeding altogether, and let the team with the best record decide who it wants to play.

            This, mon ami, is where Pierre slipped up last year. He wanted the Wild Card to be last, and he wanted it to play all its games on the road. The problem with this idea, though, is that the Wild Card is not necessarily the worst team, and in punishing the Wild Card, we shan’t punish the best team concomitantly.

            Imagine the following, very-close-to-happening scenario from this season: The Twins win two more games and claim the American League’s best record for the second time in their history. Their reward? Why, the same as it was anyway: a first-round date with the Yankees. Now, the Yankees are clearly a bad matchup for the Twins. It seems to me that Minnesota would rather play any team besides the Yankees in a first-round series, up to and including the 1975 Cincinnati Reds; shouldn’t they be afforded that opportunity? Let the Twins decide whether they want the Wild Card Yankees, the Rays, or the Rangers! It adds some strategy, provides more reason to finish with the league’s best record and much less reason to tank down the stretch to ensure a certain opponent, gives a team some bulletin board material, and gives us a great storyline — the stories debating who a team would prefer to play would now actually matter instead of being idle speculation.

            (Incidentally, the NFL also needs to enact this idea pronto for the second round of its playoffs, where the system is even more unfair, since under the new divisional structure, 6-seeds are often better than 4-seeds.)

            This makes the Division Series, in a word, worthwhile. There’s a legitimate race to claim a league’s best record so you can choose your opponent, and a legitimate race in each division so you can use your best starting pitcher whenever you want. With seven games, the chances of something anomalous — a bad call, an aberrational pitching performance — may not be eliminated, but they are at least reduced. And baseball can, once again, crown a rightful champion after a month of intense, legitimate competition.

            4 responses to this post.

            1. Posted by John S on October 18, 2010 at 6:24 PM

              Pierre, while I don’t share your disdain for the Division Series, I’m actually with you on most of this. I think we should make the first round 7 games (if not to offset upsets, then just to make the series more substantive and memorable), and I’m with you on making the round 2-2-3. I even like your ideas about letting the #1 seed pick its opponent and bench a pitcher for a game (though I think the latter may be a bit too gimmicky).

              The only real place where we disagree is your desire to “punish” the Wild Card, which I don’t understand. Why should the Yankees be punished because they play in a better division than the Rangers? And your whole “you want to cry about divisional imbalance? Well, fix the problem; don’t compensate for it. And you fix it with a salary cap” bit is kind of like saying, “You want to cry about not being able to afford expensive chemotherapy? Well, fix the problem: Cure cancer.” It’s not quite as easy as it sounds. The fact is that there is divisional imbalance, so we might as well accept it and try to mediate it.

              The solution (other than the mythical salary cap) is to seed the playoff teams 1-4 independent of Division winners and Wild Cards. The 1-seed gets to pick its first round opponent and play 2-2-3 in the DS and LCS. The 2-seed gets home-field in the first round, but has to use the more traditional 2-3-2 format. The 4-seed has to play 2-2-3 in both rounds, meaning it always has to win two road games to win a series. This way there are real incentives for finishing higher and punishments for finishing lower even amongst teams that clinch a playoff spot.


              • Monsieur S —

                You must not blame me for being a bit perplexed by your disagreement here, given your earlier pronouncements on the Division Series ( In your own piece on the matter, you said a difference in a few wins could largely be based on divisional imbalance — that a team may win more games in one division than it would have won in another one — and thus, some upsets in the round were not, in fact, upsets.

                But here, you decry the unfairness of punishing the Yankees “because they play in a better division than the Rangers.” But how do we know that the American League East is a better division than the American League West? Just because more wins were required to win it? You know as well as I do that wins, as a statistic in baseball, are on the way out. They are not made equal among divisions in an unbalanced schedule, just as they are not made equal for pitchers.

                Furthermore, your hypothesis appears on the verge of serious testing: How much can you stand by your AL East > AL West supposition when the Rangers beat both the Rays and Yankees? And if you stand by it, aren’t you simply admitting that these postseason series lead to anomalous results, which would be against your own earlier argument? Your seeding also seems hypocritical; how can we base it all on records with an unbalanced schedule?

                I also tire of the way you make extreme medical extrapolations in response to my posts, previously seen here:

                We need not “accept” the problem of sustained divisional imbalance; by refusing to compensate for it, we challenge it to be fixed. The only way of implementing this “mythical” salary cap — your adjective is cute if misguided; it’s akin to calling kangaroos “mythical” because they exist elsewhere but not here — is by exposing certain teams to its systemic flaws. Much like the BCS (which Pierre likes, by the way, but for completely different reasons), the system won’t be fixed until the monoliths are screwed, until the SEC has an undefeated team miss the title game (who isn’t Auburn), until the Yankees and/or Red Sox start missing the playoffs regularly because they play in the other’s division.


                • Posted by John S on October 21, 2010 at 12:29 AM


                  Let’s start with your last point: While I generally see the point in your comparison of divisional imbalance and the BCS (a point which I in fact raised in regard to the later), I don’t think your conclusions are right. The Yankees/Red Sox will never, under any reasonable circumstances, call for a salary cap (your only proposed “solution” to the problem of divisional imbalance). It can only hurt them. If one of those teams starts regularly missing the playoffs, it would sooner call for realignment than it would a salary cap.

                  As for the rest of your argument, you are guilty of some obvious lapses of logic, mon frere: “How much can you stand by your AL East > AL West supposition when the Rangers beat both the Rays and Yankees?” Even if the Rangers do beat the Yankees (which is not certain), this is faulty logic. Just because the best team in Division A is better than the best team in Division B, it does not necessarily follow that A is better than B.

                  We know that the AL East was better than the AL West because not just because it took more wins to win the division, but also because teams in the AL East averaged 86 wins and teams in the AL West averaged 78. The AL East had four teams over .500; the West had only one. By no measure did the AL West outperform the AL East. And yet a six game difference between the Rangers and Rays is not definitive proof of one team’s quality. For one, the Rangers may have played differently due to the fact that they, unlike the Rays, were not in a pennant race. The Rangers win is certainly an upset, but not a fluke that baseball fans ought to decry.

                  And, finally, even though differences of a handful of games aren’t that big of a deal, we still want individual games to matter–that’s the only way to preserve the September pennant races. So a team’s record should matter more than what division it happens to play in.


            2. Posted by John S on November 3, 2010 at 4:23 PM

              I just thought of another point that both us seemed to miss in our debate: Namely, that a salary cap would only fix the problem of systemic divisional imbalance. It wouldn’t change the fact that in a given year one division might be much better than another. One need only look at the NFL’s NFC West this season for proof that a salary cap can’t completely eliminate unbalanced divisions. So the idea of “punishing the Wild Card” still seems strange.


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