You may have noticed that baseball fans can be a bit…..sensitive…..toward the idea that anyone might think about holding a meeting to discuss in a theoretical manner the suggestion of a potential adjustment to a minor aspect to what might possibly be called a rule—or should one be vulgar, a tradition—that could perhaps one day change to some infinitesimally small degree the great game of Baseball.
Fans nearly broke out the pitchforks and torches and marched on Commissioner Budenstein’s castle in 1992 when he first introduced wild card teams and a division playoff round. (For the record, though, I haven’t heard anyone bitch about pansy players using gloves in at least a month.)
Considering this Palin-esque attitude toward change, the relative lack of outrage over MLB’s new expanded playoff format is rather surprising—even more so since the new format would have made last year’s incredible final day drama unnecessary. (Boston and Atlanta are reportedly pressuring the Commissioner to make the system retroactive to last September.)
Why the tame response? I think the answer is clear. America* loves the Nationals and Blue Jays.
But seriously, folks. Try the veal.
The new system is not a slam dunk, but I do credit B-b-b-b….
—Ahem— Excuse me.
I do credit B-b-b-bud S-s-sel….
I ‘m sorry. I just can’t say it.
Credit is due for trying to address the primary problem with MLB’s previous format. Teams played 18 games a year against each division rival, but the playoff advantage afforded to division winners was worth less than Mitch Williams in a World Series save situation. The new system will prevent two teams atop their division—and well ahead of other wild card competitors—from coasting to the finish line with meaningless games used only to set up their playoff rotation. (I don’t want to name names, but they rhyme with Hankies and Head Pox.) Division winners deserve more than home field advantage in a short divisional series that already allows a team with weaker pitching to sneak through on the strength of two arms. Besides, you win a division over the course of 162 games. Baseball is finicky, which is why success is measured over multiple games, not just one.
Waaait a minute….then how the hell does a one-game Wild Card playoff make any sense? Well, it doesn’t. A one-game, winner-take-all goes against everything baseball values (longevity, strategic management, meaningful statistical sample sizes, no crying)…but I admit that there is a strange (and no doubt accidental) brilliance to the concept. The Wild Card Play-in Game penalizes division losers not only by subjecting two non-division winners to the vagaries of the Baseball Gods, but also by rewarding pitching depth in the next round, even if only over a short five games. Division winners will have their entire rotation set up and available, but a wild card winner with the pitching depth to prevail through up to six games would prove they deserve to advance to the league championship.
One and done is not ideal, but does provide the perfect answer to teams who bitch about a single game “series” being unfair. Win your division. (Or as Tim McCarver will some day say, “Be a winner, not a whiner!”) Oh, and if you want to a host a playoff game, do try and not be two steps below bronze in your league and expect to be coddled more than the top four teams. (There’s a name for people with such expectations. Millennials.) Your fifth-place team still has a chance to win a trophy. If you want to get all teary eyed about it, then go get a league of your own.
Perhaps baseball will find that a one-game playoff round ends up not being a great idea. I still think two wildcard teams—subject to a disadvantage relative to the division winners—should be preserved. I would suggest a three-game series in which the first two games are played as a doubleheader. Win two, get the next day off. Lose one, the third game is the next day and the winner gets no rest prior to the Division Round. Or if it’s impossible to spare two days, spot the wild card team with the best record a win and then play a best “two out of three” doubleheader. The second wild card needs a sweep to win the round, and the higher seed wild card has a lot of incentive to win the first game. The top wild card team would host all the games. (Again, a fifth-place team should receive no benefits at all. Be happy to be there, and emulate the NFL sixth seed’s occasional road-run to the Super Bowl.)
The one true asinine aspect of the new playoff system is MLB’s rush to implement it this year. The playoff schedule was already set in stone, and fitting in even one extra playoff game meant compacting the division series. I have no idea how this happened, but the only way for the new system to work this year is to let the wild card game winner host the first two games of the five divisional game series. That’s right, folks. The system meant to make winning the division more meaningful screws over the 2012 division champions with two opening road games. Sure, sure, three home games still means “home field advantage,” but no higher seed team wants to risk losing the first game on a fluke and amplify the pressure to win game two on the road. Why couldn’t baseball preserve the integrity of the new system’s ideals by waiting a year?
Oh, right. $854 gabillion in extra revenue. How could I forget that baseball’s Code of Integrity is written in invisible ink on the back of a TV contract?
The folly of cramming in the extra Wild Card elimination game this year is not enough—barely—to prevent me from being in tentative favor of the new setup. It pains me to think that there will be some years akin to last season when the new system might work against true baseball drama, but late season machinations to avoid losing the division or snagging the second Wild Card might make up for it. A man who knows a thing or two about baseball, Bob Costas, best summed up the new playoff system on the Dan Patrick Show last week: “”It’s better than the system it’s replacing, except for in the years that it won’t be.” Here’s to those years being few and far between.
* Includes Canada.