Sports Outside the Beltway

Baseball’s Postseason

This article appeared on my personal blog on October 13, 2006. With regular season baseball seven weeks away, and the post season further down the line, I’m reprinting it here to give some food for thought on baseball’s postseason tournament. The postseason cannot equitably determine the best team of the partcipants. Given the variables involved in winning a baseball game consistently, it would take hundreds of games to equitably determine the best team of the postseason participants. In light of that, my proposal maximizes the marketing benefit, by sacrificing the competitive aspects of a postseason tournament. Purists beware.

Bruce Regal opines that the wild card is broke and needs fixing today over at The Baseball Analysts. The heart of his proposal is this.

I propose that instead of going directly to a four-team tournament, each of the four divisions first have a “Challenge Round” in which the second place team in each division would have an opportunity to catch the first place team in a series of head-to-head games. In effect, the regular season would be extended for up to another 6 games between the first and second place teams, until one or the other clinches the division. If they end up tied at the end of 6 games, they play a seventh game in the form of a one-game playoff. To provide a few examples of how this system would work, suppose divisions ended as they did in 2006. In a Challenge Round, Anaheim (second place, four games behind) would play Oakland needing six wins in seven games; Minnesota (first place) and Detroit (one game behind) would play, with the Tigers needing four wins in six games; and LA and San Diego (who tied for first) would play a full best of seven game Challenge Round series.

First and foremost, Regal failed to consider how he would realign his divisions. Using the final standings in the American League, Detroit, returned to the AL East would play New York in a challenge round. And Minnesota, playing again in the AL West would be challenged by Oakland. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that was exactly how the playoffs shaped up. It’s a simple oversight, and I think it is a minor one in assessing the proposal. In the NL, Philadelphia would need to rip off 12 straight wins to catch the Mets, 13 to get into the playoffs. And that’s where Regal’s system fails. First, St. Louis, who is in the NLCS would be at home watching the playoffs. Second, the idea of letting Philly challenge the Mets with such long odds is a little insulting.

A better solution, one that baseball purists and sabermetricians would probably sneer at, only a marketing wonk could love it (which is my day job, by the way). Baseball should retain the tri-division format. I am not fond of uneven divisions and imbalanced schedules. I get a little sick of playing the Yankees 19 times a year (especially when they take five games from us in August effectively ending our season). But this is what baseball has chosen, and going back to two large divisions is unlikely. So we work with what we have.

Instead of a challenge round, I suggest a pair of play in games. The division winners get the weekend off and two made for television games are played on a Saturday and Sunday night. The games would pit the teams with the fourth and fifth best records in each league in a winner take all format. But the best team might not win. So what?

Seriously, the NFL and College Basketball have compelling playoff formats built around the idea of a series of winner take all contests. And the NFL is proud to say that on any given Sunday, any given team can beat any other. Even though it would take a month of Sundays before the Raiders topped the Bears, folks assume that to be true. If that’s the case, shouldn’t football use a system that makes sure the best teams have a better shot of winning? Humbug. The NFL wisely recognizes the value of compelling drama. Baseball, Basketball and Hockey play longer series to get more gate revenues and to ensure that teams built for the long haul of their seasons have more odds of advancing. They sacrifice the compelling nature of playoff contests by making series. And I feel the LCS and World Series ought to be a contest of that sort. Even if there is only drama in a seventh game, which may or may not exist.

Here’s how it would work. The regular season would conclude on the last Wednesday or Thursday in September. That first weekend in October would be the Major League Baseball Play-In Challenge. The fourth best team in the AL would host the fifth best team in the AL on Saturday Night. The NL would follow suit on Sunday Night. The ALDS would begin on Monday with the best AL record team hosting the winner of the play in game. The other division winners would square off in the other Divisional series. The playoffs would continue as they currently are.

This year, that would mean Detroit would have to beat the White Sox to get to play the Yankees. And in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers would host the Phillies for the right to play the Mets. That would create more playoff possibilities, and give weaker teams a chance at a postseason they would not ordinarily have, while placing a premium on winning your division. Further this year’s also rans like the White Sox, Angels, Toronto, Boston, Houston, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Florida would be in it longer. End of the season games would be more meaningful for a change.

The potential for greater interest in the game would also increase. College basketbal benefits from the creation of “Cinderella stories”. Imagine if a perennial also-ran like Tampa Bay or Kansas City were that fifth best team and they won the play in game. In addition to their fan base, the casual followers would have a rooting interest in cheering for an obvious underdog. Any improvement in ratings improves exposure of the game, enhancing revenues, enriching the teams, and making more competitive pennant races. What more could Major League Baseball want?

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