Friday, November 18, 2011

Why I hate the new postseason plan

By Bill

We've known it was coming for a while now, but yesterday it was made more or less official, with the approval of the sale of the Astros to Jim Crane: the Astros will be moving to the AL West, most likely in 2013, giving each division five teams. And it seems a foregone conclusion that another change is headed our way by the 2013 postseason, and perhaps as early as next season, with the addition of two more wild cards, with the two wild cards from each league meeting in a one-game playoff (or play-in, if you will) to determine who advances to the traditional five-game LDS.

In the interest of full disclosure and all that: on this one issue, I'm kind of a traditionalist. Yes, I'd like to see instant replay and/or robot umpires in every feasible instance, including, if possible, computerized ball/strike calls. But here, I'm a regular Bob Costas or Billy Crystal. We've been in the wild card era for eighteen years now, and I'd still really love to see them go back to the four-division, two-playoff-round format that subsisted from 1969 to 1993, and if I'd been alive for the old no-division, two-league, winner-goes-to-the-Series format that had been in place from the turn of the century through '68, I'd probably be in favor of that instead.

It's not entirely nostalgia, though. The thing is that while what happened this year -- the Cardinals winning it all despite being, in terms of full-regular-season performance, probably the worst team in the postseason -- can be fun in its own way, I'd really prefer to see the best team from each league in the Series, or at least to be given a really good chance of getting there. Every expansion to the playoffs cheapens the regular season a little bit. If American League Team X won 105 games in the regular season, and American League Team Y won 88, in almost every case, we already know beyond the shadow of a doubt that X is a better team than Y, so having the two face off in a short series, in which anything can happen, seems counterproductive.

But 18 years is a long time, and I've come to accept that that sort of thing is going to happen in the wild card era. Great teams face off against merely good ones, and the good ones have five games to outplay or out-luck the great ones. That's not ideal, but it happens. And really, in a best-of-five series, the great team still likely (don't quote me on this) has something like a 70-75% chance of winning.

A one-game play-in, though? That's nuts. If you've got evenly matched teams, fine -- it's basically what happened in 2008 and 2009, when the Twins and first the White Sox, then the Tigers ended the season in a tie. But unfortunately, that's not the kind of thing that would happen every year, or even be the norm. You're regularly going to see one team that clearly outplayed the other nonetheless forced into a single do-or-die game against that other team.

From 2000 to 2010, the average gap between the wild card-winning team and the next in line was 6.5 games. What if this system had been in place in 2001? The Oakland A's finished 102-60, with the second-best record in the league...but behind the 116-win Mariners, in their own division. The next-best non-division-winning team was the Twins, who finished at 85-77. So, if the proposed system had been put into place ten years ago, the second-best team in the AL would be forced to play one single game for their lives...against a team they outpaced by seventeen games during the regular season. So they'd have a very close to 50-50 shot at giving up their playoff spot to a team they were clearly, unquestionably much better than.

This is the kind of thing that will happen under this system. And even if it's not a 17-game spread -- even if it's merely six or seven, as has happened repeatedly over the last decade -- you're still faced with the possibility of, in just one little game, losing your entire season to a team to which you've spent the whole regular season proving you're superior. It makes the regular season, at least for that one team, feel like something of a farce.

Let's take a look at a few elements of it you might say are advantages:

1. It makes the division race matter again. This is the big one championed by, among others, Jayson Stark over at the mothership. You don't like having to play one game for your life at the end of the season? Simple solution: win your division! The change makes all three division races important again, which, during much of the wild card era, wasn't the case. What otherwise might have been vital races were rendered essentially meaningless, because the loser was often set up to claim the wild card, the reward for which was little different from winning the division title.

As a traditionalist, you might think I could get behind this one...but not really. As it is, generally speaking, the wild card has a fairly minimal impact on the division races. There's just one wild card vs. three divisions, so in any given year, two of a league's three division races are likely to matter a ton, and often, the wild card winner isn't really in the running for its own division anyway, so it's not the wild card that ruined the race, it just wasn't a race to begin with. So there will be a positive effect on the excitement level of the division races, I think...just a much, much smaller one than you might anticipate.

Moreover, the point, to me, isn't to protect the sanctity of the division title, it's to give ourselves the best shot we can of seeing the best teams in the biggest games...and this doesn't help that, at all. The division winners are still subjected to a five-game series, one of them against a wild card winner who, because of the 50/50 nature of the play-in, might be even considerably worse than the typical wild card winner we're used to, might even have finished in third place in its own division. You've succeeded in making the division races more important, but haven't increased the reward for winning them any; you've merely decreased the reward for making the playoffs without winning the division. Not the same thing.

2. It's more exciting! This one was big for Stark, too, and for Bud (to the extent you think Bud cares about anything but the bottom line). And I suppose it's true; any time you've got one game to decide something, it'll be pretty exciting. But is exciting always the end of everything? We could, as Brian Kenny suggested in the inaugural Clubhouse Confidential episode, make it a one-game World Series -- or even, for that matter, make it all one-and-dones, with a one-game LDS and LCS, too -- and that would be even more exciting. It would also, I hope you'll agree, be kind of terrible. No, really terrible.

So, yes -- that one game would be more exciting, but I find it hard to care about that. In addition, in most seasons, the winner of that one game would still almost certainly be a heavy underdog in the next, five-game series, so it's not as though a win in that one game would be likely to energize a dying fan base or anything like that. You're fighting for your life, but also, you're fighting for the right to most likely lose in the next round. On TBS.

3. It keeps more fans interested in the season. This is what I think TCM was getting at, six weeks or so ago, in noting that as a historical matter, the race for the fifth spot in the league standings -- that second wild card -- has been a very tight one. Of course, that doesn't mean a ton until you've also compared it to the race for the fourth spot, the wild card we already have. Will that race for fifth be more interesting than the race for the current, single wild card? I have no idea.

Also, though, those races will suddenly mean a lot less when the "winner" of them has to face off against another team in one single game that decides its fate. So you've given hope of a postseason berth to a few extra teams per league, but you've also cut the value of that new postseason berth, and that of the #1 wild card spot, almost exactly in half. Is that an improvement? I really don't see how.

So that's it, in a nutshell. Bud's grand plan gives a few more teams a shot at the postseason, but seriously devalues that postseason shot. You might argue that it adds value back into the division races...but the reward for winning the division is still the possibility of losing to a vastly inferior, non-division-winning team. I don't doubt that it marginally increases MLB revenues, though, for the handful of teams that stay in the race later in the season and the teams that get to play that one big play-in game, and since that's essentially Bud's only goal, it's probably accomplishing exactly what he wants it to.

As fans, though, how is this anything but a watering-down of the whole process?


h2h Corner said...

So the crux is, more play-off teams, the greater a lesser team winw the world series (given the SSS crapshoot nature of the play-offs).

I cant disagree with that. I'd, personally, like to see the best 2-4 teams make the play-offs from each League maybe. Ideally couldnt we just merge the leagues and have 6 teams make it with 2 getting byes?

I love baseball, so more games is better, but, as you've noted, we're giving up rewarding the best teams for pure amusement...hard to parse out which is more valuable.

If the Orioles were ever good, I'd want a truer outcome, while they suck i just want to see more philosophy is arbitrary!

Bill said...

I got a notification of a comment from "anonymous" that hasn't shown up here yet, and s/he gets to another point I meant to raise: the comparison to other sports. Yes, other sports let more teams in the playoffs, but other sports' regular seasons have between 10% and 50% of the number of games that baseball's does. Shouldn't we want MLB's regular season to be more meaningful, given how incredibly much goes into it?

Jeff Polman said...

This is going to be a disaster, as soon as that 102-win team losing to the 85-win upstart scenario in a one-gamer happens. I would split all teams into three 10-team divisions (East, Central and West) and take four teams only to the big dance.

David said...

One of the best arguments I read was (I think) on Tom Tango's blog last year. I'm not going to try to find it, but one of the points it made was that, in the Wild Card era, on average, the Wild Card team had a BETTER record than one of the three division winners. On average, the "second" wild card did NOT. Meaning that, with one one wild card, you're letting in a team that only missed the playoffs because they had the bad luck to play in a division with a better team. With the second wild card, on average, you're letting in a team with no claim whatsoever to a playoff berth. That's pretty substantial, I think.

However, h2h, I disagree with your argument. the #1 seed, under the current system, has a 25% chance of getting to the World Series, assuming that winning a series is a 50% chance. Under the new system, that will still be true. The only odds it changes are the odds of the current "first wild card." They get cut in half. Otherwise, things stay exactly the same. That's the only positive thing I can say about this change, because I actually really dislike it, too.

h2h Corner said...

Bill/anonymous' point is something i struggle with.

In talking with my father, an old school baseball fan, he wants to know why something happened in the play-offs. We can nitpick using Feldman in high leverage situations, but really Nelson Cruz making a relatively easy catch, or LOOGYs doing their job and the World Series winner is different.

This is a long winded way of saying that MLB play-offs tend to be a little more random (or at least appear that way) than something like the NFL (i dont watch NBA/NHL really).

We've gotten use to the 6th seed in the NFL winning (Gb, NYG, etc.), as the sport is so injury driven. In addition, i feel like it is easier to prepare to win a football game. Maybe i'm wrong but it seems that football coaches have much more to do with the outcome than baseball managers.

So, to agree with Bill (i suppose), why would we introduce even more uncertainty? I guess it comes down to what you want. I think more wild cards will create more games will create more entertainment (unless you are a fan of one of the "good teams" getting ousted by one of the lesser wild cards) but will dilute the idea of a champion. Were the Cardinals the best team in baseball during the regular season? I dont think anyone would say that, but they are the champions - i'm confused.

h2h Corner said...

@David, good point, I kind of dashed that off.

I meant to say that under the new system, there is a greater chance that one of the better teams loses to a less deserving team, which casts into doubt the value of the regular season.

JimCrikket said...

I'm confused... you say you prefer to see the best teams progress through the playoffs but you don't like the new format?

The new format is designed primarily to do just that! The Cardinals would have had to survive a "one and done" play-in game with Kyle Lohse on the mound against the Braves just to get the opportunity to go up against the Phillies!

I've loved this plan since I first read Tom Verducci pitch it over a year ago mostly because it DOES make winning your division more important and heavily stacks the deck against wild card teams.

Bill said...

Nah, the new system is designed solely to make a bit more money for the owners.

But since you brought it up, how exactly do you think it helps the best teams progress? So the Cards play one more game against the Braves, leaving a good chance that the Braves (who by the end of the season were pretty clearly the inferior of the two) get in...and that's as far as that goes. I'm very confused.

JimCrikket said...

The WC teams get no rest following the end of the regular season, one of them is going to have to get on a plane immediately and fly somewhere to play one game and, even if they win, they'll need to immediately fly to wherever their next opponent plays.

The team who matches up against the surviving WC team will have easily set up their rotation for that series, while the WC teams will have had to use their "ace" or best available pitcher in the play-in game.

Seriously... if you don't think there's a serious disadvantage to being a WC team in the new format vs the current one, where you go in to the LDS on equal footing with your opponent, you'll just have to see how it plays out. To me, it's a no-brainer.

If it was all about more revenue, the WC play-in would have been at least a "best of 3" series (which apparently is what Selig favored, of course). The extra revenue from one extra game in each league will be a drop in the bucket.

Bill said...

That disadvantage will be pretty minimal. The identity of the pitcher starting the game, while it obviously means something, doesn't have the enormous impact most people think it does, and I don't think there's a lot of evidence of travel fatigue really having a huge impact in baseball.

The idea that they might not be doing it for revenue reasons is hilarious. They're counting on a ton of attention for that one little game, PLUS extra revenue for the newly competitive teams toward the end of the season. I think there's a good chance it eventually backfires on them, but there's absolutely no thought in their greedy little heads on this issue other than maximizing revenue.

ReadingPipe said...

I'm with JimCrikkett. I don't really see what the problem with this new system is. Isn't your basic argument that you want to see the best regular season team have the best chance to make it to the world series? Doesn't this format do exactly that?

For instance, if the Cards were forced to play the Braves and won, the playoffs would unfold like they did except the Phillies would have a slight pitching match up advantage. Or if the Cards lost, the Phillies would play the inferior Braves. Both of these outcomes help the Phillies (the best regular season team) make it to the series.

It's not a perfect system, but I don't see how it's any worse than what we have now. Sure, it may result in an inferior team making it to the LDS, but that would be largely offset by the Division winner having a better chance at beating this inferior team.

RA said...

I prefer a best-of-three series at the home of the team with the better record, as it gives the division winners a longer stretch to reset their rotations and recover, and forces the WC teams to burn at least two starters and, likely, their bullpen as well. It would be preferable to watch as a fan as well. The one-game play-in is too ... too NCAA.

JimCrikket said...

I'll stop commenting since clearly you're not interested in a discussion, but only to whine about money. That's fine. It's your blog and if that's your thing, go for it.

But in response to RA, the 3-game series WOULD have been purely for revenue purposes and would have negatively impacted things in many ways... particularly because the division champions would have had to sit around for almost a week before starting their postseasons and it would have resulted in pushing the WS even further in to November, unless you started the season in March. Both are bad ideas.

Bill said...

How is this not a discussion? The problem is that there would be no motivation for the owners to do this if they didn't think it would increase revenue, and you're not at all responding to my point -- it's not just the one game, it's (in their minds) the race leading up to it. I think in their minds the three-game series means less money because it stretches the World Series back to well into November, and doesn't generate the excitement (TV ratings) that an all-or-nothing single game would. Maybe I'm just being unduly cynical, but I'd love to see a coherent argument to the contrary.

Would it be more of a "discussion" if I just blindly agreed with your baseless assertion that making the wildcard teams play an extra game will somehow cripple them?

JimCrikket said...

OK, it's against my better judgment, but I'll bite one more time. But first let me say I've been anti-Bud Selig forever, so agreeing with anything he proposes goes strongly against my instincts.

But if what you're saying is that the owners' motivation is purely financial because they want to see more fans staying interested in races throughout September, then I guess I'd just ask why that's a bad thing.

If it means a team is no longer so unconcerned about winning their division, the way the Yankees were in 2010, that they roll over the last week of the season just so they could cherry pick the opponent they want in the LDS, then I think that's an improvement.

Most importantly, if more teams are within shouting distance of the second WC spot in July and August and, as a result, aren't so quick to trade away players that fans in their cities show up to watch play, that's an argument FOR making the changes, in my book.

If it means a few more teams are putting competitive teams on the field in September instead of a bunch of AA-AAA guys who are completely overmatched by any team that hasn't already given up on their season, why is that a bad thing?

Apparently because, in the mean time, more fans continue to show up for games in more cities in September? That's bad because it means more team revenue to those evil, greedy, owners!

Personally, if it means I have a better chance of seeing real MLB players at September games and my favorite team gets more revenue and can therefore keep or even add talent the following year, I have no problem with the owner making a few more bucks, too.

I'll stop trying to convince you that WC teams will be at a significant disadvantage because we won't have evidence to support either position for several years, when we're able to compare how many WC teams progress to the WS before and after the changes. But I'd be willing to bet there will be fewer WC teams surviving the LDS going forward.

The Common Man said...

It pains The Common Man to agree with JimCrikket and the ridiculously unpleasant way he feels compelled to argue. But TCM does, so here we go.

The Common Man became a baseball fan in 1987 and 1988 as the Twins were a competitive team with a strong core of likable players. When they made the postseason and won the World Series, it cemented TCM's fanship.

If we're interested in the long-term health of the game (as TCM is sure we all are), then it's good to get fans (and especially impressionable kids) interested at a young age. As this expands the opportunity for people to get excited about baseball, it seems to TCM to be a good thing. Or at least not a bad thing.

TCM gets that there are huge drawbacks that make regular season dominance less meaningful. But given that a rising tide lifts all boats, TCM is more than willing to overlook it. While this is a cynical money grab, it is a cynical money grab that has the potential to make the sport stronger.

JimCrikket said...

I'm sorry you find my "style" unpleasant.

I'll leave you to your "discussion".

Be well.

Bill said...

I said I think the owners believe the plan will increase revenue. I expect it to backfire, sooner or later.

Look, there are some good points there. The 50/50 play-in game is so Draconian, though, that I don't know if it'll have those effects you're talking about. You might go all in for a shot at making the playoffs and essentially a one-in-eight chance at making the World Series, but do you spend (or, not sell off) the same resources for what's now a one-in-sixteen shot? Maybe, but I'm not sure teams will, or should.

I still think all the concerns I lay out in the post easily outweigh all this stuff, but I get where you're coming from. We'll see, I guess.

Bill said...

that should say winning, not making, the Series...

Paul Thomas said...

You seem to have ignored perhaps the most pertinent part of this plan: it forces the wild card teams to blow their aces in the opening game, thus giving the #1 overall seed a tangible boost in its first-round series. I see this has been pointed out in prior comments.

Even apart from that, though, increasing the number of different "levels of success" is clearly a good thing. It encourages teams to invest in the on-field product. (I can only imagine how horrible the old format would be in this day and age. Some huge percentage of the teams wouldn't even bother TRYING to compete in a given season.) Teams with a puncher's chance at the postseason are much more likely to spend, deal, and improve than teams with no chance. And teams that are already dominant will have more incentive to take action to stay that way, as they'll want to insure themselves against the risk of ending up in a white-knuckle one game playoff.

It's basically beyond dispute that this plan will increase the number of compelling regular season games. It will probably have a very slight negative impact on the average quality of first-round postseason teams, but the postseason is not, despite what you appear to believe, about crowning the best team champion. If you wanted to do that, playoffs wouldn't be either necessary or a good idea. And because the playoffs are seeded, it may actually increase the average quality of World Series teams.

I'm really, really not seeing the downsides here.