Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Thinking about Bobby Thomson reminds me of how bitter I am at Bud Selig for taking pennant races away.  What happened in 1951 could not happen today.  Could not.  Since Selig killed pennant races by adding the Wild Card, it became impossible for two great teams to fight for a playoff spot; moreover, with three tiers of playoffs, even when two teams fight down to the final game it's 50/50 that the winner won't make it to the second round, and a longshot for that team to make it to the World Series. 

Baseball is a business (among other things), and I'm not going to ask them to leave money on the table.  They can sell three playoff rounds, so they're going to have three playoff rounds.  Moreover, I can't blame them for wanting more teams staying alive farther into the season.  The truth is that a lot of teams in the days of 16 teams, two leagues (not to mention 20 teams, two leagues) were playing in front of pretty much no one once their season was over in June.  They didn't solve a phony problem with the three divisions plus a WC setup; they just chose the wrong solution.

One more time: Each league gets two divisions.  The first place teams advance.  The second place teams advance.  The first round matches the division winners against the other division's second place teams, and gives the champs a large advantage...something like needing two games to advance while the other team needs three wins (I'd also give them the entire series at home, but the details aren't that important; the key is only that the advantage has to be sufficient that winning the division clearly matters...I'd probably want the first place team to win about 80% of the time).  Then the winners advance to the LCS as equals: if an underdog manages to knock off a division winner in the first round, they have no further disadvantages going forward. 

That's it.  Promote the hell out of the last week of the season (Pennant Week!).  Sell it to ESPN or TBS, putting at least one game on every day as long as the playoff slots are still up for grabs.  Yes, a team such as the 1993 Giants (second place with 103 wins) gets screwed to some extent, because they probably won't beat the Phillies to advance...but that's OK: they get to try, up to that point they would be (as the 1993 Giants actually were) desperate to beat the Braves for the division title, because it would mean something again.  Once more, Bobby Thomson -- and Bucky Dent -- are possible.  Meanwhile, competition for playoff spots is once more restricted to division rivals, meaning that serious rivalries will build up over time, and the chances are much higher that teams competing for a spot will play each other over the final two weeks of the season, as Detroit and Toronto memorably did in 1987. 

Now, it's true that in a year like 1993 in the NL West, the teams hanging around at the .500 mark in July and August will be in worse shape than they would in the current setup.  That's a real cost, although it won't happen every year, and in the long run I tend to think it's good for MLB to encourage sub-500 teams to plan for the future, instead of hoping to get lucky and sneak into the WC.  But the main thing is that baseball would return to taking advantage of its long season.  Pennant races were great because they generated great stories -- as a Giants fan, I think of (among others) 1908, 1951, 1962, 1982, and 1993.  I can't prove that these great stories are a big part of what made baseball fans love the game so much, but I do believe it's true, and I think it's a shame that it's gone.  Especially since a fix is available.  Sure wish they would do it.

12 comments:

  1. Yeah, as a Cubs fan, I think of 1908 too. Except the thought process unfortunately stops there. :-/

    (As David Letterman once said, one of the top ten reasons the Cubs haven't won the World Series since then is that "conferences on the mound quickly degenerate into reminiscing about that great 1908 team." But I digress.)

    I think the problem with the model you're describing is that fans would have a hard time accepting a big imbalance built into a given series, like one team needing fewer wins than the other or getting to play all the games at home. I mean, you could extend such logic and say that one team gets an extra fielder or a fourth out every inning, but I think there'd be a fan revolt. I could be wrong, but I think fans instinctively feel that once teams are facing each other mano-a-mano (whatever formula put them there), the playing field should be level, as it were, at least for the duration of that encounter.

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  2. What do Bobby Thomson, Bucky Dent and the 1993 Braves have in common? All three were the culmination of a desperate, August/September charge from 10+ back to win a pennant/division.

    Is the massive charge from way back the reason those races are the most memorable? Detroit/Toronto '87 was a great finish, and IIRC Toronto was ahead most of the season, but nothing like the '51 Dodgers/'78 Sox/'93 Giants.

    One of the positives of the proposal is that it returns that mano-a-mano feel of those great playoff chases (in contrast to the current situation where wild cards are realistically contested by a half-dozen non-descript teams per league in mid-August).

    However, too much imbalance in the "wild card" (quarterfinal) may diminish the appeal of those desperate pennant chases. The fact that the baseball playoffs are essentially a lottery, with 83-win Cardinal or 85-win Twin teams as respectable world champions, may make those late season races more interesting - just getting to the playoffs pretty much puts you on equal footing for being champion. Putting too many barriers up for a particular class of playoff team may make those late season chases less exciting.

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  3. Jeff,

    I'm confident that if they implemented it, people would get used to it pretty rapidly. No question, the first time that a 90-72 first place team got a seeding advantage over a 98-64 second place team from the other division, you would hear a lot of complaints...and then people would get over it.

    BTW, I forgot to mention one of the other advantages of my system: teams competing for a playoff spot would be playing the same schedule, or at least real close (assuming that we can't get rid of interleague). You would certainly keep the unbalanced schedule, which would (with 8 or 7 team divisions) be the bulk of each team's schedule...probably one home & away series each with the other division, with the handful of interleague games the only difference between two same-division teams' schedule. That compares very nicely to today's system, in which significant strength-of-schedule differences exist between WC rivals. It also, of course, would mean that we wouldn't really know whether the 98 win team was better than the 92 win team from the other division, not that that will help things much. But no one thought it was unfair that whoever finished 2nd in the NL West in 1973 had to stay home...people are pretty willing to accept various different systems.

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  4. By "WC," do you mean World Series? (Not "West Coast," I take it.) Or maybe "World Ceres"? Interesting bit of Latin there.

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  5. I believe WC means "wild card."

    I actually like this proposed two-division setup. My only difference with Johnathon is that I'm more of a fan of interleague play. In fact, I think every team should play one three-game series per year against each team in the other league. It's bizarre that baseball has the longest season of any major sport but doesn't have every team play every other team every year. Talk about not taking advantage of your long season.

    Of course, this kind of expanded interleague play leaves fewer in-league games, but it's still possible to play an unbalanced schedule, albeit not as unbalanced as the old days. However, this would probably be an advantage in selling the system to the owners. Specifically, the stakes won't be as high in the fight to determine which east-of-the-Mississippi NL team goes to the Western division if the split in league games is approximately 10-6 for division teams vs. non-division teams, as opposed to the 20-6 proposed unbalanced schedule that made the Cubs fight tooth and nail against Faye Vincent's realignment scheme.

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  6. "I think the problem with the model you're describing is that fans would have a hard time accepting a big imbalance built into a given series, like one team needing fewer wins than the other or getting to play all the games at home."

    I agree with Jeff, except as to getting to play all the games at home. I think this is an excellent reward for finishing first, and would not seem unfair, particularly if you are contemplating a five game series for this round.

    PS. I still haven't forgiven Bill Madlock or the umpiring crew for the illegal slide that injured Fernandez and was probably most responsible for Tigers catching the Jays

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  7. Since yours'll never happen, I'll stump for my solution that'll never happen...

    Expand to 40 teams. Add teams in Montreal, third & fourth teams in NY, a third in the Chicago suburbs (Naperville?), a third Texas team, Portland, Memphis, Salt Lake City, a Mexican team and another Midwestern or 3rd Canadian team.

    The ultimate goal would be eight five team divisions. Under that scenario, the first place teams would be roughly equivalent to division winners we see today.

    To prevent a massive shock, it could be phased in at two teams added every two years. That intervening time could be used to experiment with different formats(8 four team divisions, 4 nine team divisions, etc.).

    For those who'd say, "TALENT DILUTION!!!!" Well, talent dilution would be a good thing. The 320 players added to MLB would be good enough to make a MLB roster at just about every point in its history.

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  8. Some Guy,

    Sounds OK to me. I have no doubt that there are enough players and fans to support 40 teams, but I do think that large leagues do have their problems...it means that the average team wins it all every 40 years, which means that a lot of teams won't win it all in the lifetime of their fans.

    If we really wanted pie-in-the-sky stuff, what I'd think about is to return to the 1969-1976 24 teams, four six team divisions, with a free 24 team AAA high minors and promotion/relegation. I'm not certain that I like it better, and I'm not certain that you could figure out a way to really make it work, but it has a lot of advantages.

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  9. I'm a Cubs fan, so my team's 34% of the way into a second lifetime without winning it all.

    I'm not a huge fan of relegation schemes, though yours is the best one I've seen. It comes down to taste, but I like the idea of a stable stable of franchises in a league. Also, people would throw fits if a traditional team (Cubs, Yankees, Red Sox) got relegated.

    As to your main proposal...I think just allowing division winner to play all of the games at home would make the LDS a 57/43 proposition which is closer to the advantage I would think would be fair. But, probably not enough to create a pennant race. Again, a matter of taste.

    I know you're not concerned with the details and I don't have time to do the math, but it would seem like allowing the division winners to win only 2 games might overshoot the mark a bit. And it would cut off a few of the potential combinations that currently exist for the WC: WLWLW, WWLLW, LWWLL, LLWWW, WLLWW, LWLWW. Those games 4 and 5 you're missing are real money.

    The real problem is that only the original pennant races are enough to make it feel special. Approximating it is great, but it'll never really be as special when there are 7 other playoff teams.

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  10. I agree that promotion/relegation isn't going to happen.

    As far as leaving money on the table...you could always go to a first to 4 wins/first to 3 wins setup to get back those games.

    Yeah, multiple races takes something away from it no matter what, but we had plenty of great and memorable ones during 1969-1993, and I think under my proposal we'd be close to that, although it wouldn't be quite the same.

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  11. WC, WS..... As you can see, I'm not really that familiar with the postseason. Comes from being a lifelong Cubs fan.

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  12. I don't mind the two divisions/both first place teams/bioth second place teams go to the playoffs and then each first plays the opposite second in each league.

    But I think just a straight seven-game series in each round makes more sense and would be more acceptable.

    You might still (especially if the current AL East is all in one division) get one third-place team screwed, based on won/lost, but tough beans.

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