Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Baseball Post

Yeah, we've got a new playoff system. No, I'm not particularly happy about it. I continue to believe that the real problem here is Bud Selig, who makes changes on the fly in response to (1) his personal preferences and (2) the last thing that went wrong. It's no way to run a multi-billion dollar industry.

However, I do take issue with some of the complaints about the new system. In particular -- and I'm very late to respond to this, but the issue alas isn't going away -- I'm going to disagree with some of the usually very sensible Joe Sheehan's comments in SI.

Joe's complaint is that the new system can, in the right circumstances, be brutal for the second-best team in a league. He lays out the worst-case scenario, in which two great teams are in close competition for a division title. Since avoiding the WC play-in game (or as he calls it, the Coin Flip game) is a big deal, both teams would go all-out to the last day. Meanwhile, if it played out the right way, some inferior team could have a lock on the 2nd WC slot and rest and set its rotation for the game.

Well, OK. That stinks for the second-best team. But Joe's solution is to dump the WC altogether go with just three playoff teams per league, giving the top one of the three a bye round. I don't really get this. How is it better to just send the losing great team home rather than giving them a 50/50 chance to continue on?

Not that I care a lot about second place teams: I don't think that the system should be designed to be "fair" to them. They lost; they're lucky, as far as I'm concerned, to continue on at all. If they're improperly seeded or otherwise disadvantaged, tough luck.

So which do I prefer: the 1995-2011 system with one WC; Selig's new 2WC "fix"; or Joe's division winners only? This is where I'm pragmatic. Joe notes (fairly, I think) that the "division series" round of playoffs hasn't exactly been a big success, and believes that baseball wouldn't be losing much if they removed half of that round by eliminating one series per league. I'm willing to buy his preference for eliminating the WC in the abstract, but I just can't expect MLB to leave money on the table. Even if it's not a huge amount of money. And it's not just the postseason games; it's also that eliminating the WC is going to hurt attendance and ratings for some middling teams, teams that remain plausible winners thanks to the WC. For me, as a die-hard fan, I like Joe's solution -- but then again, for me, as a die-hard fan, I'd be even happier returning to the 1969-1993 system and just living with 7 or 8 team division. But while I'm going to listen to or watch (almost) as many games either way, and if I lived in a major league city I'd attend as many games either way, I know that overall keeping .500 teams alive makes money for them.  So I suppose I'd say Sheehan > Selig > old status quo -- but I understand why MLB wouldn't consider Joe's plan.

At any rate: I'm confident that if baseball hired, say, Dan Okrent (who knows a thing or two about game design); Matthew Shuggart (who knows a thing or two about institutional design); Joe Sheehan; and, well, me -- and gave us access to the financial information necessary, we could without very much trouble come up with a system that would give baseball both a meaningful, exciting regular season and a fun and exciting postseason. You all know what mine would look like, but I'm very open to beating it.


  1. I prefer round-robin systems where everyone plays everyone as much as is possible, and then only a few games at the end to nail down the differences as a playoff.

    I have to admit not even understanding the current system.

  2. My problem with the new system is that it is only one game. That is incredibly unfair as baseball is about the depth of your roster. My solution is fewer off days and more scheduled double headers. This would allow the regular season to end, say, 2 weeks sooner. Then there would be time for at least a 3 or 5 game series between the wild card teams. Even better would be to get rid of divisions altogether, have a balanced scheduled (I hate seeing my team play the same opponents over and over), take the 5 teams with the best records in each league, seed them, and have the 4th and 5th teams play in the wild card round.

  3. I've said this before, and I'll say it again.

    1. Add two teams, to create 2 leagues of 16 teams each (in 4, 4-team, or 2, 8-team divisions).

    2. If we go with the 4-division league, the division champs make the playoffs. If we go with the 8-team division league, the two top teams in each division make the playoffs.

    3. So, four teams from each leage in the playoffs. Make the series best-of-7.

    And done. But, then, I believe that expansion is a good idea, which I recognize is a minority opinion.

  4. If the problem is keeping the .500 teams financially above water, then we have too many teams. I totally disagree with Doc.

    I also disagree with your cavalier attitude to the 2nd place team, if 2nd place is defined by a one game play-off. The unfairness is with respect to the next best contender, who has even less of a right to be there, and winds up with an advantage. So your reasoning is way off base.

    I think it was Bill Veeck who 50+ years ago said that baseball is too much of a sport to be a good business, and too much of a business to be a good sport.

    This mess shows how right he was.


  5. If it were up to me, I'd scrap the current DS/CS (and upcoming WC/DS/CS) playoff system for a round-robin tournament.

    Four (or six) teams qualify — division winners and wild card(s). Each team plays a three game series against each of the qualifying post-season teams in their league, with the higher seeded team having home field advantage. (If you go six teams, there would have to be some variant of this; the first seeded team shouldn't play all fifteen games at home, nor should the sixth seeded team play fifteen straight road games.) Also, off days should be rare, not between each series on travel days. The team with the best record in the post-season round-robin in each league advances to the World Series.

    This condenses the post-season, and it also gives the networks a more consistent number of games to broadcast.

  6. At a certain level, Sheehan's argument is self-refuting. He notes that the 2008 Rays/Yankees non-race was anticlimactic since its outcome didn't affect anything; the 2nd WC changes that, which Sheehan acknowledges - but nevertheless doesn't like because its unfair.

    Which seems to suggest that for Sheehan fairness > drama. I suppose for a certain type of deeply-committed purist that might make sense, but as a marketing principle its just dead wrong.

  7. Ooo, more cross-division play would be nice, especially if it were local teams. Less travel, fans would be more inclined to follow the teams, more draw in local air markets.

  8. Well, look, I'm of two minds on this.

    On the one hand, my perfect alignment is 24 teams in 4 divisions, with no wild cards. Just the LCS and World Series. That's what would make me happy.

    On the other hand, I'm very conscious that the only reason I prefer this is because I grew up with it and it seems "normal" to me. (Actually I grew up with 26 teams, but the uneven divisions always bugged me, and 24 teams makes a better schedule than 28.) I used to laugh at older people who didn't like the LCS or division play because they grew up with 16 teams and no divisions, and therefore younger people are well within their rights to laugh at me because I don't like the wild card.

    That said, as you indicate, it's never going to happen. MLB has realized that expanded playoffs make money, and there's no going back from that. Halcyon memories just don't trump even two additional dollars in the league's collective mind, and probably shouldn't. Change or die in the marketplace, after all.

    So we're probably left with three choices: The old wild card format, the new wild card format, or fully expanded playoffs like the NBA or NHL have. Since the last option would probably includes shortening the regular season schedule, which I know is popular but I would hate and the league would dislike, we're really left with two options.

    Of those, I prefer the new way to the old way. At least the division winners have been elevated over the wild cards teams now. The unfairness of the single game just doesn't bother me much, since I don't think either of them should be in the playoffs to begin with.

    Did that make sense? Probably not. Either way, rant over.

  9. Just hit me tonight that Selig's latest maneuver might be his masterstroke; though for the most part purists dislike the 2nd WC, this may be for the best for the game.

    We've had 17 full seasons in the WC era; the distribution of WCs in the NL is pretty equitable, with 5 from the East, 6 from the Central and 6 from the West. That could reflect parity, but Selig knows its more likely that teams like the deep-pocketed Mets have underperformed vs. their resources, with only 3 playoff appearances in 17 years. If the Mets revert to what their resources suggest, and the Marlins' new big-spending ways succeed, Selig will have a East-Division tilt in his NL playoffs.

    Which is what he has in the AL. In 17 years of the WC, an eye-popping 13 have come from the AL East. Except for a few cute Rays stories, those are essentially all Yankees/Sox teams. Selig does not know how to level that playing field, nor does he particularly want to.

    However, 13/17 WCs from the East means few in the West (3) and Central (1). The five teams in the AL Central are all from small/fading (Chicago = south side in particular) markets. Unless they occasionally succeed with Moneyball-type arbitrage, they will never break the stranglehold of the Yanks/Sox money.

    But here's the thing: as much as a guy like Sheehan complains about fairness, we like history more. We don't asterisk the '87 Twins because they only won 85 games, or the '06 Cards because they won 83. We don't care. We say we do, but we don't. We like excitement, we dislike theory.

    In summary, what Selig has done is give another route into the playoffs for small market teams in the NL Central, plus smallish market teams like Baltimore and Toronto, while eliciting ultimately-hollow complaints that will be quickly forgotten once the first pitch is thrown opening day.

    Another brilliant move from the deceptively dufus-looking Bud Selig.

    1. *Last full paragraph: meant to say "AL Central", not "NL Central", though the conclusion would also apply to the NL Central if the Mets get their acts together and the Marlins take off.


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