Friday, September 28, 2012

Baseball's new playoffs

Hang Up and Listen started off a recent episode with talk about the baseball season in the midst of the pennant race, with only a couple weeks left before the end of the season. This year's postseason will feature the first time 10 teams will qualify for the playoffs, up from 8 (as it has been since the last expansion in the mid-'90s). The difference is this year in addition to the six division winners there will be two wildcard teams in each league who must face each other in a one-game playoff, vying for the opportunity to then face the team with the best record in a best-of-seven series.

When the leagues realigned into three divisions rather than two, they had to include a fourth non-division winner into the playoffs to have an even number. Previously there were only two division winners per league, so it was already even, but an odd number of divisions necessitated a wildcard. Fair enough. But now expanding the field to include a second wildcard puts MLB in the same position the NFL faces in its postseason: some teams have to play more games in the playoffs than others, which seems categorically unfair.

Granted, part of what baseball sought with the wildcard playoff was to create a bit of advantage to being a division winner, so this unfairness is somewhat intentional. They wanted to avoid the scenario where two teams in the same division had the two best records going in to the last week of the season, with it clear that both would qualify for the playoffs (one as the division winner and the other as the wildcard). There would be no motivation for them to really compete hard in those last games; they'd both end up facing the other division winners in their league in series of equal length (admittedly the wildcard would start that series on the road, but it was still a best-of-seven). There was no justification to push their starting pitching and be depleted once the team made the playoffs to have games 1 and 2 at home rather than games 3 and 4.

So now the teams in that scenario would have to keep battling all the way to the end of the season to lock up the division crown and be ensured a spot in the divisional playoff round, skipping the single wildcard game. Obviously in a best-of-seven a team must put together four games of superiority, but with merely one-and-done format any team can be bested. It also means each wildcard must go with the ace of their pitching staff merely to then go on to the divisional round, so whichever wildcard moves on will have to open that next series with their #2 while the divisional winner gets to start its #1.

As a side benefit (which the league would claim is the primary) it means more fans get to root for their teams and believe they have a chance at the postseason deeper into the regular season.

Some would say this gives benefit to the regular season that other sports like basketball and hockey lack, with their sixteen playoff teams and postseasons that go on for over a month and make the season merely an exercise in seating the teams in the playoffs, not culling out the best and worst teams. And while that criticism is not unwarranted, the playoffs are when the non-hardcore fans pay attention. Much as I appreciate baseball is the sport of tradition, it's also a sport on the wane popularity-wise, and as they're clearly making changes already I'd say if they're going to change, they may as well go all-in.

Will the traditionalists abandon the sport if the leagues cut some games (from what is already far and away the longer season of any sport) to allow for a longer postseason? Perhaps some, but I suspect they'll simply grumble the same way they do now about the designated hitter and keep watching, keep attending games. It's all good and well to think that the point of the sport is to uphold the traditions that fans like to fancy it was built on, but it's about putting on an athletic entertainment for the audience in the stands and on TV so that the owners can make a profit. If you want to see people doing it merely for the love of the game, go to your local little league field. It's free.

If what helps get butts in the seats and ratings on TV is expanded playoffs, that's what will help keep the sport alive. I've written before about how I wouldn't be surprised if we're only a couple generations from soccer being more popular than baseball in the U.S.; that's not suggesting soccer will be on par with what we call football, or even basketball, but that baseball could descend that low.

Maybe baseball should be allowed to go down. The lack of profitability will drive the most talented athletes to other sports, and then the contraction (removal of some teams) that has been resisted will be unavoidable. It will become a niche sport, followed by only the diehard fans, and mentioned only on SportsCenter during… you guessed it… the playoffs.

But on the plus side, the traditionalists will have won out and gotten the A.L. to eliminate the DH. They'll be the only ones still watching, so the owners will have to comply. Also, finances will make it such that there won't be room on the team for someone who cannot play both offense and defense.

I'm not saying I hope that happens; I merely suspect it might. But to think the world's not going to change, whether baseball does or doesn't, is really living in the past.

I merely hope that if it does come to pass that they'll work out a way so every team in the playoffs must win the same number of games to win the championship.

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So, what do you think?