Monday, October 1, 2007

Balking at October Baseball

It’s over now. The lazy, comfortable rhythm. The hundred and eighty-odd languid days in which – unless you’re a Padres or Rockies fan – the importance of any single win or any single loss approaches zero. The dynamic which gives the game its friendly, genial character. The regular-season games which, above all else, represent an invitation to slow down and relax. To ditch the teleconference, play hooky from work, go grab some friends, head out to the cheap seats, take your shirt off, drink a beer, and soak up a little sun.

As of late yesterday afternoon, baseball the pastime gave way to baseball the contest, and the lazy, sweetness of the regular season will now be replaced by winner-take-all hysteria. In your face post-season baseball in which crowds erupt with every pitch, every at-bat takes on outsized importance, and every game leaves you reaching for the Maalox.

I have a confession to make: I hate almost all of it.

Well, maybe hate is too strong a word. I'll watch the playoffs closely and enjoy most of it. But, as it is every year, I will never be able to get past just how different the playoffs are from everything I love about baseball in the first place. During the playoffs I can never shake the feeling that, due to something extra or something missing (I'm really not sure which) I'm watching something that is much closer in temperament to a football game than anything else.

And who needs that, really? I realize I belong to a very small minority of people who don’t think April through September baseball needs a whopping shot of adrenalin. And I'm fully aware that plenty of Americans tune in to the playoffs like Christmas and Easter church-goers, only paying attention when there's something immediately at stake. And yes, I realize that baseball is a sport, after all, and people play sports to win. There may be nothing in the world like Wrigley Field on a warm June afternoon, but don't think the Cubs wouldn't commit to ten seasons in Tropicana Field for one guaranteed world championship. Every player on every cellar-dwelling team in the league knows that you play the games to have a winner. That’s what sports are all about: to figure out who's the best.

The problem, though, is that far too often the playoffs don’t tell us who the best team is. At best, the they only tell us who, out of eight generally talented teams, is playing the best baseball for a particular couple of weeks. At worst, they penalize the most deeply talented teams and inordinately reward fluky performances and strategies which, if employed in the regular season, would sooner lead to disaster than success.

Over the course of the long and arduous regular season, a team will break down if it relies too heavily on a small number of players, but in a playoff series, where games can be separated by several days of rest, a team can lean on a couple of superstars and still advance. This is most evident in the pitching game, where leaning heavily on your best relief arms, using starters as relievers, and starting a single pitcher in three out of seven games can lead to glory rather than bullpen burnout and dead arms. Think back to the 2001 Diamondbacks, who were able to gut out the World Championship largely on account of two spectacular pitchers who carried the load and obscured the fact that Arizona had an awful bullpen. Think back to a year ago, when the Cardinals were somehow able to cobble together World Championship performances from pitchers with slightly better than .500 talent.

And while the nature of the playoffs allow teams like those 2001 Diamondbacks or the 2006 Cardinals to hide their flaws, they prevent teams like the 1990s Atlanta Braves, the 116-win Seattle Mariners and several recent A’s teams – deeply talented clubs that won games by the bucketful over a six month period – from fully utilizing their advantages once the regular season ended. Teams that won due to depth in the rotation and bullpen, teams that can wear the opposition out over the course of three and four game series across months due to comparative advantage when their third, fourth, and fifth best starting pitchers are at a disadvantage compared to top-loaded teams going for broke over a couple of weeks. It's just a different game in October, and in my mind, just because a team is left standing doesn't mean they're a better team. It just means they were particularly well-equipped to play postseason ball. That, in some cases, someone was able to erase six months of slightly better than mediocre play with three weeks of high level performance from a select number of individuals.

Baseball history is full of World Series winners who were far from the best teams in any given year. In 1906, the Chicago White Sox faced their cross-town rivals -- the Cubs -- in the third ever World Series. These were the Cubs of the fabled infield trio of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. They were also the Cubs that led the league in batting, pitching, and fielding, and won a record 116 games to boot, posting a winning percentage (.763) that will likely never be surpassed. By contrast, the White Sox of that year were one of the most feeble offensive teams in history; an achievement which landed them the nickname "The Hitless Wonders." But the Hitless Wonders somehow found their bats in October, and they spanked the mighty Cubs 4 games to 2.

In 1954, the Cleveland Indians set an American League record by posting 111 wins and came into the Series as overwhelming favorites to humble the New York Giants. It was not to be, however, as Willie Mays’s impossible over-the-shoulder catch of Vic Wertz’s 425 foot blast set the stage for one of the most shocking upsets in World Series history. Similarly, in 1960, the feeble-hitting Pirates faced the mighty New York Yankees. Despite having been outscored by 28 runs in the World Series, the Pirates beat the powerful Yankees with an improbable seventh game home run from the diminutive Bill Mazeroski.

More recent examples of improbable postseason success can be found in the Amazin’ Mets’ 1969 victory over the heavily-favored and 109 game-winning Baltimore Orioles; the 1985 Royals’ Denkinger-assisted victory over the speedy St. Louis Cardinals; the 1987 Minnesota Twins’ victory over those same Cardinals (having won only 85 games in the regular season); the 1988 and 1990 defeat of the seemingly invincible Oakland A’s at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds, respectively; and, just last year, the Cardinals finally getting on the right side of karma by beating the clearly superior Detroit Tigers.

In each of these cases (and many, many more) one team exhibited its superiority over the course of over six months and 150 games only to lose a short but highly publicized series after the best baseball-playing weather had passed. Does that make the fortunate winner of that short series a better team than the regular season powerhouse? Not in my book it doesn’t. Just because the 1906 Cubs, 1954 Indians, 1960 Yankees, 1969 Orioles, 1988 A’s and 2001 Mariners weren’t as successful as their playoff opponents, that doesn’t mean they weren’t better, because by every conceivable measure apart from the results of a short series or two, they were.

None of this is to say that the accomplishments of the lucky duckies of the playoffs are somehow illegitimate. Indeed, more often than not, their triumphs enter into baseball legend and lore. Make no mistake: I don't want to live in a world where Bill Mazeroski didn't kill the Yankees in 1960 and where the Mets didn't win it all in '69. But I just can't bring myself to call the 1960 Pirates, 1969 Mets, 1988 Dodgers, 2001 Diamondbacks, or the 2006 Cardinals the "best team in baseball" simply because they won the hardware, nor will I bestow that title on any of the National League clubs this year if they happen to outlast one of the clearly superior American League teams at the end of the month.

They're playing a different game now. A game that is exciting and enjoyable and historic, but a game different from the one whose season ended last night and won't resume until next spring. A game that, I must admit, I simply don't like as much as a mid-August tilt between a couple of teams way out of contention. A game during which I can go up to get a beer or use the john without having to worry about what I missed because, hey, it'll happen again tomorrow night.


Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Excellent, as usual. And linked by Neyer today, by the way.

You forgot to mention the horrific cliches that are mobilized by the TV broadcasters in rapid-fire during the post-season. I frequently watch the games on mute.

Would beg to differ on the 2001 series -- the Yankees nearly stole that one from the better team.

Pete Toms said...

C, you're preachin to the choir again. I, like you, realize that the real allure of baseball is the 162 game contest. The postseason, particulary in it's present form ( 8 teams, 5 GM opening round ) is a sideshow.

162 games is necessary to not only measure team / organization depth but also because baseball is so random that a large number of games is required to accurately assess performance. Most ball games are decided by who gets a key call, who's blooper drops in, who's 4 hopper goes through...only over a large number of games do the better teams rise to the top.

You're right, this next month measures nothing but yeah I'll watch it too.

Marc in Tallahassee said...

I've been running over this argument again and again with my friends, but I never said it so eloquently. Good job. I've sent the link to this post to all my baseball fan friends with the subject line "This is what I've been trying to tell you all these years!"

Anonymous said...

Hey - you really put it all together to say why I love baseball more than football (and am a minority with that opinion). Baseball is about hanging out, watching the pitcher/batter matchup, arguing about whether the pitcher should have thrown a curve and whether the hitters should have worked the count better...
Rinse, lather, repeat.

And I think that you meant to say that there's nothing like an afternoon in June at FENWAY...

Great column. First time I have read it, but I'll be back...

At least enjoy the Yanks losing this month.