Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Lightning Round

In light of the Cubs' and Angels' swift elimination, the big time media is now noticing what Chicago papers noticed a few days ago and what Braves fans realized a decade ago:
Their epic collapse, however, should not obscure a basic question that must be asked about the structure of the national pastime:

What does it say about the value — even the legitimacy — of baseball's regular season that the playoffs can so quickly wipe out what took half a year to create?

To pique fan interest, lure sponsors and maximize TV ratings, MLB has, over time, adopted a three-tiered playoff system — four divisional series leading to two championship series to, finally, the World Series — which by definition diminishes the meaning of the regular season.

Talk about your mixed messages. On the one hand, the game is at its pastoral best when it is played out over time, when it meanders through the summer like a lazy river, when patience is rewarded, when one game by itself may mean so little.

Then, once we hit October, baseball becomes manic. The marathon turns into a sprint, especially in the division series, which still are the quirkiest of arrangements, just a quick, best-of-five-games test.

The only obvious solution to this is the imposition of a best-of-162 Division Series.

Or we can realize that life ain't fair, and just because you don't win a championship doesn't mean the season wasn't a success.


Jay said...

I think it's interesting that the NBA has gone back to a 7 game first round, but the MLB's is only 5. Given the amount of luck involved, baseball should be the one with 7 games (or both). Would you be opposed to seeing 7 game Divisional Series? I wouldn't mind, and I don't think the owners or the league would either ($$).

Craig Calcaterra said...

I wouldn't be opposed to it. The more baseball the better, in my view. Not that doing so would "fix" the problem talked about in the article (not sure it's a problem in need of fixing -- the short series effect has been around as long as baseball).

My only concern would be scheduling. We're already backing into November next year, and we can't reasonably go further. My soulution would be more scheduled double headers, but I know everybody except the fans hates that.

bigcatasroma said...

I would go all 1910 on everyone, and maybe eliminate division series, and go to a best of 9 or something. There was an inherent truth to pre-1969 when there was only the World Series, and GAVE that legitimacy to the regular season, much the same way soccer around the globe (except here, of course) does. The winner of after the last game of the season is THE WINNER.

I'm personally against playoffs, probably because growing up I always lost in them (while being 1st after the regular season), so there was always that feeling that several months worth of practicing and kicking butt was for nothing because one afternoon you were too sleepy because you had a Latin exam that morning or because your father woke you up screaming about the dent in the car.

No matter the age, it's a crappy way to go out.

Taylor said...

"What does it say about the value — even the legitimacy — of baseball's regular season that the playoffs can so quickly wipe out what took half a year to create?"

I'd say this national pastime is just reflecting our other national pastime: capitalism.

matt said...

Unfortunately I'm not sure how many fans even like doubleheaders anymore. I would love to go to a doubleheader every Saturday, but I have friends who have trouble sitting through one baseball game.

The obvious solution would be to go back to two divisions per league and eliminate the wild card. But MLB would never do that, and despite my initial reservations (ok, downright anger) I've come to enjoy the wild card.

BB said...

I had a prominent hockey GM come to my grad school and he and I got in an argument related to Moneyball. He claimed he preferred to read a book written about a success story. I argued that the A's are wildly successful given all the constraints on budget, playoff appearances, etc. So I asked him what his definition of success is. He said show me a ring baby and I hope you work in my division someday cause I'll beat you every time if your goal is to only make the playoffs. I guess the takeaway is hockey is much different than baseball.

Pete Toms said...

Craig, link don't work.

I commented here recently - on the subject of playoff predicitons - that the playoffs are a crapshoot. Sure I watch them, I love ball, but I don't find it that compelling. I'm with Craig, the real joy in baseball is the 162 game marathon.

Randomly, DHs will never return because of $$$$ ( no surprise to anyone ). The wild card is here to stay ( I'm a purist, I don't like it, there are no longer great races between great teams - Craig, how was that Giants / Braves race the season when both teams won 100+ games??? ) again because of $$$$.

It's a big, big business, not a cornfield in Iowa.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Link fixed. Sorry about that.

I'm resigned to the wild card and the DH and all of that too. Baseball purism is fun to wallow in, but it ain't all that practical. I miss a lot of things from a long time ago in baseball and in life, but if you don't just let go and move on, you'll just get bitter.

1993 was pretty great. It won't ever be replicated by two 91 win teams competing for the Wild Card.

christopher said...

I don't know. I Remember that '93 pennant chase pretty well, and I don't think it was any more exciting than this year's NL wild card chase. Two teams were battling for one spot. Every day I would get up and check the box scores (except i had to use a stupid newspaper), and one team was ultimately undone by a lack of pitching depth. If i remove my sepia-tinged nostalgia glasses, it seems pretty similar. And the beauty of the wild card is that exciting races happen every year. Scroll through the division results pre-1994. There are a lot of years with completely uncompetitive divisional races.

Pete Toms said...

@ Christopher, the wild card isn't awful, sure there are benefits beyond the monetary to it. It does maintain interest amongst more casual fans and that's good.

I'm being nostalgic but my most emotional memory baseball was the Jays collapse in 87. Without looking at the standings from that season I'm assuming it wouldn't have mattered had there been a wild card. There's something about knowing your team was / is great but failed anyway.

Preston said...

This comes up in baseball because the length of the regular season makes a quick playoff loss particularly painful, but really there is the same situation in college basketball and the NFL, where one bad playoff game (or bad matchup) can end the season of the best team. Frankly, it's the situation with most playoffs.

And on a pro-wild card note, without the wild card what is probably the best team in baseball wouldn't have even made the playoffs - the Red Sox, who easily had the best run differential in the superior league (and I say that, begrudgingly, as a fan of the Dodgers and the NL).

Kritical Man said...

I am with the gist of the original quoted article and the purists among you - the 162 game season is what it's all about. But I do like the playoffs. Extending to 9-game series or 13 is still quite a small sample size compared to a team's effectiveness over the course of a 6-month season.

Is it possible that a round robin tournament-style postseason could work though? What if the 4 teams from each league had to play each other in 3 game sets. That would be 12 games, which is how long the division series and LCSs are set up for max. Best record of those 12 games goes to WS. Ties are determined by overall season record or head-to-head regular season record. Then we have the WS between the 2 league champs as usual.

I can't be the only one who's ever thought of this - or maybe I'm missing some incredibly obvious reason this wouldn't work?

Drew said...

Another way to help is to get rid of all of the off days in the postseason to discourage rotation stacking. A great 162-game team often has 4 or 5 solid pitchers, whereas a great 5-game, lots-of-days-off team has 2 aces and someone else who might be able to get the job done. It's not always the case, but the fact is a team stacked for a modern postseason looks different than a team stacked for a modern regular season.

Daniel said...

Yeah there's injustice in the way playoff baseball is set up, but as a player and as a fan, there's nothing more exciting than do-or-die baseball. I love the regular season too, but in a different way.

I am neither a Braves nor a Pirates fan, but I will never forget Sid Bream scoring on Cabrera's single to left. I will never forget Kirk Gibson pumping his arm coming around first base. I will never forget Scott Spiezio's home run in game 6 of the 2002 WS. And I will never forget Erick Aybar's missed bunt.

Unjust or not, there's something lasting about playoff baseball. Moments that get lost in the regular season become epic in the postseason. It's just fun (and incredibly painful).

Pete Toms said...

@ Preston. I know run differential is trendy but isn't the measure of who had the best team the team with the most wins?

@ Kritical Man. I think that is a great idea.

drunyon said...


The answer is no, wins are not the best measure. Run differential is a far better measure of future success.

You know this intuitively. Who's better:

Team A, 86-75, -31 run differential
Team B, 84-78, +52 run differential

You should have picked Team B. A is the Astros, B is the Dodgers. Even as an Astros fan, I can see that the Dodgers were clearly better this year, and the Astros were not a good team- they just got lucky over the second half of the season. I think most people would agree with the "Dodgers > Astros" sentiment- but if they do, it's an argument in favor of run differential, not wins.

drunyon said...

To follow up on that, after the All-Star break, the Astros went 42-24... but only outscored their opposition by 13 runs over those 66 games. That's not sustainable.

The sad part is that Astros management is probably going to assume that the Astros were actually a team that had the talent to win 86 games this year, and make decisions based on that.. which is going to lead to a whole lot more losses in the future.

Ed Wade probably only has the faintest inkling of what run differential is, anyways.

Pete Toms said...

@ drunyon. I get that but I guess my point is, does it matter in real terms? Define best. Just to stir the pot, had the Astros been in the AL West would they have finished behind LA? ( obviously, we'll never know ). Also on run differential, no doubt the BP, HT crowd have accounted for this, but how is "strength of schedule" accounted for in the statistical hair splitting?