Thursday, October 9, 2008

October Baseball Revisited

There's some discussion in the comments from one of this morning's posts about how the playoffs can be cruel and how the 162 game baseball regular season is really what it's all about. In light of that, I am hereby taking the liberty of reprinting my post from last October on the subject. For those of you who didn't come around these parts last year, enjoy. For those of you who did, well, you don't have to read it again.

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.


Pete Toms said...

Brilliant. One of the first pieces I read here that revealed to me how insightful and literate you are. I am in my Ottawa basement genuflecting towards Columbus.

tadthebad said...

You're quite mad, you know. Last I checked, they play by the same rules in the playoffs as in the regular season, and even with increased intensity it is nowhere near a regular season NFL game based solely on the nature of the sports... that comparison is lost on me.

The regular season IS great; the playoffs are a different kind of great. You gotta get over this, man, you're ruining the experience for yourself. Let me offer my perspective... We're talking professional sports here, and in the case of pro sports, the goal is not to demonstrate who the best team is via record or other metrics. The goal is to win a championship. Within this circle, we realize that run differential is far more accurate in determining the best team than simple won-loss records, but achieving the best Run Diff is not the goal, showing you're the best isn't the goal...winning is the goal, whether the better team wins or not. One need only remember the 2008 SuperBowl to identify this. Would anyone go so far as to say that the best team won the SB? Not likely, but the Giants weren't out for anything more than the championship (and really, neither were the Pats). You'd have to acknowledge that the Giants' season as a whole turned out significantly better than that of the Patriots. The goal wasn't to go undefeated or score the most points, the goal was to win another title.

So continue to use the regular season as a better gauge of team strength, all the while realizing that the regular season records (which by themselves don't tell us who the best teams really are) determine the opportunities for titles. The playoffs are fun, and the team that secures the trophy is the team that achieved its goal.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Pete: Thanks!

Tad: you said "We're talking professional sports here, and in the case of pro sports, the goal is not to demonstrate who the best team is via record or other metrics. The goal is to win a championship."

That's the goal of the teams involved. I'm a fan. My goal is to enjoy myself and get from this form of entertainment some level of fulfillment I can't obtain elsewhere. By that measure, I like the regular season better.

That said, I agree that the whole argument about the best regular season teams being "better" is a rather inconsequential one, all things considered.

tadthebad said...

OK, fair enough. But as a fan myself, although I enjoy figuring who the best team over the course of a season, I care far more about which team(s) are in position to fulfill their goal of winning a championship.

Hate to see you lamenting the end of the regular season. I (we) need you to carry me (us) through the offseason and keep me (us) informed and excited until the next regular season. So, to paraphrase, don't worry too much about this season, there's another one next spring. Great stuff as always.

Craig Calcaterra said...

No worries, Tad. It's only a mild, slightly melancholy lament. I have no plans of going dormant or losing focus.

And I am watching and enjoying as many postseason games as I can. It's just a slightly different experience for me than the regular season, both in bad ways (I don't like all the days off) and good ways (great pitching usually happens in the post season and I love great pitching).

Kritical Man said...

Great post and great that you brought it out again. I'm with you on this, but when I really am honest with myself and ask "Why does postseason baseball leave me cold?" (besides the fact that my favorite team is only occasionally involved) you know what answer #1 is? It's the TV coverage, which until last year was 100% Fox. For those of us who go through an entire season watching the local coverage with announcers who experience the same day in and day out grind as the players and really know their teams - to be subjected to the ludicrous intense close ups that finally cut back to the action just before the pitch (I want to see the catcher put down the fingers darnit!) and the inane "storylines" that attempt to add drama where none is needed.... well, it just makes me sad that the game gets packaged in such a way and that any network feels the need to "package" it at all.

The drama is in the game. It's on the field. It's in seeing the catcher call for a curveball in the dirt with a speedster on 3rd.

The drama is not in a closeup of some relievers nostrils or in endless shots of fans cheering.

Thank you TBS, but the postseason will never capture the rhythm and beauty of a warm, weekday night game between division rivals in the middle of July or August.

Ron Rollins said...

If we started a Church of Baseball, dedicated to worship of the game and not the dollar (in other words, the here and now and not the promise of a life after death - hey, I'm a Royals fan), would you be our leader?

There aren't many of us, but we would be faithful to the ways of the Baseball Gods.

But could we drink beer instead of the 'special' kool-aid?

Michael Stoner said...

"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."

Didn't the World Series used to be 9 games? Why not go back to a 9 game series with games 1 and 2 and 4 and 5 being double headers? It makes teams use a little more of their depth, might expose more flaws with a team, and, for better or worse, allows more television revenues for baseball (better for baseball, worse for those of us dealing with Fox).

Craig Calcaterra said...

Ron -- only if I can be one of those weird pagan priests who get first choice of the young women and whatnot.

Mike -- it was 9 games for a while, but I don't know how desirable that would be. Seven has been the norm for everyone's living memory and it has a tradition to it that I wouldn't be happy upsetting.

And to be clear again -- I don't know that we've got a problem that can, or even should, be fixed. The differences between the playoffs and the regular season are, in my mind at least, interesting, but I don't know that they much matters beyond their noting.

drunyon said...

About "the goal is to win a championship":

Yeah, that's the goal of players... but I think they should have different goals. Why isn't the goal to do something memorable? Staying with football, the Cowboys had the best record in franchise history last year, but they didn't win the title. Was their year a complete failure?

The Patriots had the most wins in NFL history in a single season. Was their year a complete failure? 40+ teams have won the Super Bowl, and 100+ teams have won the World Series... there's nothing new in that. Great achievement, sure, but who really remembers who won the World Series in, say, 1948 off the top of their head?

On the other hand, how many teams have won 116 games? Those kinds of achievements are so much more memorable because they haven't been done 100 times before.

The 2008 Patriots will be remembered more for their defeat than the 2008 Giants will be for their win, and that's how it should be. The Patriots were far more memorable. I think the goal of sports should be to do something that people will remember, not necessarily "the goal is to win a championship, and anything else is worthless."

I realize it's not this way currently because the media has drilled it into players' and fans' heads that non-title seasons are complete failures... but memorable achievements should be the goal, to me.

Craig Calcaterra said...

The Indians.


drunyon said...

Haha... in the back of my head, I thought the Indians won their last title somewhere around that time, but I didn't think too hard about it.

Pete Toms said...

Yes Kritical Man, I don't like the TV coverage ( print / digital either ). All is overanalyzed. The stat samples in short series are worthless yet everybody looks for trends and strengths & weaknesses in them. I.E. The chatter about the crap series that Utley & Howard had. Does a 4 game "slump" reveal anything? I think no. Does it portend anything for the next series? Again, me thinks no.

Daniel said...

@ Drunyon

I see what you're saying, but think about this: the Mariners winning 116 games in 2001 IS a memorable achievement. But they had to win 116 freakin' times to do something memorable!

Some kid named Jeffrey Maier reaches over the wall and catches a home run ball in the playoffs and is remembered forever. Luis Gonzalez hits a single up the middle to win a game and is remembered forever.

All of the little plays that make baseball so great are magnified in the postseason because teams all want to win that championship. I love watching regular season baseball too, but all of it goes out the window in October. Didn't Luis Gonzalez hit like 57 homeruns that year? That's great, but people will forever see that little dribbler up the middle that won them the World Series. And given the choice (assuming money wasn't a factor), I would bet Gonzo would give up every one of those homeruns to hit that single.

A failed squeeze in a June game against the Indians gets a sentence in Craig's "And That Happened..." But do it in October...

Hit 73 homeruns during the regular season and that's memorable, but so is the fact that the guy who hit the homeruns never won a World Series (and made a weak throw to home plate to help lose the NLCS for his team). I don't think regular season stuff is nearly as memorable. I can name you every World Series winner back to 1984. But ask me who won the Cy Young or who had the most wins in any of those seasons and I have no clue.

glenn said...

Hmmm...Last time I looked the WS was supposed to be an exhibition. The important thing was to win your league pennant and the WS was the bonus for winning it.

There used to be a football coach in Ann Arbor who pontificated on this very subject constantly, although he spoke about it in terms of winning the Big 10 and going to the Rose Bowl, and that "National Championship" thingie that the NCAA and college fotball fans fixate on. I think he was 100% correct. Winning your league takes priority over everything. Without that, how can you even get to the WS?

This, BTW, is the main problem I have with divisional baseball, not that it's ever gonna revert back to what it once was.