PLAYOFFS? Let’s talk about playoffs
There is a point to this post, but the title is an excuse to embed the following video, because we all should see it more often:
This week on ESPN.com, Jayson Stark proposed expanding the playoffs to 10 teams. His main point:
So the big issue, the unfortunate flaw, in the current system is this: There just isn’t enough incentive to finish first.
Add a wild-card team — just one — in each league. And it changes everything.
After the season, the six division winners would get a break to rest up, heal up and set up their pitching. And those two wild cards? They’d be forced to play each other in the dramatic new Wild Card Round of the postseason, just to survive and move on.
The first baseball season I can actually remember is 1994. The strike happened two days short of my 9th birthday. I can remember watching baseball before that, but I don’t think I had any concept of pennant races and the World Series; I was just sure that the game itself was cool. I didn’t grow up with some of the great pennant races that happened without the Wild Card. I also didn’t know about the 40 years of misery for Indians’ fans.
At the time of the strike, the 1994 Indians had the highest winning percentage in franchise history since 1955; the last time they had made the playoffs was 1954, when they were swept in the World Series by Willie Mays and the Giants. But the excitement that the people around me had about that 1994 team was unforgettable. I can remember my dad and uncles and grandfathers talking a lot about that team, and I knew that it was pretty special every time your baseball team made the playoffs. Maybe not wait-40-years special, but definitely special.
So I could break down the specifics of this proposal, as Stark does (and to his credit, he does present both sides of the case). But the dangers are very apparent, even to those backing the idea. There’s the danger of running the postseason even later in October/November (despite Commissioner Bud’s edict that there will never be November baseball again). There’s the issue of penalizing Wild Card teams by making them use their best starters in the “play-in” game/series and hurting them for future rounds. There’s the issue of a one-game playoff or best-of-three series penalizing the better of the two teams; for example, Stark says that:
…over the last 15 years, on the other hand, six of those duels would have matched teams separated by at least seven wins. And in 2001, one wild-card team, the A’s, would have been playing a second wild card, Minnesota, that won 17 fewer games than they did. Yep — 17.
To me, that means Minnesota should not be a playoff team and the A’s, with the second best record in baseball by 6 games, are definitely a playoff team. I know that’s an extreme case, but 85-win teams are not playoff teams to me; when they make the playoffs, they’re lucky teams in bad divisions. I want to see the A’s play the other best teams; I don’t want to see them not get a chance because they lose one game to an 85-win team.
Stark’s proposal is to make the Rays-Yankees race interesting by making it worth something to finish first. Another way to do that: eliminate the Wild Card altogether. Personally, I like the playoffs the way they are, rewarding the six division winners and the best team in each league who’s in the same division as another really good team. The Rays have the second best record in baseball this year, and penalizing them for playing in the same division as the Yankees simply doesn’t do the game any justice.
After the 1994 strike, I had the pleasure of watching one of the best seasons in the history of the game. The 1995 Indians went 100-44, good for a 0.694 winning percentage(!). This was the first team in the history of baseball to win 100 games in a season in which they played fewer than 154 games. They won the division by 30 games, clinching the division on September 8th, their 123rd game (moving their record to 86-37). Albert Belle had a 50 home run, 52 double season in just 143 games. Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome were the new kids in town and combined for 56 home runs. This team was good, and, over the next 7 years, they spoiled the fans in Cleveland.
I think near the end of the run I started to take the playoff appearances for granted, and it made the 2007 season all the more special for me. The 162-game season is a long enough march without the threat of making the playoffs and being knocked out in one game. I know that that happens in one-game playoffs when teams finished tied on the last day of the season, but the important difference is that THOSE TEAMS HAVEN’T MADE THE PLAYOFFS YET. I don’t want to watch a team every day for six months, “make the playoffs,” and then lose in one night.
The baseball playoffs are special because so few teams make it, and it’s truly a reward for making it through a grueling regular season. Playoff seasons are not forgotten by a team’s fans. They are remembered in the spirit of a young man’s dreams. Let the other major sports have 0.500 teams in their playoffs. Adding teams to the baseball playoffs would only cheapen that which makes this particular great game so great.