Friday, January 27, 2012


Hey, look: baseball.

A person familiar with the talks says baseball players and owners have reached an understanding that ties for division titles will be broken on the field under the new playoff format.

Okay. Weren't ties already broken on the field?

Since 1995, head-to-head record has been used to determine first place if both teams are going to the postseason.

Right. So yes. Ties were already broken on the field, over the course of like 13 divisional head-to-head games.

But with the start of a one-game, winner-take-all wild-card round, both sides agreed the difference between first place and a wild-card berth is too important to decide with a formula and a tiebreaker game would be played.

Summary: some owners said "let's make more money!" and the knucklehead players said "Yes. Also, home field advantage is way too important to not be decided by the impossibly small sample size of one, nine-inning game." We said: "/faceplant."

A little more than two months before opening day, the sides still don’t know whether the expanded playoffs will start this year.

Free Tank Carter has obtained the off season to-do list for MLB. We would put a scanned image of it here, but our fax/scanner is in the shop. Here it is, transcribed:

1. Make a genuine effort to expand and refine instant replay
3. Decide if we should have playoffs this year;
3.a. and if so, what it should look like.
4. Fix that damn division tie problem that might one day happen.
5. Euthanize Jorge Posada.
6. See Moneyball, Ides of March before the Oscars.

Two months til opening day. Plenty of time to knock off those last few chores.

Negotiators plan to talk again next week and decide by March 1 whether the 2012 playoffs will have eight or 10 teams.

I've been wanting to write a post about the different sports' postseason formats, and undoubtedly we'll be addressing the subject as baseball tinkers with theirs. Without going too deep into it, I'm going to throw the following thoughts out there:

A good playoff format must strike a balance between offering do-or-die excitement, while also keeping flukey, small-sample-size stuff somewhat in check. Ideally, it's the Caps, Pens, Sabres, Caps, Devils or Caps representing the East in the 2010 finals, not the Flyers/Canadiens. But at the same time, sometimes it's awesome when the Cardinals sneak in on the last day of the season, upset the Phillies and Brewers, and then come back from the brink to beat the Rangers. I'm not saying we, as fans, root for top seeds to meet up, nor do we always root for Cinderella stories. But we know it when a team has sneaked its way into a round it doesn't belong in, and we yawn about it (see: 2006 St. Louis Cardinals). So, my point here is that a good championship system is tricky and doesn't always work.

Baseball's format is the smallest of the big four, pro sports. Originally, the point was to win the most games and ignore the rival league. Then in 1903, Pittsburgh and Boston played each other in a cross-league contest to determine who was the best of the best. This was a best-of-nine World Series, so the head-to-head sample size was somewhat meaty (until it was subsequently reduced to the less meaty, best-of-seven). It wasn't until 1969 that a playoff format was introduced, and this was only four teams total. The league championship series to advance to the World Series was a meager best-of-five. 1994 saw one of the few decent innovations by our friend, Mr. Selig, and that was an expansion to an eight team playoff bracket; the first round being a best-of-five, the pennant round and World Series being best of seven. I think it's safe to say that everyone has pretty much approved of this format.

My only real complaint with it is that it starts too late. I love baseball so much that I have been legally married to it twice now, but even I think the season is too long. I don't like rain/snow mix on opening day and then again in the World Series. I'd like to see either more double headers, or fewer games, so that the World Series can be ending in the second week of October. I'll also add that when two teams are forced to play a one-game tie breaker for the right to be the wildcard seed because they have an identical record, that is tremendously exciting (it happened in the AL Central 2 years in a row, and was great). I don't like small sample sizes determining the fate of the really awesome teams, but I don't mind it occasionally affecting two teams that weren't good enough to win a playoff spot outright.

I keep talking about sample size, like there's a huge difference between a best-of-five and best-of-seven or -nine. Well, in baseball there kind of is. And that's due to the unique nature of the game, where individual players of great impact are off the field more often than they're on it. The pitcher is somewhat similar to the goalie or the quarterback in terms of being isolated from and elevated above the rest of the team; but goalies and QBs aren't played in rotation. A best-of-five series really only requires a team have two, stud pitchers, and maybe six to eight good innings from the bullpen. A best-of-seven series requires that a team not only have an ace or two, but also depth behind them. A best-of-nine series requires not only front line quality and depth, but also endurance (imagine how awesome it would be to see Verlander used in four or five games in different capacities, different situations, etc. (in the case of Verlander, specifically, he would actually be kept out of the game in four or five different capacities or situations, etc. JimLeyland etc.).

Okay, so that brings us up to now.

What the gents in the league office are considering, is taking my two complaints (long season, don't want too much small sample size) and making them worse. Instead of consolidating the season, they've decided that the best way to generate excitement for September games is to add an additional round of the playoffs. Potentially a best-of-one round for teams that are almost good enough to be the wild card seed.

Here's the thing though... it's not even middle of the road teams getting an extra chance to crash the big boy party. It's just another spin of the craps wheel for teams that were already good and already had a chance to decide their own destiny but came up short.

For example, if this system was in place last year, that SUPERB ending, where Tampa Bay defied all odds to steal Boston's playoff spot would have been irrelevant, because the 91-71 Rays still would have had to play the 90-72 Red Sox in a game where anything could have happened. All that improbable magic on one night would have been noise, because regardless of Longoria's heroics and Papelbon's meltdown, they'd be meeting up the following night on even ground as if they finished with the same record. (Devil's advocate: the less exciting, though equally important night in which the Cardinals stole the Braves' wildcard seed would have been replaced by a head-to-head matchup that would have had more fanfare than an Atlanta loss to the Phillies. Just saying.)

So that's what it is, or what it could be. From the people who brought you "and the home field advantage shall be decided by the league that wins the All Star game!" we have "oh, we can definitely do worse than the shootout. Give us a few months to reflect. It'll come."

Glad you're back, Bud.

(Twenty two days until pitchers & catchers.)

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