I have to be honest; I am lukewarm on the addition of two new playoff spots for major league baseball. It feels like terribly manufactured drama to me, where we are content with days off between games in the playoffs yet this sudden death game is crammed right after the regular season, one contest which is completely anathema to the spirit of a 162-game season. The playoffs already have systems that work against the best teams making the World Series, and while this system solves some of those issues it doesn’t solve them all.
For instance, I love that the sudden death game occurs right after the regular season. Too often you have teams that are able to go through the playoffs with just 3 starters due to the excessive days off, failing to play 40% of their starting rotation. Would we shorten football games because one team tends to tire more easily than another? Then why would we allow some teams to possibly omit a serious weak point in their team (a poor back-end of the rotation) due to conditions that are completely different than the regular season? Just look at last year’s playoffs.
In the Divisional Round, there were off days between games 1 and 2 and games 4 and 5 despite the fact that there was no travel on those days. In the Championship series there were a whopping three days off in six game series’, so half the time teams could just rest up. The World Series had another three days of rest. Counter that with the regular season, when management has players agree to play up to twenty consecutive days if the schedule demands, and players typically look at about 3 days off a month (a glance at the Orioles 2011 schedule shows that to be accurate). How are these playoffs an accurate continuation of the regular season? The rules ought not be different, particularly in such an important aspect of pitchers’ rest between starts. A team should have to play its whole team as it would in the regular season, and if that means more back-to-backs well that is why you sign a player in the first place.
So the elimination game now forces teams who may have been going full-bore at the end of the season to maybe have to pitch their #4 starter if need be since just a day later will be the playoffs. However, it opens up a brand new issue. Baseball, unlike football or even basketball is about length of the season. Players go in slumps, balls bounce strangely, the umpire has a “unique” strike zone, all things that increase the randomness of the sport more than other sports. There is a reason that the top teams in baseball will finish with an impressive 100 wins, though that is only a 61.7 winning percentage. In football the top teams have 13 or more wins, 81.2 winning percentage, and in the NBA the best teams win 60 games, or 73.1%.
This randomness compels the sport to use 5 and 7-game series’ (not necessary in the NBA but they do it for the money), yet baseball is hinging their playoffs to one-game eliminations that will be dramatic sure, but hardly more than a coin flip. The playoffs should be about more than that. I am not about to use the “make sure the best teams always make it to the finals” argument that causes people to grumble about the legitimacy of Butlers or VCUs, since they had to play 5 (in VCU’s case) games against many different teams, all top competition, to get to the Final Four. This is one-and-done in a sport that is far more random and involves just 20% of the starting pitching at play.
However, I have seen a lot of deserving teams not make baseball’s strict playoff limit and I think expanding is a good idea. My modest proposal is this: cut out the off days unless it’s a travel day for night-to-day games, make it a 3-game opening round playoff that begins right after the regular season ends (unless there is a tie-breaker day). This at least involves some semblance of adherence to baseball’s schedule in the regular season and reduces the randomness just a tad. If you are the better team in October you will still make it to the World Series.
But then again, I am thinking about the integrity of the sport first and foremost. I guess that’s why I am not the commissioner, huh? I should instead be thinking of ways to both drive away fans through bone-headed rules and make short-term bucks. I don’t think I’ll ever learn.