Saturday, March 3, 2012

Bud Selig and the MLB Playoffs: A Tragicomedy

Forgive me for believing, if only for a moment, that the incredible end to baseball's regular season last year might have stayed whatever idiocy Bud Selig had cooked up for the future.

Unfortunately, not even perhaps the greatest final month of baseball in the history of the sport could stop the inexorable march toward a second wild card team.

Remember the Rays' incredible come-from-behind win against the Yankees in the season's last game? The Orioles celebrating their victory over the Red Sox as though they'd just won the pennant? In 2012, it won't matter.

How about the Phillies sweeping the Braves in Atlanta in the season's final series to dash a hated rival's playoff hopes? In 2012, you'd be forgiven for not tuning in.

Such a big part of what makes regular season baseball great is the wild card race. Teams desperately adding pieces at the deadline, jockeying for position, every game valuable. For the love of Kevin Costner, look at this chart! If you could graph the confluence of excitement and heartbreak, that's what it would look like.

Now, Selig has cheapened the wild card race. Now, there are precisely three possible outcomes for the wild card race, and two of them suck. Here they are:

1. Three or more teams are in a dead heat in the season's final week. This would be the most acceptable outcome, since you could make a case that any of the three teams deserved to be in the playoffs, and the two teams that faced off in the (idiotic) one-game playoff would be extremely close in the standings.

2. Two teams are a couple of games ahead of the wild card pack in the season's final week, dead locks to make the one-game playoff. BORING. Can't you just imagine ESPN trying to invent some kind of excitement in this scenario and cram it down the public's throat? I shudder at the thought.

3. One team is a dead lock for a wild card, while a couple other teams jockey for the second spot a few games back. This is perhaps the worst-case scenario. While it might be exciting to watch a couple of teams vie for fifth place (wait, that's not exciting at all!), it creates two sub-scenarios:

In one, the first-place wild card team wins the one-game playoff and the second-place race was all for naught. In the other, the second-place team wins the one-game playoff and eliminates a team that finished several games ahead of it in the standings.

There's the biggest dilemma: the new playoff format creates the overwhelming probability of extreme injustice. What happens if the first-place wild card team is four or five games ahead of the second-place wild card team at the end of the regular season, but loses the one-game playoff?

In 2009, the Red Sox tallied 95 wins and topped the AL wild card standings by a full eight games. Imagine if the Rangers won ONE game to keep the Red Sox out of the playoffs. Why even play out the 162-game regular season?

Back in November, I actually did a quick study of the number of games separating the first, second, and third-place wild card teams in each league each year since 1994. Here are the results:

                 American League                            National League
Year1st and 2nd place2nd and 3rd place1st and 2nd place2nd and 3rd place
Larger Split135710
(One tie in 2006)

So basically, in the AL, you've got a far greater chance that a second-place wild card team will eliminate a much more deserving first-place wild card team, by virtue of winning a meaningless, arbitrary one-game playoff.

In the NL, you've got a far greater chance of diminishing the excitement of a race between the first and second-place wild card teams--a race that has come down to the season's final day nine times in 18 years!


Ladies and gentlemen, your 2012 MLB playoffs.

UPDATE: No, wait, you know what? I'm not finished yet. That wasn't nearly indignant enough.

Perhaps the most incredible thing to me is that this move is so purely a money-grab at the expense of the competitiveness of the sport.

Here's the story from about the changes being finalized. Peruse the comments of baseball's administrators and managers, and tell me where they say this makes the game better.

Probably the closest anybody comes is Kirk Gibson saying it'll give some teams who clinch a playoff spot early a little more time to sort out their postseason rotations. Mike Scioscia makes the puzzling claim that the new system relies more on the integrity of the season--puzzling because now, one game can outweigh a season's worth of results.

Bud Selig makes two outrageous claims: That there was support among fans for the proposal (raise your hand if you're excited about this...Anybody? Nobody?), and the second is that the new system increases the reward for a team winning its division. That's only true inasmuch as the risk is increased for the first-place wild card team.

The truth is, increasing the size of the playoff pool increases the number of markets with playoff aspirations, and therefore the amount of money that the league stands to make. That's what this is about.

Maybe it's naive of me to think it would ever be about anything else. But to implement a system that so blatantly foments controversy and injustice is plain irresponsible. You might say it's downright BCS-like.


  1. I didn't even mention that because MLB rushed to implement the system for this year, but had already set the start dates for the regular season and World Series, scheduling logistics mean the lower-seeded team will actually get to HOST the first two games of the divisional playoff round before returning to the higher-seeded team's home field for the final three games (if necessary).

    That seems like the complete opposite of fair, basically. And it also begs the question: Why was it so important to get the new system in place for this season?

  2. I love that you not only had an update, but then also posted the first comment.
    But, well written, and I'm pretty sure that everyone except our homeboy Bud and some owners agree with you.

  3. If the Phillies get fucked by any of this.....

  4. Coop, I think you and I both know that that's where this is headed. What odds would you put on the Braves or Marlins winning the division, with the Phillies the first-place wild card team, and getting shut out while Roy Halladay pitches a gem in the one-game playoff, or something like that?

  5. How did you find that awesome Red Sox graph?

  6. I remembered seeing it back at the end of the season, so I just Googled "Red Sox playoff probability graph 2011," and voila.