Friday, April 13, 2012

TJ Kool on MLB's New Playoff Structure

After the announcement by Major League Baseball that there would be a second Wild Card team from each league beginning this season, I was curious how they would fit it in.

There are a lot of changes in MLB right now. Salaries are going up, hitting power numbers have mellowed, the Houston Astros are headed to the American League West, and teams like my Rangers, the Tigers and Brewers are contenders, after decades of obscurity.

Changes keep the sport fresh and relevant. Baseball is the most exclusive of the big 4 sports when it comes to the playoffs. Of the 32 teams in the bigs, only 8 got in last year, and 10 beginning this year. In the NFL, 12 of 30 get in, followed by the NBA and NHL which both allow 16 of 30. That exclusivity in the MLB is what makes consecutive playoff year streaks so special.

With MLB's new system, less than a third of the teams will get in, I know that is still exclusive when compared with the NFL, NBA and NHL. My biggest concern is the new 1st round.

One of the coolest parts of baseball is the one game "play-in" game when two teams are tied at the end of the regular season. The idea that two teams, after 162 games, are so close in talent that they need to compete head-to-head in one last game to make the postseason show, is what makes fans love this game. It makes Joe Nathan's blown save in early April, or Joe Torre's decision to have a player steal third with one out in the bottom of the 8th in August, much bigger in September second-guessing.

With this new first round, one game playoff, it almost feels like MLB is forcing this feeling on us. Watching an end of season tie grow organically over the last month of the season is incredible. Just look how close it was to happening last year with the Cardinals and Braves, and Rays and Red Sox. Forcing a one game playoff will not have the same effect.

Not only that, but baseball is a game of series. Throughout the season, teams play 3, 4, and 5 game series. Teams build on the game the day before in order to build their lineup, bullpen strategy and many more aspects of the game for that day. The series is what builds drama, makes World Series MVPs out of David Freese, gets fans and players frustrated at the umps, and leads to the drama of the bottom of the 9th with two outs. No one plays wiffle ball with his brothers and dreams of playing in game one. It's game 7 we dream of.

Even MLB acknowledges how important a series is to the balance of the game. I've not heard them say it, but MLB sent the Mariners and A's to Japan to play 2 "regular season games", then once the season started back home, the M's and A's played 2 more, in Oakland, with the same umpire crew. MLB wanted them to start the season with a 4 game series. That is what the league is based on.

I don't know what can be determined one game. There is an old saying that goes, every team is going to win 54, and lose 54, it is what you do with the other 54 that matters. That means that on any given day, the better team can forget how to hit and pitch, and the other team can win where they had no business doing so.

I understand how important it is for marketing to keep more teams involved in a September playoff push. If it takes away from what makes the sport so special, is it worth it?

I think many of the changes that have happened in baseball are great things. The Astros coming over to the AL West next season, despite season long interleague games, is a good thing. I think new ownership, stadiums and styles of play throughout the game are good things. It is important for MLB to stay fresh. I think that the best change in baseball would be to unify the DH rule, no matter which way they choose. However, adding a one-game wild card playoff is a mistake. As a few years come and go, and I get my head around the idea that it is here to stay, maybe I will like it, but a week into the first season, I don't like it.

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  1. Have to disagree. Just because the 5th team gets in doesn't mean that the 1 game playoff at the end of the season will cease to exist. It will just be between teams 5 & 6 instead of teams 4 & 5. Also, divisional races in which the runner-up will not be in the Wild Card hunt will still have 1 game playoffs.

    Also, the 1-game Wild Card matchup makes it more important to win your division. If you are one of the Wild Card teams you are going to have to throw your best rested starter out there for the play-in game while the division winners get to take a break for a few days and most likely have their ace start Game 1 of the Division Series.

    I've heard people say that last year's final day of the season would not have meant as much under the new system, and that's true. But how many past seasons would have been more exciting under the new system?

    1. I know the one game tie breaker is still in play. Imagine if a team plays a 163rd, wins, plays the wild card round and wins. That means they have probably played 6 games in six days, assuming their final series of the year was a 4 game series. Then, most likely they have to play a 7th game in 7 days by the time the DS comes around. Who knows where their rotation would be, it could be that their 5th starter has to go against an Ace. Also, most catchers would not be able to go that long without a day off, and the older vets would be used to getting a day off in that situation. I know, its the playoffs, you do what you have to do. But now you are lookin at a rested team and their Ace going a against a tired, worn down team and possible a back of the rotation starter. How does that benefit to product on the field?

  2. It makes it more important to win the division. I think the league didn't like Wild Card teams not being at some sort of disadvantage in the DS. I certainly didn't like it. This way, if you win your division you'll have an advantage pitching-wise, which is how it should be.