Thursday, March 8, 2012

October Madness: How to Build a Better and Simpler Postseason

For many of the same reasons that others have cited, I am not a fan of Major League Baseball's new playoff format. It uses a one-game playoff in a sport that wasn't built for them. It crowds the schedule. It's unfair.

One thing I am OK with, though, is the increase in the number of playoff teams. To have more competition late in the year is good for the game and good for many perennially disappointed fan bases. In fact, I wouldn't have a problem if MLB wanted to expand the postseason even further—perhaps to 12 teams, or 16, or, eventually, all the way up to 30.

And instead of these easily upended one-game playoff series, the postseason should be expanded to as many games as possible. With these reforms, there are a maximum of 20 playoff games; let's stretch that out to a fairer 40 or 50—someday, all the way up to 162 games.

Yup, there's no getting around the fact of the matter: the fairest way to crown a world champion is through that 30-team, 162-game playoff tourney known as the regular season. Baseball is unique from (and better than, obviously) other sports in that it lasts so very, very long. Counting spring training and October, the boys of summer play for eight months, many of which are not the summer. In that time, averages and streaks even out, and all players and teams end the year playing at their true level of ability. Unlike those for a single game—when anything can happen—season statistics don't lie.

Consequently, there is little doubt in my mind that, in 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies were the best team in baseball. There is no doubt in my mind that the 2001 Seattle Mariners, whose total of 116 wins has never been surpassed, deserved to hoist the World Series trophy that year for that remarkable feat. Of course, there is no way to guarantee this short of canceling the playoffs and crowning the team with the best record after 162 games as the world champion. But how boring would that be? As a fan, the last thing I would want is the elimination of the World Series.

Therefore, as perfect and just as it may be, this blog post will not argue in favor of that. But, in my opinion, the best possible "reform" to the MLB playoffs is one that brings us as close to that model as possible—in other words, the biggest simplification we can stomach. (And if there's one thing that this new arrangement is not, it's simple.)

The postseason cannot guarantee that the best team wins, but its goal should be to try. (Note: this flies in the face of everything we have been trained to crave: upsets, underdogs, and the like. But we need to face it—the teams we all know are better deserve to win.) This means both that there must be fewer opportunities for the winningest team to be upset (i.e., fewer series played on the way to the championship) and that the seeding of teams in the postseason "bracket" (forgive me, it's March) must be straightforward and fair—rewarding the best teams and punishing the worst ones.

This is why the new playoff format is unacceptable from a fair-playing-field perspective: it actually falls shorter of both these standards than the current format does. Specifically, it makes what is potentially the second-best team in the league (the higher Wild Card seed) extremely vulnerable to immediate elimination by potentially the fifth-best team in the league. To treat these teams as equivalent just because neither won a division is pure folly; the 2001 Oakland A's (102–60) shouldn't even be in the same conversation as that year's Minnesota Twins (85–77), yet under this system those two teams would have faced off in a one-game playoff.

The current format (or should I say "old format") isn't much better, by the way. From 1995 to 2011, the fourth-seeded Wild Card team was the team with the fourth-best record (or tied for third-best) only 13 of a possible 34 times. No, for the simplest and fairest postseason, we have to go to an even older format: the setup of the original World Series.

Until 1969, the winningest team in the American League and the winningest team in the National League met in the World Series immediately after the regular season. There was a purity to this method, which ensured that the class of each league (which were much more distinct entities than they are today) would be represented on baseball's biggest stage. Today, however, divisions and their inherent non-parity (see: AL East) add a random variable to that equation; the division-winner-on-division-winner setup doesn't try hard enough for the goal of the best team winning. The solution is to eliminate the East, Central, and West and combine each league into one big division—as it was for the majority of baseball history.

In my perfect, purist, reactionary, fantasy world, the best team from each league would play a seven-game (or maybe nine-game!) World Series, and that would be that. However, allowing for modern tastes and teams' money-grubbing, it would be almost as fair to simply pick the top two (preferable) or four seeds in each league and set up a tournament (lowest seed at highest seed, etc.), extremely similar to the 1995–2011 arrangement, that culminates in the World Series. This eliminates any nonsense about better teams being punished for their geographic location (for example, if they are the four best teams in the AL, why shouldn't New York, Boston, Tampa, and Toronto all go to the playoffs?).

This system is not perfect. For example, if the AL is stronger than the NL one year (I don't even know why I said "if" there...), a 90–72 team in the AL might miss the playoffs while an 89–73 team in the NL snags a berth. But this is an inevitable problem arising from the separation of MLB into leagues—leagues that have such deep historical roots that even I am unwilling to blow them up. Besides, having only two leagues/divisions still minimizes the chances of this unfairness compared to today, when there are six chances to get screwed.

This realignment would necessitate a host of other changes too, like a switch to a balanced schedule (finally!). To put it bluntly, this will never happen (too much revenue is generated from 19 Red Sox–Yankees games a year, don't you know). And to be honest, as long as the playoff format is going to be unfair, it might as well be exciting—and I do admit that the one-game Wild Card Series (or whatever the networks decide to call it) is going to be a blast. Here in spring training, it's easy to put that emotion at arm's length and look at the game academically. But in October, while I'm riveted to the television, you may have to remind me that fairness is important, too. Maybe someday we'll have both.

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