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Red Sox

MLB’s New Playoff Format Far Too Arbitrary To Endorse

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
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Bud Selig's proposed playoff plan will pit two teams against each other in a win-or-go-home, one-game playoff every year. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Bud Selig’s proposed playoff plan will pit two teams against each other in a win-or-go-home, one-game playoff every year. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

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BOSTON (CBS) — There’s no grind in sports that compares to the Major League Baseball regular season. Almost every day from April till October, a team plays baseball. Sometimes, the best team in baseball gets blown out by the worst team. The next night, it can be the opposite. It’s 180 minutes per night, 486 hours per season, where the goal, essentially, is to win twice as many games as you lose.

A 162-game schedule is the only way to manage the arbitrary nature of a baseball game. Over the course of 162 games, teams establish themselves as better than the rest, and they’re rewarded with a spot in the playoffs. It’s a system that works.

Now, you can throw all of that out the window. A six-month grind will come down to three hours in October. You can work hard in April, May, June, July, August and September, but even if you have 96 wins, you’re going to have to face a team from a weak division that only won 88 games.

Welcome to the new world of MLB playoffs.

The news came down Wednesday afternoon, when FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal tweeted that the new playoff format could be announced as soon as Thursday. CBSSports’ Jon Heyman shortly later added that there was “no opposition seen” to the proposal.

That is complete and utter madness.

The new format is simple. Instead of having three division winners and one wild-card winner in each league, there will be three division winners and two wild-card teams. Those wild-card teams will be the two teams in each league with the best remaining records.

Those two wild-card teams will engage in a one-game playoff, with the winner going on to the ALDS and the loser packing up the locker room and heading home for the winter. Just like that, one baseball game can wipe out the events of the previous six months. Vamoose. Gone-zo. See you in the spring, kiddo. What’s that? You’re upset that you’re on a team that won 96 games in a tough division and you had to play a team that won 88 games in a bad division and you lost because baseball is a game where almost nothing can be determined in just one game? Sorry we’re not sorry. See you later.

The benefits to the system are both immediately obvious and transparently superficial. We all get to tune in for what we’ll call “Crazy Wild-Card Madness Day” in October. It will be captivating. We’ll be glued to our televisions. So much will be on the line that it will be impossible to not get swept up in the excitement. There’s simply no way of denying this.

But is it real? Is it authentic? We love Game 7’s because they are Game 7’s. They come at the end of a hard-fought series, where each team has matched the other over the course of a week and a half. We loved the ending to last season — when the Red Sox lost in Baltimore just moments before the Rays won in Tampa, while the Braves blew a ninth-inning lead and the Cardinals won to shape the NL playoff field on the season’s final day — because it was almost completely unbelievable. How much had to happen over the course of those four teams’ 162-game seasons for that scenario to play out exactly the way that it did?

But now, that moment of spontaneity will be replaced by Scheduled Excitement. No matter how the season plays out, you’re getting that moment. It’s as artificial as artificial gets. Bud Selig, the mastermind behind all of these changes, might as well fill the stadiums with extras from a movie set that day, because the whole thing is completely phony.

But that’s not even the biggest problem with the new system. More than anything else, the issue is that it’s inherently unfair. Sure, maybe a wild-card winner shouldn’t be afforded the same road to a World Series title as a division winner, but this is not the way to make things even. This doesn’t make things fair and square among the four playoff teams; it adds a fifth team that doesn’t belong there. Really, if you have a problem with a wild-card team having the same chance to win a World Series as a division winner, adding another wild-card team only makes it worse.

A quick look at recent history bears that out.

If the proposed system were to have been in place over the past few years, here’s how the playoff situations would have looked.

2011: That 7-20 skid from the Red Sox in September? Forget about it! The Red Sox make the postseason, playing the Rays in a one-game playoff for the chance to play the Rangers in the ALDS. In the NL, the eventual world-champion Cardinals would have to prove themselves with a one-game playoff against the Braves. Three hours in St. Louis or Atlanta could have changed history.

2010: Winning 95 games wouldn’t have been enough for the Yankees. Nope. They’d have to face the Boston Red Sox, who won just 89 games, for the right to continue their season. Those two teams played 18 times during the regular season, splitting them evenly 9-9. So, essentially, the defending champs’ postseason future came down to a coin flip. That’s nice.

2009: The AL East was magnificently powerful in 2009. The eventual champion Yankees won 103 games, and the Red Sox won 95. That’s not enough to earn an ALDS berth, though. Not for Bud. So the Red Sox would have had to prove their worth by playing the 87-win Rangers in a do-or-die affair, just for the privilege of playing the Angels in a five-game series. In the NL, the 92-win Rockies would have a date with the 87-win Marlins. Why? Why not?!

2008: Perhaps the most telling example we have comes from 2008. The Rays won 97 games. The Red Sox won 95. Those 95 wins were only good enough for the wild card, even though they would have won the AL Central by six games. But according to the new rules, the 95-win Red Sox wouldn’t have been worthy of a spot in the ALDS, while the 89-win White Sox would be given a free trip to the first round by virtue of winning their weak division. The powerhouse Angels were able to win 100 games in a division where the second-best team went 79-83.

But again, it is the 95-win Red Sox who have to prove they’re worthy of the postseason, and they have to do so against the 89-win Yankees, against whom they went — yup, you guessed it — 9-9 that season. Thanks for your hard work over the past six months, gentlemen. You won six more games than your bitter divisional rival, but you won’t be rewarded for it. Nope — we’re going to go ahead and flip a coin to determine if you can keep playing. Have a nice day.

That’s what Bud Selig wants MLB to tell two teams every single year. Every single year. This is not a one-time mistake — a tie at the All-Star Game, a botched weather plan at the World Series, etc. This is an every-year problem. Every single October, a team that didn’t play well enough to make the playoffs will be given a lifeline. A team that did play well enough to make the playoffs will be asked to trot out its No. 1 starter and top relievers in a must-win game. For what? TV ratings?

Selig pushed for these changes because he wanted excitement down the stretch of every season. He’ll get it, but it comes with a price: pure, unadulterated madness.

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