BOSTON (CBS) — The debate rages on, and still, the proposed MLB playoff system is driving me to the point of insanity.
As soon as news broke that the decision was, essentially, made to add an extra wild-card team to each league’s playoffs, I wrote a passionate plea against the poorly thought-out plan. In short:
–A one-game playoff is far too small a sample size to determine anything in the arbitrary sport of baseball, where a 62-100 team can and does beat a 100-62 team on any given night. In a one-game playoff, a bad play or (worse) a bad call by an umpire can send a team home for the winter, and that’s not right.
–With baseball’s unbalanced schedule, it’s not fair or reasonable to give a weak division winner a free trip to the ALDS while making the wild-card team fight for its playoff life in a do-or-die one-game playoff. A 96-win wild-card team will have to prove itself against an 88-win team from a weak division, while a 90-game division winner gets a free trip to a five-game series. That’s nonsensical.
Yet, that wasn’t enough. I’ve heard it from all angles: the new system adds meaning to winning the division, it will make teams try harder in September, it will add the undeniable excitement of a one-game playoff every year for both leagues, and so on. All of that is true to a degree, but none of it justifies such a drastic change to the sport. So with Argument No. 1 not enough, here’s my next appeal against the new system.
If this system had been in place in previous years, the Boston Red Sox very well could be sitting with a 93-year championship drought.
Extreme? Not as much as you might think.
Let’s assume that the ’03 Red Sox (95-67) were able to win their one-game playoff against the Mariners (93-69), and that the ALDS against the A’s and ALCS against the Yankees played out the exact same way it did, so that they would go out and get Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke that winter. Of course, that’s a giant assumption, because the Mariners certainly could have beaten the Sox that year, and there’s no telling how Boston would have approached that winter, but for now, let’s say the one-game playoff ended in Boston’s favor in 2003.
Now let’s travel back in time to September 2004. The Red Sox fought back from the dead to make an improbable run at the division title. The Yankees held them off, so the Red Sox headed to the playoffs as the wild card with a 98-64 record, and the Yankees went as division champs with a 101-61 record. You know what happened next — the Sox swept away the 92-70 Angels, then rebounded from a 3-0 hole against the Yankees to win the ALCS, eventually beating the 105-win Cardinals in the World Series. They were, you could say, a team of destiny. Nothing was going to prevent them from winning that year.
Nothing except an arbitrary playoff format, perhaps.
If the new playoff system had been in place in 2004, the Red Sox would not have been on a plane to Anaheim at season’s end. Instead, they’d be preparing for a win-or-go-home, one-game playoff against the Oakland Athletics.
The A’s that year went just 91-71 that season, and they went a pitiful 1-8 against the Red Sox that season. Still, under this new system, that wouldn’t be enough for the Red Sox to earn a berth in the ALDS. They’d have to prove they’re worthy, despite the fact that a 162-game resume and nine head-to-head matchups said they already were.
Now, you might say, “If the Red Sox beat the A’s eight out nine times, they should be able to do it again.” Yeah, sure, but what about that one game Oakland did win? It can happen again. It’s baseball. The A’s still had Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. The A’s were certainly good enough to win one game against anybody. That’s why one-game series don’t decide much of value in MLB. There’s not one reason on earth to believe that the Red Sox had anything better than a 50-50 chance of winning that game. If they lost, they would have gone home for the winter, losers again for the 85th straight year.
After that, who knows what happens? Remember, Theo Epstein put his job on the line when he traded away the face of the franchise, Nomar Garciaparra. Would Theo survive the winter? And what about Terry Francona? In his first year on the job, he wasn’t exactly the beloved figure he would later become. Even if he remained the manager, would how long would he last?
The ripple effect would continue as far down the line as you can imagine. Maybe they don’t draft Jacoby Ellsbury the following June, because they want to fill whatever hole it was that cost them that one-game playoff. Maybe they don’t re-sign Jason Varitek and make him captain. Maybe they don’t sign Edgar Renteria, thereby throwing off the whole wild world of the shortstop position in Boston that remains unsettled to this day. Maybe Pedro Martinez stays with the team. Years later, with the team still in a championship drought, the Hanley Ramirez trade that netted Boston Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell may never have taken place.
Who really knows what happens? You can’t, but you also can’t assume that the team would be in position to be the best team in baseball and win that 2007 World Series. In fact, you don’t really know what happens to any team, in any year. History is completely rewritten under this new format for no good reason.
If you need further proof, look at the 2008 season.
The 2008 Angels won 100 games. They played:
— 19 games against Texas (79-83)
— 19 games against Oakland (75-86)
— 19 games against Seattle (61-101)
The Angels went 36-21 against those awful, bottom-feeding teams. Those teams had a combined winning percentage of .443.
The 2008 Red Sox won 95 games. They played:
— 18 games against the Yankees (89-73)
— 18 games against Tampa (97-65)
— 18 games against Toronto (86-76)
— 18 games against Baltimore (68-93)
The Red Sox went 38-34 against those teams, three of which were above average or better. Those teams had a combined winning percentage of .526.
If the new playoff format had been in effect, the Red Sox would have had to play in a one-game playoff against the Yankees, against whom they went 9-9 that season. Who wins that game to make it to the ALDS? That’s anyone’s guess, but it’s definitely not fair to the Red Sox to even be forced into that position.
The new format would have given the team that loaded up on wins against .443 teams a free ride to the ALDS, but would make the team that won more than it lost against better teams play for its life in a one-game playoff, where literally anything in the world can happen and determine a season.
The idea that you should “just win the division and you don’t have to worry about it” is an empty statement because it doesn’t take any of those realities into account. It’s an oversimplification of the scheduling and the imbalance among divisions. “Just win your division” is easy if your division is terrible; not so much if the top three teams are a combined 76 games above .500.
The old saying is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Bud Selig doesn’t like that phrase. For Bud, it’s, “If it ain’t broke, break it, then sell the pieces for TV money and ratings.”
Which is fine. Just make sure you tell all 25 players as they make their way off the field for the final time of the year that that is why their season was just thrown into the trash. Thanks for the hard work, gentlemen. You deserve to be in the ALDS, but we wanted to squeeze out some more ratings. We don’t really care about your season or the work you’ve put in since April. Thanks for playing, and enjoy your winter.
It would hurt for any team to handle, and it could have been the ’04 Red Sox who were the recipients of that message.
It’s an exciting change, and the fans will benefit with the thrill of watching those one-game playoffs. There’s no denying this. But you also can’t deny that it comes with the not-so-small side effect of forever altering history.