BOSTON (CBS) — On Monday night, with three games left in the regular season, so much was still at stake for several teams. The Yankees and Orioles fought against the Red Sox and Rays, respectively, in hopes of earning a division lead, the Angels fought to stay alive in the wild-card race, and the A’s clawed and clawed to try to catch the Rangers in the AL West. All of these teams desperately want to avoid the fate of being forced to play in a one-game wild-card playoff, and in the case of the Yankees and O’s, the fate of being forced to play in a one-game divisional playoff prior to a one-game wild-card playoff.
It’s all great theater, sure, but it’s all terribly, wildly unfair.
That aspect of Bud Selig’s grand master plan was on full display in Kansas City, where the Detroit Tigers were busy clinching the AL Central, or as it’s known in intelligent circles, the most pathetic division in baseball.
The Tigers needed until the final series of the year to clinch a division where the average team record is 75-85 (relevant due to MLB’s unbalanced scheduling, which pits divisional teams against each other 18 times per year). That’s worse than the NL Central, where the average team record is 76-83, despite having two teams with 100 or more losses. The Red Sox are one of baseball’s great embarrassments, but the AL Central has two teams with a worse record than Boston’s.
That’s how terrible the American League Central is. The Tigers have been able to play 18 games against the Twins (66-94), 18 games against the Indians (67-93), 18 games against the White Sox (84-76) and 16 games thus far against the Royals (71-89). The Tigers’ record against those teams: 42-28. Forty-two of their 87 wins (48.2 percent) came against their weak divisional opponents.
And what do all those AL Central teams, including the Tigers, have in common? They all have fewer wins than the Yankees, Orioles, Rangers and A’s. Despite playing in tougher divisions, and therefore playing tougher schedules against better teams, all four of those teams are still at risk of having their entire season decided by a three-hour window in a one-game playoff. While one of those teams will ultimately lose that one-game playoff, and the other will advance to the ALDS without its No. 1 starter and best relievers available for Game 1, the Tigers will relax and wait for their free trip to the ALDS. And they’ll be the home team, no less!
Sound fair to you?
Well, there’s also this: The Tampa Bay Rays were eliminated from playoff contention on Monday night when the A’s beat the Rangers. The Tampa Bay Rays play in a division where there are two playoff teams, where the average team record is 83-77. Despite that much more difficult schedule, the Rays have won 89 baseball games. That’s two more than the Tigers, if you’re keeping track. Yet the Rays, who turned in a much more impressive effort from April through October, will not be participating even in a one-game playoff, while the Tigers will waltz into the first round after winning the worst division in baseball.
Again, how fair is that?
That second scenario isn’t new to baseball, as weak division winners have been able to make the playoffs over more worthy third-place teams in more competitive divisions since the wild-card format was adopted. However, with the new format and the one-game playoff, the inherent unfairness of the unbalanced schedule is magnified, given what’s on the line for so many teams in the final week of the season.
It’s patently absurd that either the Yankees or Orioles will be forced to play in a one-game playoff against either the A’s or the Rangers. All four of those teams will finish the year with at least 92 wins; the Tigers at best can win 89 games.
So why do the Tigers get a free road to the ALDS? Well, you’ll have to ask Bud, but here’s guessing that it’s mostly due to the haste with which this new playoff format was instituted. We already know that because of the league forcing this new format into action this year, the No. 1 seed will have to play its first two ALDS games on the road, at the home of the winner of the one-game playoff.
Hey, best team in the league, congratulations! You get to open the playoffs on the road! Where will that game be? Well, we don’t know yet! Tune in to TBS to find out! Then, get on a plane and fly to your opponent’s stadium. It might be on the opposite side of the country! You’ll have plenty of time to read books and listen to music on your six-hour flight!
That rule will change next year. So why is it in place this year? Did the new format just have to be rushed along this year? Have television dollars really taken more precedence over the integrity of the sport and the 162-game regular season? Why even bother playing 162 games if it’s not going to matter? Maybe the league ought to decide playoff berths on home run derbies, if all that matters anymore is entertainment.
We also know that MLB is considering changing the unbalanced schedule so that teams will play divisional rivals 19 times instead of 18. That means this problem is only going to get worse next year. I, for one, can’t wait, because there’s nothing I love seeing more than six months of hard work for one team going down the drain for no real reason at all.
And that’s what the problem is with the new format. Any baseball fan will be happy to tune in to a do-or-die, win-or-go-home one-game playoff. The drama and intensity is guaranteed to be very real, and we’ll all be watching. But the experience will be cheapened, knowing that regardless of the outcome, the system is built to be unfair. At least one but maybe two AL East teams will not make it to the ALDS, despite winning more games in a more difficult division than the Tigers. The same could be said for an AL West team, should it lose in the one-game playoff. It’s a brand-new system, but it’s already broken. And for no real reason other than “because Bud said so.” (And because money is green and owners just love it.)
The perceived reasoning behind this change in playoff format was to make baseball more meaningful in the final month of the regular season. In that regard, bravo, Mr. Commissioner. This September and early October baseball is certainly meaningful for a handful of teams. Call me crazy, though — I much prefer playoff baseball to be meaningful, too. Thanks to the Tigers having a guaranteed spot (and the ability to rest up Justin Verlander for Game 1), while two much better teams will be out of the playoffs before the ALDS, that’s guaranteed to not be the case.