By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This year in the American League, there are the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros and Mariners — and then there’s everyone else.
Those four teams have a combined record of 213-112 — a winning percentage of .655 — while the remaining 11 AL teams are a combined 388-496. Three teams have winning percentages below .400. Nine out of 16 AL teams have .500 records or worse. The AL Central is absolutely abysmal. This may go down as the least competitive season in baseball history.
This is all relevant right now because the Red Sox are in New York for a three-game set against the Yankees. The two teams atop the AL East seemingly never lose, and they’ve taken turns bouncing between first and second place over the past couple of months. While the exact order can certainly vary, there’s no doubt or argument that the Red Sox and Yankees are two of the best three teams in the American League. With all three games being broadcast on national TV, this weekend’s series is sure to draw quite a bit of attention.
But in addition to the obvious, there will be quite a bit at stake in this weekend’s series. And that has everything to do with the one-game wild-card playoff, a format which is almost certain to get exposed this season as being patently unfair.
As a brief background: In 2012, MLB added a one-game playoff to the postseason format, pitting the two best non-division winners against each other. It was MLB’s worst postseason decision since hiring Dane Cook for the incessant 2007 ad campaign. The concept strengthened the importance for teams to win their divisions, because ending up as a wild-card team would put the team in the unenviable position of having to play a win-or-go-home one-game playoff.
In the seven years since it’s been instituted, the one-game playoff has been mostly lauded as a success. That’s because as a TV product, it’s as exciting as baseball gets. It’s an automatic Game 7 to kick off the postseason, and from a viewing standpoint, it’s hard to beat that drama.
But if the league is cognizant of fair competition, then it has to recognize that the one-game playoff can easily lead to unfair advantages to teams who are in bad divisions. The common retort to any complaints about fairness has been, simply, “JUST WIN YOUR DIVISION AND YOU HAVE NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT!” To some extent, that’s fair, but what about this year, for example?
This year, the AL East as a whole is certainly not a potent division, but it of course includes the Red Sox and the Yankees. Both teams have to battle it out with each other, and at this rate, winning 105 games may not be enough to earn the division crown.
Meanwhile in the AL Central, the Cleveland Indians are currently 9.5 games worse than the Red Sox and 8.5 games worse than the Yankees. Yet the Indians own a ridiculous eight-game lead in the AL Central, which may go down as the worst division in baseball in the entire history of baseball having divisions. That’s not hyperbole — it’s very real.
It doesn’t help Cleveland’s case that the team has gone 22-7 against the Royals, White Sox, and Tigers, with 28 more games against the AL Central’s basement dwellers. (The three teams are a combined 89-153 on the year.) Against everyone else, the Indians are 22-28.
Against the current playoff field, the Indians have gone 5-12 — that’s 0-3 against the Yankees, 3-4 against the Astros, and 2-5 against the Mariners. They have yet to play the Red Sox. That is, quite obviously, dreadful.
And yet, either the Red Sox or Yankees will be forced to play the Mariners, in all likelihood, in a one-game, winner-take all contest in early October. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Indians (barring a complete and utter second-half collapse) will have a free pass to the divisional round of the postseason without having to risk anything in a made-for-TV event that will end the season for one baseball team.
From a competitive standpoint, how does that make any sense?
The simplest solution for MLB would be to limit the unbalanced nature of the schedule, so that a team in a terrible division doesn’t benefit from playing 60-plus games against terrible teams. Then the league could simply say that the three teams with the best records in each league get the free pass to the divisional round, while the next two best teams have to play in the one-game playoff. This year, that would mean the Indians and Mariners would be playing in that game, which seems like a slightly equitable setup if the league insists on keeping the one-game playoff.
(Of course, the better solution would be to eliminate the one-game playoff altogether, because relying on a playoff that is a 0.6 percent representative of the regular season is an insane way to do business. The NFL obviously only has one-game playoffs, but one game in the NFL represents 6.3 percent of the regular season. A four-game series in the NBA or NHL represents 4.9 percent of the season, while a seven-game series represents 8.5 percent. MLB’s one-game playoff represents … 0.6 percent.)
The other common response to any one-game complaints has been, “Just win the one-game playoff.” Well, sure. That would alleviate much of the problem for any team that feels it is unfairly thrown into a three-hour window that can negate the previous six months of work. But such a directive overlooks quite a bit — namely that in the sport of baseball, even the worst team in the majors can beat the best team on any given day. The Red Sox have the most wins in the majors, but they’ve still dropped a game to the Orioles, the worst team in the majors. They’ve also lost two of three to the White Sox (third-worst team in the AL), one out of three to the Royals (second-worst team in the AL) and Tigers (fourth-worst), and they dropped two of three to the Twins, who are seven games under .500. Even with their ace, Chris Sale, starting, the Red Sox have lost games to the Rays, A’s, Royals, Blue Jays, White Sox and Twins. Such things happen quite regularly.
The Yankees have the second-best winning percentage in the majors, yet they got swept this past weekend by the sub-.500 Rays. The Yankees are also 3-3 against the 23-57 Orioles. Again, such things can happen in baseball, and it’s why MLB did not utilize one-game playoffs for the first 109 years of existence. (Yes, one-game playoffs existed when ties occurred organically, but those were Game No. 163 of the regular season rather than Game No. 1 of the postseason.)
And in the six years since the one-game playoff was instituted, the road team (aka the lesser of the two wild-card teams) has won seven out of the 12 games played. To be fair, four of those games involved teams with the same record. But one winner (the 2012 Cardinals) was six games worse than its opponent, while two winners (2015 Cubs, 2015 Astros) finished the season one game behind their one-game playoff opponents.
A similar situation to this current season took place in 2012, when the 88-win Tigers were given the “bye” to the ALDS after winning a weak AL Central. Meanwhile the 93-win Orioles and 93-win Rangers had to play in the one-game playoff, with the Rangers ending up getting sent home. The Rangers went 7-3 vs. the Tigers and 28-19 overall against the AL Central that year. The Tigers went 13-20 against the AL West and 21-18 against the AL East but nevertheless received the free pass to the postseason and made it all the way to the World Series.
Last year, the Twins were included in the postseason despite their low total of 85 wins in the inferior AL Central, meaning the Yankees (who had accumulated 91 wins in the more competitive AL East) had to participate in the one-game playoff. The Diamondbacks also had to participate in the NL’s one-game playoff against Colorado, despite finishing six games ahead of the Rockies in the NL West and winning the season series 11-8.
Both the Yankees and Diamondbacks emerged victorious in those one-game playoffs, but their forced inclusion seemed like a punishment in a system that rewarded mediocre teams for no real reason other than a TV ratings boost.
It’s a needlessly obnoxious reality for the Red Sox and Yankees to have to face. If Rob Manfred remains dead-set on keeping Bud Selig’s circus-like postseason exhibition, then he owes it to all 30 teams to at least try to make the process somewhat balanced and fair. The “JUST WIN YOUR DIVISION!” crowd loses any and all semblance of legitimacy in a year like this one, when the Pawtucket Hot Weiners could probably win the AL Central.
With unbalanced schedules, the Indians will benefit from playing 76 games against atrocious AL Central teams but also from the mere fact that they don’t really have to be very good in order to secure a free trip to the ALDS. The Indians could finish the year at 81-81 — with many of those wins coming against the worst division in the history of baseball — and avoid the one-game playoff. The Red Sox (or Yankees) could finish the year at 107-55 — while having played 19 games against a top team in the league — and still have to risk the entire season in a one-game playoff where one single bad hop or one bad call could end an entire season of work.
Any way you slice it, that’s absolutely ludicrous.
Of course, with their bloated payrolls and all of their national TV games and all of their success, the Red Sox and Yankees won’t serve as sympathetic figures to many fan bases around the country. But certainly, this is not the first year that such an inequity has taken place. In years past, when it was a smaller market team, or when the better team ultimately won the one-game playoff, the problem didn’t receive much attention. The “JUST WIN YOUR DIVISION!” crowd still reflexively rattled off its response without applying much (or any) critical thought, and life went on.
But with two of the biggest and most-intense baseball markets in the country now involved in a situation where one team is invariably going to get victimized by Selig’s fun idea, perhaps this will be the year that the proper level attention is paid to a system that will almost always be inherently unfair to at least one team every year.
For now, with the Red Sox and Yankees squaring off in a major early-summer showdown, the looming reality of what’s at stake should really start to come into focus.