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There’s been a fair amount of discussion the last several years about baseball’s diminishing popularity, much of which has centered around whether baseball should undergo certain changes to address this problem. Baseball “purists” or “traditionalists” have maintained is that what makes baseball unique is that its stalwart adherence to tradition: baseball is one of the last American relics to shine through amid this century’s fleeting cultural preferences. And so, anytime it is suggested that baseball expand its playoff format from eight teams to twelve or sixteen, the traditionalist argument swoops down like a big fly swatter: expansion just can’t happen, eight teams is what keeps baseball unique, and the MLB shouldn’t drag out a baseball season any longer than it is, end of discussion.
Here’s some news for baseball traditionalists out there: the game already has changed over the last fifteen years. Baseball has already descended from its rarefied position in American ethos; a plummet undoubtedly helped by a hearty decade-long steroid scandal (be honest, you turned on sports radio at any time last decade, you had a 50/50 chance of listening to a steroids argument). The onced exalted honor of a pennant win lost its lustre back in 1994 when the MLB expanded to six divisions and then doubled its playoff format from four to eight teams.
Tradition already having been altered, and not all for the good, baseball’s popularity continues to be dwarfed by football by a margin of 4:1. One way to perhaps close this gap, while pitting baseball in an even more unique position in American Sports, is to make a bold and dynamic change in the MLB’s playoff format: if a team gets to 90 wins, no matter what, it earns a playoff berth.
Basketball and hockey are counter-cultural sports with egalitarian playoff formats: 16 teams are granted playoff spots, comprising more than 50% of all teams. What follows is a lengthy yet exciting two-month playoff season. Baseball, obviously, cannot afford that luxury – the MLB isn’t going to extend its season into early December (even though I always thought it might be cool to see a baseball game when ice was a major factor, but that’s just me…I like big, bold changes). Further still, baseball should have a less egalitarian air to it – so much about the game is patience through failure flecked with moments of punctuated success: the home-run, the building anticipation to a timely hit, a player’s eruption out of an 0-20 slump. Expanding baseball’s playoff format too broadly would affect too dramatically the inherent beauty of the game’s culture.
Adapting the NFL’s playoff format would almost be fitting for MLB ethos, but with a small tweak. In the NFL, six teams from each conference (12 out of 32) are included in the playoffs each year. The format works particularly well because by week 15, there are usually a handful of teams from each division still jockeying for wild card spots and plenty of possibilities for ties for those seedings. It makes for an exciting final two weeks of football for several teams, and gives the media the opportunity to play with the baker’s dozen of permutations in the case of ties, which every fan loves to ruminate over. However, the NFL format allows for 8-8 and 9-7 teams to sneak in too often; rabble that our rarefied American past time’s playoff format once again should make no allowances for.
The compromise to preserve the MLB’s integrity while making it a more dynamic and inclusive game is to guarantee a wild card spot in baseball based on a benchmark indicative of strong season: 90 wins. Without boring you with a nuanced analysis, winning 90 games in a baseball season is about equivalent percentile wise to winning 50 in the NBA or going 11-5 in the NFL: two records, respectively, that virtually guarantee a playoff berth, if not a solid one in the middle of each respective playof field. Of course, hitting the 90 game benchmark as a wild card in baseball won’t guarantee good playoff seeding, but it will give high quality team a fighting chance to win the World Series.
Most likely, the 90 game benchmark will open the door to an additional one team in the NL or AL in each division to make the playoffs. If that happens, then the system will put the #4 wild card and #5 wild card in a best of three series to determine which team gets to the round of four. Why a three game series? Because both teams are wild card winners, and they don’t deserve a five game series as do the division winners. If it so happens that another team hits the 90 benchmark, then the #5 and #6 seeds will have a one game showdown to determine who gets into the best of three series against the #4 seed. In the extremely unlikely scenario a #7 seed gets in, then it’s another one-game showdown.
Tradition is built by legacy, and in sports, much of legacy constitutes playoff lore. If the MLB instituted the 90 game benchmark last decade, the following could have contributed to MLB lore: two playoff appearances by one of the best short-ball hitters of all time, Ichiro Suzuiki (Seattle, 93 wins, ’02 and ’03); Barry Bonds with another opportunity to build on his (ignomonious) legacy (SF, 91 wins, ’04); Oakland Athletic’s “Money Ball” would have had a bigger part of the playoff stage (91 wins, ’04); young phenoms CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in a best of three series (Cleveland, 93 wins, ’05); more colorful interviews with Ozzie Guillen and an opportunity to see Jermaine Dye in his prime (Chicago White Sox, 91 wins, ’06); and maybe best of all, the small market darling San Diego Padres (90 wins), which had one of the lowest team salaries in all of baseball, swould have made an entirely unprecedented playoff appearance in 2010.
September Will Sizzle
Let’s be honest here – baseball in September (if not August) is tepid. Yankee and Red Sox fans, usually already somewhere around 9 games ahead of the #5 seed, spend about a month engaging in neurotic levels of concern about whether they will have to face one team, or the other one, a month later. Meanwhile, this season, every division leader or wild card leader except one (the Rangers) has at least a seven game cushion over the #5; a routinely statistically insurmountable lead with thirty games to go. The major benefit at stake in September is home field advantage up to the World Series (that’s decided by the all-star game, another curious change by the MLB), and there are several convincing arguments that having home-field advantage in October is of marginal value.
Now, instill a Chase to 90 into the mix, and September 2011 can really heat up. St. Louis Cardinals Albert Pujols, arguably the MLB’s best player, becomes relevant again. Can he lead the Cardinals (74-66) to a 16-6 record over the last 22 games of this season to get the Cardinals into the playoffs? The Tampa Bay Devil Rays (76-63), a fine small market team in the miserable position of being in the same division at the Redsox and Yankees (they’re contending for 1st place in both the AL Central and West), becomes a legitimate playoff threat. Generally speaking, teams with an outside chance at 90 wins will play their starting lineups to the fullest extent in September, making for higher quality and more competitive baseball. A four game series between the San Fransisco Giants (73-67 with 22 games left) and the St. Louis Cardinals will have a playoff atmosphere And on that rare occassion sometime in the distant future, if the Yankees or Red Sox have a “disaster” year and don’t have the wild card locked up by September 15th, then their overall excellence will still be granted a playoff berth if they win 90 games.
Even in their infinite flirtation with .500 every year, up until September, Blue Jays fans can hope for a playoff berth. After all, sports entertainment and hope should go hand in hand.
No, sorry. They won’t. Make it 85 games, they’ll win 84.
Baseball is a marathon of chasing statistics. 3,000 career hits, 300 career wins, 20 regular season wins for a starting pitcher, and a .400 regular season batting average are all fine pursuits. However, it was the home run chase in the late 90’s that revitalized baseball’s popularity. Now that steroids have been discarded from the game, a “Chase to 90” may be the next Big Marathon. Just imagine the possibilities: How many outings does this pitcher have in September? What is this team’s record in September? Who are they playing? Can this team reach 90, or should they trade their star player and rebuild? And I’m sure some MLB stats guru will come up with a hot new acronym that uses between ten or fifteen factors to gauge a team’s estimated percentage chance of getting to 90 wins, leading to all sorts of robust media debate. I can see it now – two broadcasters on ESPN having at it once a week: “90 or No?”
And the team they complete against will already have had to use their starting rotation. Also, what’s with the whining? It’s playoff season. Look at what NFL players have to deal with by the time they get into the playoffs, and yet they bring it with a fury. Not to mention, the harder the rotation decisions, if you ask me, the better. Remember when Pedro Martinez came out to pitch relief in the 4th inning of game 5 against the Cleveland Indians in the 1999 ALDS? A little heroics amid chaos? You’ll get more of that stuff. That’s good for the game.
Exactly. If baseball wants to be different and stand out, it needs to embracet revolution. After all, isn’t that how all the tradition we now celebrate started – through a revolution? By instituting a 90-game Wild Card berth, the MLB would not be changing the inherent nature of the game; it would just be adding a spark, if you will, to a dimming relic.