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2011 MLB Playoff Format: The Autumn of the Yankees’ Discontent

October Baseball (photo courtesy of howtowatchsports.com)

For baseball traditionalists, the formulation of today’s MLB playoff series is just another ho-hum day at the park.  However, for those who have a sharper feel for the pulse of change, antennae should set a bristle.  The New York Yankees won 97 regular season games in the American League East, indisputably the most competitive division in all of baseball.  In fact, they won by 6 games over the 91 win Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and 7 over the Boston Red Sox. And let’s not forget that every year in the AL East, the Yankees also have play those treacherous Blue Jays, a perennially solid .500 team always capable of throwing a legitimate World Series Contender off the straight and narrow. So, who did the Yankees “earn” as an ALDS opponent?  The Detroit Tigers – arguably the best team in baseball after the All-Star Break (46-24, .657 winning percentage), led by the indomitable 24-win pitcher Justin Verlander, who just completed a regular season for the record books that included his second career no-hitter. As an added perk, the Yankees may have to face Verlander twice in a five-game series.   Conversely, the Tigers, for earning the #3 seed in the AL, have to deal with the Yankees, who amongst three other potential AL playoff opponents, is the most capable of scoring a sufficient number of runs against Verlander to neutralize his formidable presence in a best of five.

Still, “thems the rules,” right?  In the first round of the playoffs, two teams in the same division simply cannot play against each other, all potentially unfair match-up nightmares for the higher seeds notwithstanding. The two overarching logical explanations for this rule are:

  • As divisional rivals already play each other 18 times in the regular season, fans will get bored of seeing them play each other again so early in the playoffs.  It makes for better drama if two divisional rivals see each other in the league championship.
  • If a first place team in a division sees itself as better than a second place divisional rival, and is a sufficient number of games ahead of that rival to ensure home-field advantage in late September, it may purposely lose all its games against the now wild-card contender for the rest of the season to ensure a favorable pairing in the first round.

The problem with the former justification is ALCS and NLCS inter-division contests don’t happen nearly enough to outweigh the costs of baseball’s currently inequitable playoff format. Since 2001, only seven out of twenty league championships were inter-divisional contests; four of those years, no such contests occurred. And the last time what may arguably be America’s most longstanding and fabled sports drama – the Yankees versus the Redsox playoff series – took place? Eight seasons ago, in 2004.

If the MLB wants to preserve the drama of inter-divisional contests in playoff baseball, how about making the first round seven games, so we can more regularly enjoy more Yankees v. Red Sox series during the crisp (well, global warming notwithstanding) first week of October?

The latter argument has an ominous ring to it, but seems to involve way too many permutations and assumptions to hold water. In every sport, there is the probability of one team “resting its players” deliberately in order to perhaps ensure that their current opponent on the last week of the season makes it to the playoffs instead of the another more threatening foe.  And even when deliberate intentions do not exist, sometimes an on the bubble team will just get lucky enough to play a post-season lock that chooses to unload its bench.

One assumption that is ironclad is that the Yankees may very well have gotten shafted for winning 99 games in the regular season.  Why won’t the MLB address these manifest issues first before speculating on what is more or less dramatic, or what unlikely permutations may abound if the MLB were to just embrace some change?

About Argun M. Ulgen

When I was young, my dad and I used to watch a lot of MSG midnight replays of Knicks basketball after he came home from work. One night at 1am we grilled steaks and watched the Knicks somehow hold onto a 4th quarter lead. Sometime later, I started to fall in love with reading all sorts of literature, including sports books.The dawning of this romance came soon after my deep relationships with HBO reruns of its fine series programming, not to mention the Encore channel's more than generous replays of Scarface, came to a close. I write, but only when I don't feel like being idle. Feel free to AIM me at YoProtein (that's "Yo, Protein!") with comments or suggestions about my work. I more than welcome feedback.

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One comment for “2011 MLB Playoff Format: The Autumn of the Yankees’ Discontent”

  1. New Post: 2011 MLB Playoff Format: The Autumn of the Yankees’ Discontent http://t.co/pZXsG6xT

    Posted by Sports of New York | September 30, 2011, 5:37 pm

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