Friday, June 17, 2005

Building a woefully imperfect beast

I don't have my best stuff today. Considering I'm sort of the Rheal Cormier of the Natosphere, that's no good. I tossed out some ideas, such as Ryan Drese's amazing Nats debut or MLB's desperate conspiracy to get the Yankees back to .500 or Boz's new part-time job as Cristian Guzman's hired goon, but the QWERTY just wasn't feeling it in the bullpen during warm-ups.

So, I'm going back to one of those tired topics that's a sufficient indicator of a mind lacking creativity, like when a sports radio host takes calls on "Pete Rose: Hall of Fame?" or "College football: playoff system?" Today, I'm falling back on the same kind of thing: how can we improve MLB's playoff system?

[Excuse me, sir? Yes, you. I heard the groaning.]

Okay, let's lay some ground rules, or at least basic assumptions:

1. Baseball will never go back to the "good old days" when one team per league made the playoffs---which, of course, only existed at the "World Series."

2. Baseball will never go back to the "pretty acceptable more recent days" when two teams per league, one per division, made the playoffs---which the winners of a "League Championship Series" meeting in the World Series.

3. Although not as assured as the first two, we're all pretty freakin' sure MLB will never admit fewer than the current four teams per league into the postseason.

4. So-called "radical realignment" will not occur, though cosmetic realignment, similar to that of 1994 or 1998, might.

5. Interleague play will probably continue to exist, and it might continue to be administered in "blocks" that tend to inflate its perceived interest and effect, though that's not a certainty.

6. Expansion will likely not occur in the next decade, at least.

7. FOX Sports will hold the national television rights for generations to come, meaning our descendants must suffer Tim McCarver as much as we do currently.


Last time, I kicked around a lot of models. I spent a lot of time doing this, and it was frustrating because none of them was satisfactory. I mean, I'm one of those guys who really, really prefers seeing a team win something tangible before being admitted to the postseason. I'd love for it to be the league regular season pennant, but if not it can be a divisional flag in a two-division format, and if we have to do this it can be a divisional crown in an expanded divisional format. All of those are discrete titles.

The wild card? That's crap. It's an abstraction, a fiction, no more meaningful than if I were to crown myself the Duke of Rueckel.

At the same time, I'm a realist. The only way we're getting back to a straight divisional champion format is in a 4 x 4 x 2 format (four-team divisions, with four divisions per league). That probably wouldn't happen for awhile, since we've been told expansion is a ways off, and even if it did, would it be desirable? To me, not necessarily. More teams in a division, to my intuition at least, create more opportunities for a close race. Is that faulty logic (or statistics)? Perhaps, or probably. Nevertheless, four-team divisions seem sort of slight.

So we've got to have wild cards. Great, we'll stay with what we've got. It's not perfect, and it's not even desirable, but we can't think of anything better.

Not so fast, my friend. I want a better system. I want to get revise the ugly-duckling four-team division sitting out there in the AL West, and I want to hurt the wild card teams a bit for their imposition on baseball tradition.

It can be done; we have the technology.

Step One: Move over, Houston

Hey, Houston Astros---welcome to the American League West!

Oh no! You can't move the Astros! I mean they've got so much tradition in the National League. It wouldn't be fair to just mov . . . {dissenter cut down by chain saw}.

I'll show you tradition: look at all those National League championship pennants.

Sorry, last year was the final hope. Clemens couldn't finish the job in Game Seven, though. Better have Bob Irsay handy on the Rolodex, guys, because he's got an in with the movers. It's not the worst thing in the world, anyway. Imagine eighteen (or whatever) games a year with the Rangers; you don't think that would fill up The Juicer a little better than the Pirates? Lloyd McLendon doesn't do the zany stuff on the road, right? Plus, you'd be helping out MLB, which is big on time zone-matching these days, but still somehow has a team play two time zones away against its divisional foes. Now the Rangers won't be alone in that regard.

I'll admit it: I thought about moving the Colorado Rockies. But I don't want the designated hitter anywhere near the Rocky Mountains, and moving you guys required only one move. So, if you don't mind, it's kind of elegant.

But what . . . about . . . {dissenter, fighting for life, clutching for words} . . . the unequal . . . amount of teams . . . in both . . . leagu . . . {hello, Mr. Samurai Sword}.

Oh, that. That's simple; just do the whole interleague play thing throughout the season, not in these phony blocks. If our friend the dissenter were still kicking, he'd raise the questions of Opening Day and, heaven forbid, the final weekend of the season. I'm glad he's dead, because the easy answer is "Yankees-Mets" or "Cubs-White Sox" to keep the interest and importance. And how do we schedule all those games in between? I have no idea, but computers do.

Step Two: Tough love wild cardism

Last time, reader/chatter extraordinaire J. Yuda related the best plan we've got under the circumstances, and I've redacted some of it to fit Step One above:

My favorite playoff reform -- aside from cutting down on the number of playoff teams -- is something I saw, I think, Rob Neyer suggest a few years back. [. . .]The three division winners make the playoffs as per normal. But instead of one wildcard team, you have two -- and they play a one-game "play-in" game, before proceeding with the playoffs as we now have them.This way, there's value in winning your division: you're guaranteed to get to the best-of-five series and you're guaranteed an off day to help set your rotation up. This livens up the pennant races again without cutting down on playoff teams -- since
Bud Selig isn't interested on cutting down on playoff teams.

I like this. It's not perfect, but it seems to fit the conditions set forth way above and doesn't really affect my desire to change the four-team AL West. (I should note that I'm not alone here; reader/chatter Brian O. really despises the four-team division.)

So, here's how it goes:

---> Sunday: end of regular season.
---> Monday: wild card games, back-to-back; FOX televises both.
---> Tuesday: playoffs begin, and both wild card winners start tonight.

I thought about best-of-three somehow, but it doesn't work; the conventional wisdom is that too many days off would leave the divisional champs rusty. I won't argue with that. One "wild card game" per league is enough; it works for the NFL, and everyone knows that those guys are perfect. So, in many cases, a team per league will play a high-leverage game on Sunday, an elimination game on Monday, and the playoff opener on Tuesday. Think of it the challenge those teams' managers face in devising the pitching rotation and bullpen usage.

That's punishment enough, I think.

But what if . . . {gasp} . . . there's a tiiiie . . . ? {This guy just won't quit. Where's the flamethrower?}

A tie between divisional opponents or wild card contenders? I'll handle both, or all, scenarios:

---> Divisional tie: one game "play-in" game (actually, 163rd game) on Monday afternoon, to be broadcast on ESPN. If it's a West Coast division, it's broadcast opposite the late afternoon (ET) game on FOX. Sure, it competes with another network's broadcast, but more baseball = good thing, FOX's playoff arrangement often has it competing with itself (the FX network), and Rupert Murdoch's a greedy chub who deserves to be knocked down a peg or two anyway. So, winner in, loser out. Same as it ever was.

---> Wild card tie: no playoff game, use the NFL's tiebreaker formula, right down to point (run) differential. Why? Because these guys don't deserve another game to prove who's best; these are the free-loading wild card teams, remember! Oh, and because the NFL does it this way, and those guys are perfect. Seriously, a wild card playoff game messes up my schedule---and, in my world at least---isn't a "play-off game" anyway. The game above is a regular season game, just an extra one; these guys here don't deserve even that.

---> Divisional tie + wild card tie: use a 163rd game to decide the division, and the wild card contender tied after 162 games gets in. Sorry, it's not fair, but I'm deciding it based on the rationale above. Plus, a game with divisional foes has more meaning.

But, really, the third scenario won't happen often, if at all. It hasn't yet, right?

One other superficial change: in order to ease Monday travel, there is no Sunday night game on the last day of the season. Instead, ESPN agrees to a Saturday night game during the final weekend.

So, this is what we get:

* National League: three divisions, five teams each.
* American League: three divisions, five teams each.
* Three division champs per league.
* Two wildcard teams per league.
* One-game wild card playoff per league.
* Proceed thereafter as now, except wild card survivors have to start the next day.

One final point of clarification: both wild card game entrants for leagues, all four teams, all get "Wild Card" banners to hang in their ballparks. They are all "playoff teams," and "flags fly forever," you know.


Basil, you're not giving yourself enough credit. You're not the Rheal Cormier of the Natosphere. I'd call you no less than the Norm Charlton of the Natosphere.
I'll take Rheal Cormier. I really like the name.
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