A couple of weeks ago, I argued that the Yankees-Red Sox series meant nothing. Not nothing as in, “Justin, you’re just saying that because you’re a bitter Yankee fan” sort of nothing, but the sort of nothing where, well, nothing happened. After the Red Sox convincingly took two out of three games against the Yankees three weeks ago, there was still one absolute: no matter what, both teams are still going to make the playoffs.
Now at last comes the fool proof plan to fix baseball’s playoff system. I will give warning that although it is fool proof, it may not be Selig proof. These ideas have been tossed around in various ways for some time, and here’s my best way to combine all of them into a stronger, more meaningful baseball season.
Firstly, I would implement a playoff series (The League Wild Card Series, or LWCS), in a best-out-of three format to be played between the two teams with the best record which didn’t win their division. I am adding a Wild Card team to each league. If you don’t want to play in this series, then it is simple: win your division. If you don’t want to extend your pitcher’s innings, then the answer is simple: win your division. I hope you all are following along with the general idea. The format of the series would be simple: Game One of the ALWCS will be played at the home site of the 5th seeded team. Games 2 and 3 will be played at the 4th seeded stadium, giving the 4th placed team Home Field Advantage for the final two games.
There are a few main reasons people are apprehensive about adding a Wild Card team and additional round of the playoffs. One of them, as I mentioned above, is the additional amount of innings that some pitchers will have to throw. The other reason is because of fears that an additional week of the season will extend the World Series back into November, which it did extend to in 2001 (only because of 9/11), 2009 and 2010.
Well the remedy to that is incredibly simple. Shorten the regular season. Actually, I shouldn’t use the term “shorten”. Rather, return the regular season to the amount of games it played for the first 60 years of baseball – 154 games. In 1961, MLB extended the season to 162 games, even though the only round of postseason was the World Series. Seven years later, in 1969, baseball split each league into an East and West division and added the League Championship Series, which for roughly the first 20 years of its existence was only a best-of five game series.
The return of the 154 game series would eliminate eight games of the baseball season. Even with the three added games that the Wild Card Series would bring, the net comes out to a removal of five games from the schedule, or in pitching terms, a normal run through the rotation. Would anyone actually miss the loss of eight games? I don’t think so. Simply put, you are removing two three-game series and one two-game series from the schedule. You are also, essentially, losing four home games, which means a decent amount of revenue. But what you get in return is a more meaningful regular season with a longer shelf life than the current format.
Let’s take this year for example. Currently there is only one important race, the American League West. The loser of that division, unlike the AL East, will not qualify for the postseason. This is because the two teams in the AL East are miles ahead of everyone else. The Wild Card race has become a walkover. Under the new idea, with a fifth team added, it would take a little bit of edge out of this weekend’s Rangers-Angels series, but you would add two teams into the playoff race, the Rays and Blue Jays, both of which are within five games of the Angels for 5th place in the AL.
In the National League, it gets even better. San Francisco is currently in 5th place. There are four teams within 6 games of the Giants. This includes the Cardinals, Reds, Rockies and even the Nationals. The Nationals would be in a playoff race! Even the Mets and Pirates, which sit 7 and 7.5 GB of the Giants would have an outside shot of making the playoffs. There would be only five teams in the NL (LA, San Diego, Florida, Chicago and Houston) that would not see a playoff race. Granted, the teams would lose a week’s worth of games to work with, but I think the mentality of players would change. They would say that “even if we’re miles back of our division, if we’re in striking distance of 5th place in late August, we have a shot at doing something”.
A quick additional note: The 154 game schedule would remove the argument of who should be the single season home run champion – If unwilling to put an asterisk next to McGwire, Sosa and Bonds, MLB could disguise these steroid-aided records as listing them separately in a book of records for the 50+ years that baseball were played with 162 games.
To make the 154 game season more meaningful for the playoffs, Interleague play would be axed off. As a fan, for the most part, I like interleague play. Every so often, you get clunkers like Yankees-Pirates or Royals-Astros, but you also get gems like when the Brewers played the Yankees this past year. But good or bad, interleague play needs to go away. The style of baseball is so different between the two leagues that it is unfair (proven by the historically better record of AL teams) and should not be part of the sport.
Instead, those 15-18 games that were used for interleague play will be given to League opponents. The balanced schedule would return. Well, it would be mostly balanced. It would not be imbalanced! This would be the only way to give teams a fighting chance to catch up to a 5th place team that plays in a different division. The “we didn’t get to play that West division team enough times to catch up to them” argument would be rendered useless.
The imbalanced schedule was introduced in 2001 to place greater emphasis on games within your division. Teams in the division play each other more often so that every team has a chance to prove that they are better than the first place team. It prevents teams from getting a large, early season division lead and then running away and hiding (for both sides of this coin, see also: 1998 Yankees or 2007 Mets). Perhaps the reason why, aside from the 1964 Phillies and 1978 Red Sox, September comebacks were rare before returning in the past decade was that divisional teams did not meet as often as they do now. Aside from the ’07 Mets, here are some examples of late season divisional drama. In 2005, the White Sox entered September with a 7.5 game lead over the Indians, which by September 23rd, had been reduced to 1.5. In 2006, the Minnesota Twins overcame a 6.0 game September deficit to overthrow the Tigers in the Central.
But under my new system, playoff races would have more to do with the League at large than just the division, removing the need for an imbalanced schedule. The games against a contending team from another division become more important.
Each American League team would play a team at least eleven times. If you play 11 games against 13 other teams, you play 143 games – the remaining 11 games would be put into your divisional opponents. In the NL, it would get a little complicated because of the extra team. Each team would only play each other a minimum of 9 times, giving you 135 games and leaving you with 19 games left over. If you put all of them into divisional games, it would be slightly more imbalanced than the American League. It’s not a perfect system, but it helps prevent the Yankees and Red Sox from fattening up against the Orioles and not having to face the Tigers or Rangers.
Once teams survive a truly unforgiving pennant race, the top three teams would wait and see what the two Wild Card Champions do in the WCS. In the League Division Series, teams would be seeded based on regular season record except for the Wild Card team, which will still automatically be given the 4th seed. They will, regardless of their division, play the top seeded team. That means, yes, the Yankees and Red Sox could meet in the ALDS. Is it as dramatic as waiting until the ALCS? No. But why would reward the Wild Card team by having them play a worse team? Or punish the best team by forcing them to play a better team? Could you imagine if the NCAA Tournament said “Alright, we’re in the Final Four. But #1 Duke, you can’t play #4 Carolina until the Championship game, if you even get that far. Instead, we’re going to give you a slightly tougher opponent, and we’re giving Carolina a slightly easier opponent.”? This seems to be no problem in the NFL where divisional opponents meet all the time in the penultimate round of the Conference playoffs, with divisional rivals playing in both sets of the AFC Divisional playoffs this past season. The worst team should play the best team, no matter what. If you don’t like it, then, again, don’t put yourself in that position!
Is my system perfect? No. I’m just a 22 year old kid trying to write an internet blog. But in the hands of Commissioner Selig, I think that my plan is workable. Competitive balance would increase while also not watering down the talent level of playoff teams. Because of the additional round that the Wild Card team would have to play, upsets would, I think be more rare and more special. Right now, it has become almost commonplace for a Wild Card team to be able to make a playoff run. It has become too easy and it has turned some playoff races into a farce. This, hopefully, will fix most of these issues. Who knows? It could end up being the only way that the Pirates are ever in another pennant race.