Before anything else, I want to air my grievances about baseball's current playoff system. I want to do it now, on Monday morning, because I don't want to spend the next two days complaining about this and because, whatever happens tomorrow night, I don't want to linger on Bud Selig and his quest to make compelling television rather than determine the best baseball team via some kind of reasonably fair system.
Here's the thing: forcing a one-game playoff between two teams that did not finish with the same record is incredibly unfair and it's against everything that baseball is supposed to be. Baseball teams play 162 games for a reason -- it's because that's a lot of baseball games and at the end of 162 games, the record speaks for itself. The Pirates and Reds played 19 times this year and the Pirates won 11 of those games. The Pirates and Reds played five meaningful games in the last ten days of the season and the Pirates won three of those games. One week ago, the Pirates and Reds had the same record and an outside shot at winning the NL Central with the same basic schedule of three games against a bad team and three against each other. The Pirates went 5-1, the Reds went 1-5.
My gripes with this system aren't new, but since the Pirates are involved let's hash it out one more time. Essentially, the second wild card and the play-in game gives the Reds a back door into the playoffs. The Reds had 162 games to prove that they were better than the Pirates, and they won four fewer games than the Pirates. They're a really good, really talented baseball team capable of beating anyone in a short series or a one-game playoff, though, and so what this wild card does is it basically says, "94 wins or 90 wins, the Reds and Pirates are the same." That's opposed to the reality of the season, and it makes all of those hard-fought, close wins seem meaningless. The Pirates won 94 games and they'd be in almost exactly the same spot right now if they'd only won 87.
Of course, this sort of talk is a waste of time. Baseball instituted the wild card because it wanted to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle feeling of the end of the 2011 season, and Bud Selig has exactly what he wanted. Instead of a long battle of attrition ending in a meaningful payoff like the one that played out between the Pirates and Reds or the Indians, Rangers, and Rays over the season's final couple of weeks, there will be three straight days of Made For TV one-game eliminations. Justice is sacrificed for drama. That's the baseball universe that we live in, but I don't have to like it.
In any case, I'm posting this on Monday morning, because I don't want this to go up after the game and have it be sour grapes, and I suppose that even now it can read like someone equivocating based on an uncertain future. Baseball says that if you don't win your division, you and your closest competitor had equal seasons and that's the reality that the Pirates have to deal with. Either they'll win tomorrow, or the season will end early. Fair or unfair is academic at this point. It all is what it is.
First off, if the Pirates had been the second wild card, our favorite blogger would no doubt feel more amicable toward it.
Secondly, if we really wanted to determine the best team, we would have even less teams in the playoffs, like pre wild-card or even pre-division-series.
But why stop there? How often is the better team going to lose to the team that gets lucky in the playoffs or catches fire? Why not eliminate the playoffs altogether and award the crown to the team with the most wins? Better yet, get rid of the win-loss format, and have cumulative runs for vs. runs-against (a measure by which the Pirates stink, btw).
As you can see, not just baseball, but all major sports are literally built for drama, not for determining the best team. It's what makes sports interesting. This purity test of who-is-actually-the-best makes no sense in a larger context.
But why stop there? If we want to determine the team with the most talent, why have a playoff at all
The current system is soooo much better than it was prior to the new Wild Card Era. For instance in 1992, after playing 162 games, only 4 teams out of 30 made the playoffs......that sounds really stupid. I mean 162 games and most had nothing to play for in September.
TonyFrampton is right, technically, for insisting that the 1 game playoff is fair. It's fair because the rules were set up in advance and everyone knew what was happening. At the same time, especially for those of us who remember baseball with two leagues, no divisions, and just the World Series at the end of the season, a one game playoff, except as a necessary tie-breaker, is about as UN-baseball as you can get -- something from another sport, like football or soccer. The growth to three divisions made a single wild card necessary because three is an odd number; it can even be argued that a single wild card makes sense because the second best team in one division can be, and often is, better than the winners of the other divisions. The addition of a second wild card team just re-introduces the odd-number problem, and makes a mockery of the 162 game season. The one game wild card playoff idea has been done for money, pure and simple. If they want lots of playoff games, then shorten the season, let at least 1/3 of the teams through, and have a hockey-style playoff segment of the season. The one game wild card playoff is especially questionable (some would say ludicrous) in the situation the Pirates and Reds have just created. The Pirates have bested the Reds in the season head-to-head, they have a better overall record by 4 games, and the two are even in the same division. Why should the third place team (the Reds in this case) now get a one game shot at leap-frogging a team four games ahead of them to go to the playoffs when they have just finished well off the pace? The Pirates have already beaten them three in a row to finish the season. Heck, the Pirates are closer to first place than the Reds are to the Pirates - how about a one game playoff between Pittsburgh and St. Louis to determine the division champs? Makes as much sense as deciding second place that way! Full disclosure: I am a lifelong Pirates fan, AND I have been arguing the above for two weeks now - that whichever team ends up third in the NL Central - Pirates or Reds - ought to stay home for the playoffs.
The old system pitted the wild card team against the best team in the league on equal terms for a best of five series. Was it fair in 2011 with the 90-win Cardinals against the 102-win Phillies, first one to three games? Your argument against the new system is valid, but I think the old system might've been less fair, since it's treating teams with a higher win disparity as equal.
Really I find the obsession we have with playoffs is ridiculous. In European soccer leagues, you play every team twice, once at home and once away. Absolutely fair. Also has the chance to have the winner decided a month before the season ends, but that's the price you pay.
Well written. The point about how 94 wins vs. 87 wins would put the Pirates in the playoffes either way is especially good. But I am also glad you put this post up to get this frustration out of the way and to get excited about the game now!
@whygavs that’s just nonsense. Playoffs are perfectly fair.
@whygavs this is how i feel now, but i admit that i didn't quite feel this way 48hours ago.
@whygavs the pennant races would have been almost as compelling this year with only 1 wild card team per each division. same teams involved
@whygavs Don't like it either 'cuz anything can happen in 1 gm. But admit it, we'd like the current system if the Bucs had won the 2nd spot.
I think once baseball moved away from the one-winner in each league format, anything else would have some imperfections. Yes, you can say the Reds backed into the playoffs--but the Pirates had 162 games to take the division from the Cards as well, and they still get a reward for failing to do so. This system is far from perfect, but the prior system had the potential (and the actuality) to punish teams for winning a division, which, in my view, is madness. Is the one-game as good as two-out-of three? No. Does it beat winning 94 games and going home? Hell yeah.
Excellent points all.If we take those points and add the realism that sports almost never contract but easily expand, then the only viable solution is to expand the Wild Card to a three or five game series.I am not sure I am comfortable with that solution or the fact that I even wrote it.That’s like saying I’d like to give those kids their ball back and invite them to go ahead and play on my lawn.
@PatStuart The article from October of last year gives credence to the possibility of honesty here. If you have an opinion that just happens to align with your team's interests, that can often mean it's influenced, but is far from a guarantee (i.e. I don't think you can say "no doubt.").
I personally would not feel that there should be a one-game playoff if the Pirates were the away team with the worse record. I too didn't like it last year, and I won't like it in the future if the Pirates are not included in the wild card playoff game.
Your own argument goes far too extreme. A one-game playoff is won by the "worse" team at a much higher rate than a five- or seven-game series. So the argument is that a few playoff SERIES is still reasonably likely to crown the better team, while a one-game playoff is far less likely.
@PatStuart "Why have a playoff at all?"
How else am I going to dodge having to watch Bones with Mrs. Milledgeville?
@JeffreyMccartney So, how stupid was it prior to 1969 when one team out of ten won their league and advanced to the World Series? That's 2 teams out of 20 if you do the math. All these playoffs do is create more $$$$, more interest and more baseball, sometimes coming close to the month of November. In 1960 Maz hit his WS Game #7 HR on Oct. 13. This year, we'll be just getting started with the best of seven LCS.
@tonyframpton 100% false. Playoffs are inherently UNFAIR, because they're much smaller samples than the regular season.
I am really glad we are not the Reds at least. They are benefiting from this in a big way. What chumps.
@noooodbtaboutit @whygavs I feel I can say with confidence that I'd still hate it. I hated it last year and the Buccos weren't involved.
@noooodbtaboutit @whygavs Eh, I feel like I'd still hate it. I could be wrong, of course, but that's how I feel.
@whygavs The “Games Are a Noisy Measurement” model is under-adhered-to among sports fans
@whygavs couldn’t disagree more. If after 162 games you can’t win your division, tough. You still get a shot to play.
@whygavs actually, it was money.
@whygavs Sure, 3games could be “more fair” but it doesn’t mean 1game is unfair. The definition of unfair would be diff rules for diff teams.
@tonyframpton @whygavs yeah, not much of an argument from tony. I ARBITRARILY LIKE THIS SYSTEM AND IT'S RIGHT BECAUSE I LIKE IT.
@tonyframpton Making two teams with unequal records play a one-game playoff is the literal definition of unfair.
@tonyframpton The point of the wild card was to acknowledge that all divisions are not created equal.