Thursday, October 25, 2012

Are -- Gasp -- The Europeans Right? The Problems with our Playoff System

Right now, in the World Series, the team with the 3rd-best record in the National League is playing the team with the 7th-best record in the AL (out of 14 teams!). Somehow, one of these teams will be crowned the best team. This isn't an anomaly. Nearly every year a team with a weak record wins the World Series. The team with the most wins rarely wins for a number of factors--the small sample size of five games doesn't separate teams like a regular season does, there is very little advantage to being the top seed, and luck. Matt Holliday twists his back and all of a sudden the Cardinals are out their best hitter for game 6 of a playoff series. American sports have just recently accepted this playoff format, with the wild card allowing teams with decent records the chance to win the title as the best team in a given year. Prior to 1995 in baseball, only four teams made the playoffs. However, this is no longer the case. The best division winners and two best teams after that make the playoffs, a system that makes the regular season incredibly unimportant.

This brings us to European sports, which place much more value on the regular season. In the English Premier League, the top soccer league in the world, the team with the most points in the regular season is considered the league's champion. Being the best team after 30-something matches is sufficient to be considered the champion; no postseason tournament is required. The difficulty in beating out every single team for six months is valued higher than winning one match, or three or four games, in a postseason series.

I understand the obvious counterarguments to this theory -- namely, that there wouldn't be exciting finishes to the regular season and that the drama of the playoffs is irreplaceable. The playoffs undoubtedly produce heroes and amazing moments, but at some point in time there has to be a concern for fairness, or perhaps phrased more accurately, a lack of arbitrariness. In a world where the 2006 Cardinals can win 83 games in the regular season and become champions, what's been proven? The only thing I get out of that is that the baseball playoffs are just a series of coin flips and someone is bound to win three in a row. That's not good enough for me. A new system has to be devised and I'm here to do it.

There are two other flaws with the baseball playoffs that I'm sure I've written about countless times here so I apologize. First, divisions. The geographical limitations give teams unbalanced schedules so that the Tigers' 87 wins get them into the playoffs and the Rays' 90 keep them home. Why? Because the Rays are in the "East" and not the "Central." In a world of charter airplanes and fucking iPhone 5's, how is it that we can't just balance the schedules and split into two leagues without divisions? Second, the playoffs use a fundamentally different strategy than the regular season. The ability to have your best pitcher pitch in 40% of your division series games will often get you into the ALCS (ask Yankees and Tigers fans. Well maybe leave Yankee fans alone for a few more weeks), but this is completely opposite of the regular season strategy. Teams with good fourth and fifth starters are punished because their strategy doesn't conform to the new conditions of the playoffs. Additionally, injuries become paramount and again they are largely arbitrary. Having one strategy for the regular season and another for the playoffs is illogical.

So to me it seems natural to value the regular season more. The team with the best record over 162 games deserves to be considered the champion, or at least have a fair chance to play another top team. I'm refraining from completely eliminating the playoffs. Instead I'd take the top 2 records from each league and have two seven game series. With a balanced schedule (goodbye interleague play, you were cute while you lasted), teams wouldn't be able to make any excuses or luck out by playing in the same division as the Twins, Royals, and Indians. The regular season might seem to drag now, but with increased stakes, every game would be more important than it is now. As for the teams out of contention that would have had a chance under the old system, tough shit. Being the fifth best team out of fifteen shouldn't give you the chance to win a playoff series with your only impediment being one less home game. Being a top-two team is incredibly hard and teams that can accomplish this deserve the right to play each other, not a team with ten fewer wins.

The sad reality is that this will never happen. There is too much money to be made by keeping more teams in contention. Major League Baseball is erring on the side of money over competitive integrity as is their right, but as a fan I'm not happy about it. The EPL, however, avoids this problem in two ways. One: they relegate the worst teams to the second division, making sure that teams don't tank while keeping their fans interested. Two: they only have 20 teams, meaning that every team has a better chance to make it to the top or at least the top four (and make the lucrative international club tournament, the Champions League).

Imagine if Major League Baseball cut down each league to ten teams. I'd cut the A's, the Marlins, the Rays, the Royals, Mets, have one AL DC/Baltimore team, the Padres, one NL Chicago team, the Mariners (to help limit travel), and the Rockies (fuck Mile High). If we really wanted to be generous, the MLB could give money to ten more franchises that would be in smaller cities (Vegas, Portland, Sacramento, etc.) and in cities that lost their top division team, and that would form a second division. This would lead to relegation for the worst team in each division and give each team a good chance to make it into the top two.

I know this scenario is extremely radical and, again, will never happen, but it would mitigate the loss of revenue from the division series and wildcard rounds while making the regular season that much more exciting. It pains me to say it more than anyone else, but I think the Europeans are right and it is time to start respecting the regular season.

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