The Tenth Inning – Week 20

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The Tenth Inning – Week 20 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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This week, it’s time for something a little off the beaten path. Rather than spending time analyzing current teams or players, making predictions, or lamenting the latest awful week from the New York Metropolitans (what other team could have triple play turned on them to END a game?), I have chosen, instead, to dust off an idea I feel has some substantial merit for improving the game.

One of the things I commonly do with any sports, professional or amateur, is devise a way to improve some aspect of it, from division alignment to conference affiliation to playoff structure. With baseball, I could go on my usual tangents about three divisions of five teams per league, or interleague play being only between each league’s respective East, Central, and West divisions. I’ll leave those for another time, though, and focus instead on the one biggest thing I’d like to see baseball do – add another playoff team to each league.

Now before every baseball purist begins acting like a conservative at a town hall meeting, hear me out. In the fourteen years since the inception of the Wild Card, NL teams are 69-64 with six pennants and two championships, while AL teams are 63-57 with three pennants and two championships. In fact, every season this decade with the exception of 2001 and 2008 has seen a Wild Card winner reach the World Series. I’m not arguing that all of those teams weren’t deserving of their postseason fortune, but let’s not forget that nine teams have reached a World Series without winning their division, an impossible feat prior to 1995. Baseball pundits on both sides have been spoken out over the years about the need to give division winners some greater advantage, so let’s look more closely at some of those and point out some weaknesses.

Hall-of-Fame member and ESPN analyst Joe Morgan suggested that the division winner with the best record should always play the wild card winner, regardless of division. Under the current format, if the wild card winner and the division winner with the best record come from the same division, the wild card winner plays the division winner with the second best record instead. Problem: Look at the 2004 League Championship Series in each league. Both featured teams from the same division. MLB, like all sports, is both entertainment and a business. Seven games for Red Sox – Yankees and six for Astros – Cardinals that year was much better than having those teams matched up in a best-of-5. While emphasis should be placed on winning the divisions, any LCS would be anti-climactic if the Sox and Yanks had already met in the LDS.

Morgan also suggested that the division winner with the best record should have four games at home instead of three in the first round. Thus, instead of a 2-2-1 format for the best-of-5 series, it would be 2-1-2. Problem: Revenue. Plain and simple. No owner would approve of a series where their team gets one home game out of 5. Plus, it detracts from the fairness of the series. In a head-to-head match-up, there should be some advantage to the better team, but not one so lopsided it makes it borderline impossible for the other team to win.

Bob Costas, the well-respected broadcaster for NBC Sports, offered another possible solution. He suggested adding a second wild card team, and having a best-of-5 “wild card” series to determine the eventual wild card from each league. Problem: Division winning teams will have a full week off, causing hitters to lose their grove and pitchers to miss a scheduled start. Rest works fine in football because of the physical nature of the sport, but there’s a reason baseball plays nearly everyday. Players can’t lose the rhythm and timing of the sport. In essence, adding another full series could hurt the division winners more than it could help.

And so, we finally get to my proposal. It is a proposal very similar to the one Mr. Costas proposed, with just a slight variation. First, add another wild card team to each league, but instead of those two teams playing a full series, they play only one game, at the home of whichever team has the better record. These games would be held the Monday after the season, with game one starting at 4:00 and game two starting at 8:00, preferably a broadcast network (FOX). These games would be treated as full-fledged playoff games, NOT as the 163rd game of the regular season, the current system by which baseball considers a “one game playoff,” i.e. Twins-White Sox in 2008, Rockies-Padres in 2007, Mets-Reds in 1999, or Angels-Mariners in 1995.

The list of advantages is nearly too long to mention. First off, the interest would spark an increase in revenue for MLB in the forms of attendance (extra game), ratings (one game playoffs are great television, just like a game 7), and advertisers (extra night of beer and car commercials aimed at males ages 18-99… you know, the ones with the greatest spending power).

As for on-the-field examples, look no further than this year’s potential match-ups under this format. Imagine the Giants and Rockies finish first and second in the Wild Card race, in that order (the example works a little better if the Giants would win the Wild Card under the current format). In a do-or-die situation, these two teams meet in San Francisco for the right to play the Phillies in the first round. San Fran would obviously like to throw Tim Lincecum, if possible, in the one-game playoff. For argument’s sake, let’s say he throws 8 innings of 1-run baseball and the Giants capture the Wild Card with a 4-1 victory. Now they have to fly across the country for a Wednesday game in Philadelphia, and now only have Lincecum available for Game 3. Under the current format, he would be able to pitch twice in the series and thus potentially negate the Phillies homefield advantage, as the Red Sox were able to do with Josh Beckett in 2008.

This scenario forces more strategy in the manager’s handling of his pitching staff and roster during the finals weeks of the season, which is crucial since so much of success in baseball is dependent upon pitching. It also guarantees another team at least a chance at playing meaningful October baseball. Plus, it’s simply not fair to treat a team that fails to win its division as equals to the other three teams that did. The new format would force the next two best teams to play one additional game – which might be just enough to throw the balance of favor towards whichever division winner draws the Wild Card team and preserve a bit more consistency through the playoff bracket.

Those baseball fans among us who still wish there were 16 teams all east of the Mississippi will now begin their thunderous roar of disapproval, while those who have passed on will no only roll in their graves, but spin around as well. And while we still have our All-Star Game-tying commissioner in place, those traditionalists will have their way – which is a shame, because it’s only depriving fans everywhere of even better playoff races and overall postseason.

Trivia Question
This week is a gimme, perfect for use at your area watering hole this weekend to pay for the adult beverages. Simply ask the patron or patrons next to you, “Who has the lowest ERA for the New York Yankees this season?” They’ll likely guess someone like C.C. Sabathia, Mariano Rivera, or Andy Pettitte, but that’s where you smile and ask for their money. Why? Because the answer is, with one scoreless inning pitched in 2009 – Nick Swisher.

Last week’s answer: Aside from the Mets, the other four teams that posted winning records in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 are the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, and Phillies.

2009 Playoff “Dead List”
May 25 – Washington Nationals
June 1 – Colorado Rockies
June 8 – Baltimore Orioles
June 15 – Arizona Diamondbacks
June 22 – Kansas City Royals
June 29 – Cleveland Indians
July 6 – Oakland Athletics
July 15 – San Diego Padres
July 27 – Pittsburgh Pirates
August 3 – Cincinnati Reds
August 10 – Toronto Blue Jays
August 17 – New York Mets
August 24 – Milwaukee Brewers
It was a very tough decision between the Brewers and Astros, but this week will go to Milwaukee. Thus, the Brew Crew become the first playoff team from 2008 to join the dead list. At 10.5 games back entering Monday and three teams to catch, it’s not in the cards this year for a repeat playoff trip. Houston’s going to need a huge week, however, to ensure that they’re not in this same position next week.

P.S. Paging Rockies opponents – where are the wins? This team isn’t allowed to ruin my streak and make the playoffs…

This week, watch for…
1) Tough Texas Trip (@NYY, 8/25-27; @ Min, 8/28-30)
2) Cubs Try to Revive Dying Hopes (vs Was, 8/25-27, vs NYM, 8/28-30)
3) Braves Chasing Phillies (ATL @ PHI, 8/28-30)

Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper

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