Potential impact of expanding playoffs
Adding two teams to the postseason mix would cause a ripple effect within the game
In sports, as in life, more is not always better.
There's probably a Charlie Sheen joke in there someplace. But this is a column about 3½ playoff rounds, not 2½ men. So enough about him.
Bud Selig said last week that baseball is moving "inexorably" toward adding two playoff teams next year. After hearing the thoughts of union chief Michael Weiner, we're not so sure about that, much as we love any excuse to type "inexorably."
Nevertheless, the debate has been raging from the moment the commissioner spoke. And the more we've listened to that debate, the more we've concluded people haven't fully understood all the ripple effects of adding two teams to the postseason mix.
So what better time for Rumblings and Grumblings to assess the potential impact of expanding the postseason on our favorite sport?
In all the brouhaha over how the wild-card series/game would fit into the October schedule, there's a schedule issue that's just as momentous:
How would it affect life from April -- uh, make that March -- to September?
Weiner alluded to that issue in this story. But while he declined to discuss any specifics, you only have to think it all through logically to realize this gets complicated.
First off, baseball just finished reconfiguring the entire schedule to get the postseason over with before November, while lopping unnecessary off days in October. Adding another round means heading right back to that drawing board -- and either tossing some doubleheaders into that schedule or possibly pushing the start of the season earlier into March. To which we can only say: Brrrrrr.
Second, if the point of adding a wild card is designed to reward teams that finish first and penalize teams that don't, doesn't baseball have to rethink all kinds of other scheduling issues?
How about interleague play? Those rivalry games (Mets-Yankees, Dodgers-Angels, etc.) may be great gate attractions. But they also mean teams in the same division play very different schedules, in case you hadn't noticed.
So is it fair to stick the Mets with six games against the Yankees, or allow the Cardinals to play six against the Royals, when other teams in their division don't play ANY games against those teams? Well, no, obviously. It's never been fair.
But if those games are the difference between finishing first and being a wild card -- and there's now a whole different set of rules designed to make life tougher on the wild cards -- does that fairness matter more than ever? It should. Right?
And how about the whole question of an unbalanced schedule versus a more balanced schedule? For years, teams have been complaining they find themselves in wild-card races against clubs that played vastly different schedules. Can you blame them?
And some of those teams have been campaigning for a more balanced schedule, with fewer division games. But if the meaning of life is now all about winning your division, don't you need as many division games as possible? Interesting question.
Finally, there's the inequity to the whole division setup itself. If you need to finish first to avoid the wild-card round/game, aren't you in a much better position to do that in a four-team division (the AL West) than a six-team division (the NL Central)? Seems like it to us. And we're not sure what to do about it. But just asking.
The schedule -- Octoberfest Division
Best of three? Or a one-game survivor challenge? That's the biggest question baseball has to resolve if it's going to force those two wild cards to play each other. But how would that work?
MAKE IT TWO
|Jayson Stark examines how life would have been different had there been two wild cards per league in all the years of the wild-card era (1995-2010). Blog »|
We've long advocated forcing the wild cards to meet the day after the end of the regular season, to make it even tougher on them. But now we realize that's impossible.
Baseball has to leave at least one off day between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason. Has to.
If you're increasing the playoff field by 25 percent, you don't have to be a math major to figure out it means there's a much greater chance you'll need a tiebreaker game of some sort the day after the season. And remember something else: ALL ties for first place will now need to be decided on the field. In a world where wild cards play October by different rules, you can't just go to the tiebreaker chart anymore. So you need that day.
Now consider the implications of going to best-of-three instead of one-and-done. Say the season ends on Sunday. Monday is an off day. Even if the wild-card teams play three straight days, that's Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday. Add in an off day Friday for travel, and to set the field, and it means the No. 1 seed has to sit around from Sunday until the following Saturday before it can start its postseason. Awful scenario.
It's a lousy idea to basically kill a week before those first-place teams can even start their postseason, on every level. Just one more reason that one-and-done is the way to go.
Paging Tim Lincecum
Call us crazy, but we get the feeling Tim Lincecum isn't planning to form a McCovey Cove branch of the Bud Selig Fan Club. If you haven't read Lincecum's criticisms of expanding the postseason, you can find his rant here.
He's allowed to feel however he feels, of course. But so are we. And we suspect no one has ever fully explained to him the thinking behind this change. So we'll volunteer.
The Giants ace veered in several different directions, but essentially, we think, what he's saying is this: The system isn't broke, so "why mess it up?"
Well, here's the deal: The system IS broke. Just board the time machine and travel backward seven months. You'll find the Yankees and Rays mixed up in what should have been the best division race in baseball last September. Instead, the Yankees decided -- and probably correctly -- that it didn't even matter if they won. So they rested players, set their rotation and looked ahead to life as the wild-card team.
But if they knew the alternative to finishing first was playing, say, a one-game wild-card survivor game against the Red Sox, that would have changed everything. They'd have treated September the way September deserves to be treated -- like it's meaningful. And that's the point that Lincecum -- and many others have missed:
Adding a playoff team wouldn't make the regular season less meaningful. It would make it more meaningful. And that's the whole idea.
The worst-case scenario
But there IS a potential downside to this expanded postseason. And our friend Joel Sherman of the New York Post outlined it eloquently in a column arguing that best-of-three makes much more sense than a one-game wild-card showdown.
In this corner, we much prefer the one-gamer. But let's address the scenario he paints: Yankees and Red Sox go down to the final day huffing and puffing to try to win the division, while the second wild card, an inferior White Sox team, has its spot all set.
So while the Yankees and Red Sox burn Jon Lester and CC Sabathia in Game 162 to try to finish first, the White Sox have the luxury of lining up their best pitcher -- say, John Danks -- for the one-game wild-card playoff. How, he asks, is that fair?
Well, here's the counter-argument, from the first man we ever heard propose that one-game dueling-wild-cards concept, the Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt:
The Yankees and Red Sox don't HAVE to burn their aces on that last day. They have a choice. They have to figure out the best strategy. And if you don't think that would add intrigue to the final weekend, just imagine those talk-show hot lines burning.
"I think it's a great piece of strategy and a great debate," Hirdt said. "So I don't see that as a negative. It's a positive. To me, most things that bring more debate and strategy into the game are good."
|With 136 career homers at age 27, Ryan Braun needs only 14 more home runs to reach 150. At the moment, there are five active hitters in their 20s with 150 or more. Can you name them? (Answer later.)|
And just because the Yankees might choose not to pitch Sabathia in that game, it doesn't mean the whole concept is a farce -- because "the rest of September, they'd be trying to win. Unlike last September, they wouldn't be coasting. They'd be trying to finish on top of the division."
Exactly. The other worst-case scenario -- raised articulately by Sherman and SI.com's Joe Sheehan -- is that there's a real chance a great team could have its season ended by a vastly inferior second wild-card team in a one-game playoff. And by allowing that, Sheehan says, baseball would be "invalidating a great six-month season in a single afternoon, which is no way -- no way at all -- to run a sports league."
In fact, though, history shows there would have been more mediocre division winners in the wild-card era than mediocre second wild-card teams. Over the last 15 years, that second wild card would have averaged 89 wins, and 11 of them would have been teams that won 90 games or more.
Now there was one extreme instance, back in 2001, when the first AL wild card would have been an A's team that won 102 games and the second wild card would have been the 85-win Twins. But even if those A's got knocked out by a team with far fewer wins, so what? There's nothing unprecedented about that whatsoever.
"They would feel like the Giants felt in 1993," Hirdt said, "when they won 103 games and lost on the last day of the season to a Dodgers team that won 81 [thus clinching first place for the 104-win Braves]. We've always had cases, throughout history, where good teams got eliminated on the last game of a season by losing to a lesser team where that was their bowl game. What's so different about this? Just because we're now calling it a playoff game?"
You can feel sorry for teams like that if you want. But the correct response is: Then finish first. You have 162 games to do it.
Want to avoid scenarios like that one? There's only one way to do it: Roll the clock back to 1903 and just have the two teams with the best record go right to the World Series.
But sorry, gang. There's no reverse on this sport's transmission. It's time to move forward, not backward. And whether that's about to happen inexorably or not, all we ask is: If the playoffs are about to expand, then let's think it through to the last detail -- all of it.
Ready to Rumble
• One more expanded-playoffs tidbit and we'll move on: One concept baseball had kicked around if it opted for a best-of-three wild-card round was giving the wild-card team with the best record a choice: Play the first two games at home or the last two at home.
But as our buddy Buster Olney mentioned this week, it's doubtful owners would approve any best-of-three format that didn't guarantee each team a home game. If that's so un-American, though, is it OK to mention the Packers just won the Super Bowl without ever playing a home game? And there were no revolts in the streets of Green Bay that we noticed.
• Kevin Millwood can opt out of his minor league deal with the Yankees on Sunday night if he isn't elevated to the big leagues. And that could be a tough call for a Yankees team still trying to hang onto as much pitching inventory as it can collect.
Scouts covering the Yankees system continue to report that Millwood "doesn't look very good," despite a 2-0 record and 1.29 ERA in two minor league starts. His fastball has averaged 85 miles per hour. His strikeout-walk ratio is just 6-to-5 in 14 innings. And it's tough to argue he's an upgrade on either Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon -- for now. But Ivan Nova (1-2, 7.63) could be another story. So Nova's two starts this week, the second of which happens to be set for Sunday afternoon, could determine his own fate -- and Millwood's.
• With so many teams looking for catching, the return of Jesus Flores -- and the Nationals' organization-wide catching depth -- has other clubs zeroing in on Washington's system. But what those clubs are finding is that, after missing nearly all of the last two seasons after labrum surgery, Flores just isn't ready.
"I think he's movable eventually, but it's going to take a while," said one scout. "He's just lost so much time. I liked him a lot before he got hurt. And if he gets his arm strength back, he's movable. But he's not there yet. It might take the whole year. But even if he does, he'll be 27, so he's still movable, considering the lack of catching in baseball."
• Maybe it's just coincidence that of the nine times Mariano Rivera has blown back-to-back save opportunities, five of them have come in April. But there's another theory out there: He doesn't get nearly enough work in spring training. The Yankees love to let Rivera move along at his own pace every spring. But you have to go back five springs to find a year in which Rivera pitched more than seven innings over an entire spring training. His totals this spring: five appearances, just 18 batters faced. True, it's more if you add in live batting practice and minor league exhibitions. But "nothing," says one longtime baseball man, "resembles game situations, other than the game."
• The folks in the Brewers' front office who just signed Ryan Braun to that five-year, $105 million extension have had the privilege to watch him play his entire career. But the guy who manages him, Ron Roenicke, just arrived this year. And he's discovered Braun is even a better player than he realized.
"I knew how good he was, but until you see a guy every day, you don't ever really know," Roenicke told Rumblings. "The more you watch him, the more different things you see he can do at the plate. He can take a good fastball away and drive it out. If they hang a breaking ball, he just doesn't miss it. He's got such great plate discipline and coverage, because he can hit every pitch."
And one more thing Braun can do? Run. "He can really run," Roenicke said. "When he goes, he really turns it on. He's surprised me. He'll hit a routine ground ball to shortstop and [run to first so hard] the umpire has to make a decision on whether he's safe or out. First time I saw that, I said, 'Wow.'"
• But as great a player as Braun may be now, at age 27, it's a whole separate question whether he'll be worth the $21 million a year his deal will average between ages 32 and 36. According to the FanGraphs value calculator that we mentioned last week, only once in his first four seasons was his free-agent value estimated at $21 million or above. That was 2009, and he was 25 then, not 35. So it's probably a stretch to think the Brewers will be getting their money's worth in 2020.
Remember, the oft-injured Fuld was a left-handed-hitting outfielder who was out of options and stuck behind two other left-handed-hitting outfielders (Kosuke Fukudome and Tyler Colvin) on the depth chart. So the Cubs were almost certainly going to have to move Fuld someplace sometime before Opening Day. When Tampa Bay offered them Fernando Perez, a switch-hitter who could play center field, the pieces fit, and they had themselves a deal.
"Neither side pushed for either guy," said one source familiar with the discussions. "It was just one of those deals where two teams helped each other out."
• One scout on the Padres, a team that has scored fewer runs all season (68) than the Cardinals scored on one road trip (73): "You know in football they've got the prevent defense? They've got a prevent offense. They can't score."
• Finally, no matter what happens in the Mets' world over the next two months, one baseball man says they have no choice but to hold onto Carlos Beltran as long as possible. Why? "Because the last thing they need to do," he said, "is give people a reason to think they need his $17 million [salary] to pay the bills."
Five Astounding Facts
1. How unbelievable is this? Josh Johnson still hasn't given up a hit in the first three innings of any game this year. (Opponents are 0-for-45, with 20 strikeouts, before the fourth inning.) He's the only pitcher in the past 60 years to do that over the first five starts of any season, according to our favorite streak guru, Trent McCotter. And he's just the third pitcher to run up an 0-for-45 streak over the first three innings of any stretch of consecutive starts in any of those years. The others: Sid Fernandez in August-September 1990, and Larry Christensen in July-August 1975.
2. Another Josh Johnson classic, courtesy of dulcet Marlins voice Glenn Geffner and the baseball-reference.com Play Index: Since 1919, just two pitchers have kicked off a season with at least five straight starts of six-plus innings with no more than four hits allowed. One was Nolan Ryan, in his first six starts of 1971. The other: Josh Johnson.
3. Believe it or not, Chris Carpenter has started five games for the Cardinals this year, and they've lost all five. Back in 2005, they lost seven games he started all season. And it took them seven seasons, and 159 starts, after he joined the Cardinals before they ever lost more than three of his starts in a row.
4. Remember when the Phillies used to have the scariest lineup in the National League? They're now the only team in baseball with zero homers out of the No. 3 and No. 5 slots in their lineup. And their backup catcher, Brian Schneider, has almost as many home runs (two, in 16 at-bats) as their 3-4-5 hitters combined (three, in 258 at-bats).
5. Saturday's Pirates-Brewers game in Pittsburgh started an hour and 10 minutes late because of a rain delay. So what's so astounding about that? It never rained -- not a drop. That's what.
Tweets of the Day
Sure is amazing how much Twitter hilarity emanates from Milwaukee these days, especially when you have birds of prey soaring around the yard. If you haven't checked out the tweets of @MillerParkHawk, here's a sample of what you're missing:
• As Brewers closer John Axford stalked into Sunday's hawk-laden game with the Astros:
I can only hope that Axford strikes as much fear into the 'stros as I do. #caw
• And then the unsuspecting Reds arrived in town Monday:
In regards to the Reds, their hats were white before I got a hold of them. #furyfromthesky
Headliner of the Day
Finally, this just in from the always-entertaining Chicago parody site, theheckler.com, after the Cubs became the first team in history to start a season by going 1-1, 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9 and 10-10:
CUBS FIND WAY TO WIN AND LOSE SAME GAME RECORD NOW 10.5-10.5
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst
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