Baseball Playoffs Begin: History And The New Normal

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Out with the old traditions, in with the new. Baseball playoffs change the season - is it for the better, or for the worst? Image by whiterussian.
Out with the old traditions, in with the new. Baseball playoffs change the season – is it a change for the better? Image by whiterussian.

Major League Baseball playoffs begin on Tuesday and Wednesday with the ‘wild card’ games, an invention about as sensible as pet rocks.

It wasn’t always like this.

There were simpler times, less confusing to the fans, albeit less fair to the players.

Let’s look at the history of post-season play and how this year’s playoffs shape up.

In the Beginning, There Was Just a World Series

From the beginning of the modern alignment of two leagues, National and American, in 1903, until 1968, with only five exceptions, the winners of each league met in a seven-game series to decide the world championship.

In 1904, the National League champion refused to play and there was no World Series. In 1903, 1919, 1920, and 1921, the series was best-of-nine. From 1922 until 1968, the best team in the American League faced the best team in the National League for the championship in a seven game series that became an iconic American spectacle.

There was no inter-league play until 1997, so there was no regular season game involving players from both leagues except during the world series. (Beginning in 1933, the players took the field together for the all-star game.)

The First Expansion of Playoffs: 1969-1993, League Championship Series

In 1969, the major leagues expanded to twelve teams in each league, so the leagues were split into two divisions. The winners of the two divisions in each league played in a series, originally best-of-five games, later expanded to best-of-seven, for the pennant. This was called the League Championship Series (LCS).

The Second Expansion of Playoffs: 1994-2011, Divisional Series

In 1994, each major league expanded to three divisions. To accommodate this, four teams in each league became eligible for post-season play: The division winners and the second place team with the best record, the latter called the ‘wild card’ team. The wild card team played the divisional winner outside its division with the better record and the other two divisional winners played in a best-of-five series that was called the Division Series (DS). Those winners played in the LCS.

The Third Expansion of Playoffs: 2012 to Present, Wild Card Playoff

The first two expansions made sense, competition-wise, but this one did not. The two non-division winners with the best records qualify to play a single game for the wild card position in the playoffs. The winner of the wild card game plays the divisional winner with the best record, even if that team is in the same division.

As an economic and public-relations ploy, the wild card game has been a success: A single high-stakes game generates interest and thus revenue. But from a competitive standpoint it is ridiculous. Four of the ten teams in the playoffs are placed at the disadvantage that they have to play and win an extra game to win the world championship. Further, the need to play that extra game assures that they will have a depleted pitching staff going into the Divisional Series.

This year, the situation is especially absurd, because the teams with the three best records in baseball are all in the same division. The second and third best will play the wild card game, and the winner will play the best team. Do something about this, Commissioner Manfred.

The New York Giants played the Philadelphia Athletics in the first deciding seventh game of a World Series in 1905. Photo credit: Library of Congress
The New York Giants played the Philadelphia Athletics in the first deciding seventh game of a World Series in 1905. Image by the Library of Congress

A Team is a Team — Until the Trade Deadline

In the days before free agency, the players were indentured servants. The teams owned them for their lifetime of play. From the prospective of fairness to the players, there is no justification for this. But for the fans, it meant teams were intact from start to end of the season, and from one season to the next.

As the implications of free agency have been incorporated into the game, more and more players have changed hands at the trading deadline — July 30. After that time, players have to pass waivers, and no good player will get to a good team. This year, a boatload of impact players changed teams at the end of July.

Author’s Opinion: This system doesn’t make sense to me. How do you call a team a ‘team’ if it plays the last third of the season and the playoffs with a whole new lineup? The trade deadline should be pushed back — way back. What do you think? Share your opinion in the Comments section below.

But this is the new normal, so let’s look at how things stand for the playoffs this year.

How This Year’s Playoffs Stack Up

Many of this year’s playoff teams were long ago decided, so teams are getting their rosters ready and their pitching staffs sorted out. In the National League, the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Mets clinched their divisions early, as did the Royals and the Blue Jays in the American. Only the American League West Division went down to the wire.

In the National League, the Pirates and the Cubs (second and third best teams in both leagues), will meet in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. Advantage goes to Chicago, which will have the best pitcher in baseball this year, Jake Arrieta, on the mound. Arrieta finished with a 22-6 record and a 1.67 earned run average (ERA) including the best-ever ERA of 0.75 after the all-star game. He’ll likely win the National League Cy Young Award, and has been basically unhittable in the second half of the season.

The Pirates will counter with their ace, Gerrit Cole, who finished with a none-too-shabby 19-8 record and 2.60 ERA.

No one has been able to hit Arrieta lately, so Decoded Sports figures the Cubs will get just enough runs to win.

In the American League, the West Division went down to the final day. Texas has won the division, and Houston will be the second wild card team, visiting the Yankees on Tuesday. Each team will have its ace pitcher on the mound — Dallas Keuchel for Houston and Masahiro Tanaka for the Yankees. Keuchel had the better season (he was the only 20 game winner in the American League), but Keuchel is pitching on three days’ rest for the first time.

The winner will likely be overwhelmed by Kansas City, while the Rangers can’t keep up with the Toronto Blue Jays.

A series to look forward to is the potential matchup between the Royals and the Blue Jays for the pennant. Toronto made two great pickups at the trade deadline: Pitcher David Price, a former Cy Young winner who’s been lights out lately; and Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, now recovered from an injury. Since these acquisitions the Jays have gone 30-8 to run away from the Yankees for the East Division championship.

If the matchup comes about, Decoded Sports is taking the Royals and predicting that much-ballyhooed acquisition Johnny Cueto, who’s been a bust with the Royals at 3-7, 4.95 ERA, will regain his early-season form. We look forward to the possibility of a Cueto-Price matchup.

The National League is more competitive, with the Mets, Dodgers, Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs all loaded with talent. Decoded Sports makes no prediction.

Opinion: Get With It, MLB. The Season is Too Long and the Playoff Format Stinks

The lucrative but lunatic wild card game exacerbates the recent trend towards longer seasons, which pushes the World Series back to the end of October and even into November.

The average high temperatures on October 31 in some prominent baseball cities:

  • Boston, 56
  • Chicago, 57
  • St. Louis, 63

Since all the games are played at night — another offering to the money gods — the temperature at game time is normally about ten degrees below the daily high. Conditions are not proper for championship play on many nights in many major league cities at that time of year.

The money may be rolling in now, but Decoded Sports predicts that the fans will eventually revolt against the trend.

© Copyright 2015 Jon Plotkin, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Sports
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  1. Gil Peters says

    Teams have 162 games to excel. I agree it’s ludicrous to have one-game “play-ins”. What I think has no bearing on what MLB decides and I’m sure the Wild Card gaes are here to stay as long as they make $$$$. ButI agree with Mr. Decoded Sports.

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