Tuesday, January 17, 2012

If It Ain't Broke, Bud Will Fix It

As the ink dries on his brand new contract extension, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig is out to further cement his legacy as the guy who fixes everything except things that actually need fixing. Recall how the MLB turned a blind eye to steroid use for over a decade until the avalanche of evidence and decibel level of the whispers became impossible to ignore. Juxtapose that with the outcome of the MLB All-Star Game now being used to determine homefield advantage in the World Series, a move that was designed to increase interest in the midseason all-star contest by making it "meaningful" ("This Time It Counts!"). How did that move work out? In 2010, nearly a decade after the change, the All-Star Game had it's worst TV rating...ever. Then, in 2011...they repeated the feat by going *even lower*. Worst rating...ever. So, the game is garnering even *less* interest than prior to the change. (Channeling my inner Dr. Phil) So Bud, how's that tinkering working out for ya? This of course doesn't even touch upon the constant risk of gifting an unearned home-field advantage in the World Series to a low-seeded team...you know, kinda like what just happened 3 months ago in the 2011 Series. Increase the significance of one single exhibition game, while simultaneously reducing the value of the entire 162-game regular season. Brilliant Bud. Simply brilliant.

(For the record, this is by no means armchair quarterbacking on my part. I hated the meaningful-exhibition-game idea the moment it was introduced. And actually, I didn't much care for the alternating-league home-field advantage rule that it replaced. Playoff teams should be rewarded for having better records than their opponents. We do it that way in the other two playoff rounds. In any case, I simply knew everyone would yawn at the "it counts!" idea. I certainly did.)

Not one to rest on his laurels, Bud now has a new target for generating fan interest: the MLB playoffs themselves. Specifically, Bud is furthering the push to add another wildcard team to the playoff pool, an idea that has been bantering around for the past few years. However, it's not a real playoff team per se; this 2nd team will merely lock horns with the other wildcard team for a one-game playoff, the winner of which will go on to face the #1 team in the league. If that sounds eerily like the NCAA Basketball play-in game, then congratulations, you are paying complete attention. Now, when was the last time you rearranged your work and/or personal schedule so that you could catch that compelling all-important 64 vs. 65 matchup? Never? Like hell you say.

Simply put, this idea is dumb. It's not going to have any grand effect on fan interest...if it has any effect at all. The problem? There is simply no foolproof playoff scheme that can account for every possible playoff race scenario. If it's "boring" to have one team far ahead of the others in a wildcard race, it will be just as boring to have two teams far ahead of all the others in the race. Will these two teams break their necks down the stretch, jockeying for positioning to have that all-important play-in game at home? Maybe...but not as much as they'll be trying to set up their pitching rotation to make sure their ace is pitching that game. Ask any manager if he'd rather have his #4 pitcher starting at home, or his ace pitching on the road.

And what of the playoffs after the play-in game? Now you have a slightly-weary team, perhaps one that's flying all over the country in a span of days, unable to start their ace in game one of the divisional series, and unable to use the ace twice in the 5-game series, thereby eliminating one of the most exciting, most compelling and scariest prospects of the MLB playoffs. I cannot wait for some top-heavy-pitching team -- i.e. a team with one good starter and a bunch of also-rans filling out the rotation -- to finish 10 games in back of the first wildcard team in the standings, win the play-in game (due to their one superb pitcher), and then become chew-toy playoff fodder for their best-in-league divisional series opponent.

We see versions of this kind of one-trick pony team with some regularity; opening up the pool of teams only increases the chance of having such a team sneak into the divisional round, only to be overmatched and massacred by their league-leading foe, all because they've been forced to exhaust the one competitive advantage they could have used, the one chance they might've had to keep up with the bigger dog.

Naturally, this scenario of de-fanging a one-pitcher staff is but one specific risk. However, each and every one of these wildcard teams would undoubtedly be negatively affected by that one-game playoff. Okay, so maybe the rest of your rotation behind your ace isn't made up of single-A callups and home-run derby pitching coaches. But there's a reason why you consider one pitcher on your staff to be your ace. It's because he's the one guy you feel most confident turning to when you absolutely positively have to get a win. He's the one guy who you *will* turn to in that situation. Teams who have 2 or more of those guys? They don't end up as 5th and 6th seeds in the league. They win divisions.

So, regardless of the makeup of the wildcard teams, you are fairly assured of having a lower-seeded divisional series opponent that will be starting on the road *and* unable to use their ace until game 3 or 4. Wait, what's that? There *is* no game 4 because your team got swept, so your ace *never* gets to pitch in the series at all? Poor you. How'd that play-in game win work out for ya? This is something that happens occasionally in the playoffs; having a mandatory play-in game ensures it will happen on a near-yearly basis -- twice.

Last season, September saw Tampa, Boston, and LA in the AL, and St. Louis, Atlanta and Milwaukee in the NL, engaging in two frantic "races" in the final weeks of the season for the single wildcard spot in each league (I use the term 'race' loosely, because you normally don't see a contestant in a race running in reverse the way the Red Sox and Braves were). But what if there were two wildcard spots? The final week of the Tampa/Boston American League race would've been wholly uninteresting. No amount of clubhouse chicken and beer would've made Boston get lapped by *two* teams. Once the Greater Los Angeles Anaheim Area Angels of Disneyland Incorporated fell too far behind both Boston and Tampa, the lure of the 'race' would've been over. Same with the National League race. The magical final weekend would've lost all significance and suspense. That final day I spent in my local sportsbar with my head on a swivel following four (or was it 6?) games? I wouldn't have bothered to leave the house. That absolutely magical (no histrionics here; it truly was) 3-minute stretch where Boston and Tampa swapped playoff positions one final time? Who would care? Hell, would it have even happened? A weekend, if not an entire week, of excitement and suspense, sacrificed for a single game. One which could very well end up being a blowout, further whittling down a week's worth of suspense into two or three innings.

Did I mention that this change would also likely completely kill the fantastical notion of the one-game playoff? Now, instead of having a handful of these games scattered throughout MLB history (Yankees/Red Sox in the 70s, Tigers/Twins a few seasons ago), you will have two, every single year. The uniqueness of the game, the lore of the phrase, will be completely lost. Hell, a decade from now, we may not even view those historical game-163's in the same nostalgic light.

So, from the final weeks of the regular season, to the divisional playofs, to the mystical history of past playoff games, there will be no end to the carnage Bud is about to unleash on us.

Attempting to create a false pretense of excitement at the end of the regular season, meanwhile simultaneously diluting one entire divisional playoff series...which naturally effects the league championship series and beyond. Brilliant Bud. Simply...brilliant.

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