The advantages of postseason expansion
November, 18, 2011
By Buster Olney | ESPN.com
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesAn expanded playoffs system could make the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry even more compelling.Forces within the sport of baseball have been aligned against the idea of having a one-game playoff. There are owners who hate it because they feel that after a 162-game season, they'd like to be assured of at least one home playoff game. There are players of influence who don't like the one-game playoff because they believe that it's not worthy or reflective of what the sport is about through the long summer.
But even with critics lined up on both sides of the labor talks, the one-game playoff is expected to be part of the baseball structure in years ahead for a couple of practical reasons:
1. Major League Baseball officials feel they have already extended the calendar about as far as it can go, with the season sometimes starting in the last days of March and flirting with November. If a best-of-three were added, there would have been a very real chance that the summer game would have spilled over into the year's 11th month.
2. The folks who work on baseball's TV side -- MLB's partners -- love the idea, because of the potential interest in a one-game playoff, because of the possible ratings, because of the money.
Over the past 24 hours, I've gotten about 1,000 e-mails indicting the sport with the charge of adopting the extra playoff to generate money. Let's render a verdict right now: Guilty -- because like just about every other business in the world, baseball exists to make money. The sport is played to sell tickets and to draw viewers, not to be a nonprofit organization.
And personally, I think the one-game playoff reinforces the integrity of the 162-game season, rather than detracts from it, because now teams will be fully motivated to win their division. Over the past decade we've seen the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox repeatedly drift through the final month, not really caring whether they won the AL East title or the wild card. Now there will be major incentives for all teams to win the division, to push through the finish line of the regular season.
By winning a division, a team would avoid the one-game playoff. You can bet that if the Giants and Dodgers were tied going into the last day of the regular season -- but were both assured of making the playoffs -- managers for both clubs would push to win that last game. They would twist their rotation to get the best available starter on the mound, rather than float through Game No. 162.
And the division winners will have an opportunity to get their rotations in order -- most of the time, they probably will be able to line up their starting pitchers from best to worst -- while the wild-card teams will be left to scramble, to make their whole staff available to win the one-game playoff. As it should be. Under the system that has been in place, there really hasn't been much disadvantage to being a wild-card team, as the 2011 Cardinals demonstrated.
Many of the best baseball moments in recent seasons have come in the moments when the season has come down to one winner-take-all game, such as the playoff between the Padres and Rockies; the Tigers-Twins Game No. 163 in 2009; and the final day of the regular season this year, when the Rays, Red Sox, Cardinals and Braves helped to create a spectacular night of baseball.
Some fans wrote in Thursday evening noting that the events of the last 24 hours of the regular season could not have happened if the new format of 10 playoff teams had been in place. Other scenarios will evolve, however, with the opportunities multiplying through the addition of another wild-card team, and every year baseball fans will be assured of at least two games with full drama -- two winner-take-all games.
It is possible that the team with the second-best record in its respective league will have its season reduced to just one game, on one night. There will be a way to avoid that: Just win your division.
This will be a great thing and will make for great drama. At its core, the sport really isn't designed for a one-game playoff; the strengths and weaknesses of teams are borne out over a long season. But the problems with a one-game playoff aren't really any different than a best-of-three or best-of-five or best-of-seven World Series. Nobody thought the 2011 Cardinals were the best team in baseball before the playoffs started. Nobody thought the Dodgers were the best team in 1988, or the Mets were the best team as the playoffs started in 1969. Nobody thought the Boston Braves were baseball's best team in 1914. As Billy Beane famously said, the playoffs are a crap shoot, but Connie Mack could've said that and Miller Huggins could have said that and John McGraw could have said that, too.
The only way to fully align baseball with the integrity of its regular season would be to eliminate the postseason altogether, eliminate the leagues, play a fully balanced schedule and crown the team with the best record among the 30 teams.
But that isn't going to happen. The postseason is as much a part of the fabric of the sport as the bunt and the designated hitter, and while there are those who grouse about both of those (for the record, I can't stand the DH), those elements aren't going away.
So MLB's challenge is to create the most compelling postseason format, with the most possible drama, to create the most interest and, yes, the most money. And adding two playoff teams and the one-game formats will be performance-enhancers.
Bud Selig announced other major changes that have been in place for weeks and months: the Astros moving to the American League. Baseball is getting its ducks in a row, writes Tyler Kepner.
Jim Crane was introduced as the Astros' owner, and Richard Justice wonders what's not to like. Crane strongly hinted he will lower ticket prices.
The addition of the Astros to the AL West reinforces the sad state of the Oakland Athletics, writes Bruce Jenkins.
There's a new wild-card format, and Orioles fans are yawning, writes Dan Connolly. It does change the dynamic slightly for the Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles -- at the very least, they would feel that they'd have a shot to make the playoffs even in years when the Red Sox and Yankees play well. The Jays could be in wild-card heaven, writes Bob Elliott, who notes that the Jays would have made the playoffs in 1998 if this format had been in place.
These are improvements, writes Jim Souhan.
• The Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw won the Cy Young Award, in keeping with the team's strong tradition of pitching, writes Bill Plaschke.
Ian Kennedy finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. Three Phillies finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting.
Madison Bumgarner got a fifth-place vote for Cy Young.
From ESPN Stats & Information, those pitchers have won a Gold Glove and Cy Young in the same season:
Clayton Kershaw -- 2011
Greg Maddux -- 1992-95
Bret Saberhagen -- 1989
Orel Hershiser -- 1988
Jim Palmer -- 1976
Bob Gibson -- 1968, 1970
Kershaw (2011) vs. Sandy Koufax (1963), in first Cy Young season:
IP -- 233.3 vs. 311
W-L -- 21-5 vs. 25-5
ERA -- 2.28 vs. 1.88
K-BB -- 248-54 vs. 306-58
Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee all had remarkably similar stats and Kennedy tied Kershaw for the league lead in wins. But against teams .500 or better, Kershaw was 12-3 with an ERA under 2, a WHIP under 1, and a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 5.
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