Thursday, October 1, 2009

An October Issue

More than one person today has brought up with me an issue concerning the postseason.

It doesn't have anything to do with whether or not Joba should start in a postseason series (and after being treated to his antics in person last night I am less than willing in this regard) or who starts game two. Rather, this issue has to do with the playoff structure itself.

Now, playoffs in almost any sport are a crapshoot. These are why office pools exist, after all, and why the mantra so often is "just get in".

The problem is, baseball, unlike any other major sport accentuates the "crapshoot" nature of the playoffs.

It's sort of mind-boggling that both the NBA and the NHL have seven-game series in their first round (yes, I know the NBA is a recent adjustment) when their season is 82 games long, while the MLB, which has a season double in length has a first round of only five games.

Never mind the issues that can be brought up with who makes it to the playoffs in the first place--it is entirely possible for a team to have a better record than another division winner but still miss the playoffs because they are not as good as the Wild Card team--a five game series is not the right way for an MLB playoff series to go.

Keep in mind, the refrain of most managers is that "the season is a marathon, not a sprint." Marathon mentality runs rampant: getting players games off so they stay healthy, making a move later in the season as opposed to setting an early pace--these are all common motifs.

Now imagine telling someone like, say, Paula Radcliffe--winner of three NYC marathons--that three days after running her last marathon she has to go compete in the 400m dash.

Never mind that the mental preparations and physical requirements for marathoning and sprinting are as different as those, perhaps, of baseball and football (okay, I'm stretching this metaphor a little), but this is more or less what a baseball team is supposed to do: they are supposed to suddenly adjust from the marathon mentality of the regular season to the sprint mentality of the playoffs.

It's not a coincidence that Wild Card teams seem to have done so well in recent postseasons: '97, '02, '03, '04 World Series winners were all Wild Card teams, and while the '07 Rockies didn't win the Series, their September miracle might make them the most well-known of all the Wild Card teams. The Wild Card often comes down to the last week or even the last days of the season, and those teams have to adopt a sprint-like mentality just to make the playoffs.

While I'm all for equality, the nature of the playoffs would actually seem to give some sense of an advantage to a Wild Card team--I could explore this further, but let's get back to the issue at hand.

Baseball as a sport is well known for its oddities and unexpected occurrences. The season is 162 games long because even the best baseball team will have a losing streak--remember, even the Yankees had a five-game losing streak in May and dropped a series to the Nationals in June--and it can take that long to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

A five game series, then, is like flipping a coin in the air to decide who gets to move on to the ALDS.

Since I assume you have a mild interest in the Yankees if you're reading this, just think about 2007. Was Cleveland a better team than the Yankees that October? Maybe--but one game was decided not so much by the players as it was by, well, midges. Most of us will still argue that Torre's failure to take the team off the field cost the Yankees that game--and the difference between going to New York split or down 0-2. In a five game series, being down zero games to two is often--thought the 01 Yankees will attest, not always--a death knell.

Again, the thing about baseball is that the length of the regular season allows for oddities like midges, games whose results are determined more by fluke than actual talent.

If the NBA and NHL can manage not just seven game series, but manage to do so every round--which is four rounds as opposed to baseball's three--I have to wonder why a stronger push hasn't been made for the LDS to also be a seven game series.

Part of me wants to argue that they had it right when only the best record in the league played in the World Series and there were no playoffs, but then I'd also have to be willing to part with the '00 ring and other World Series appearances, so I'll draw the line at simply arguing for a longer first round series.

A team that plays every possible game, including a one-game playoff, will play a grand total of 182 games between April and October. So what's the issue with two more?