October 02, 2012

Revisiting the new playoff structure

Here we are in the first year of the new playoff structure.  Let’s see how it’s improved over the previous imperfect format.  First of all, what are the similarities?  Well, in the NL all 3 division winners, Nationals, Reds and Giants would be in the playoffs, and getting their rotations set for the LDS regardless of which system was in use.  And in the AL, the Red Sox would have been eliminated a long time ago.  This is where the similarities end. 

In the NL, the main difference is for Atlanta. In the old system, they would be getting ready to have their ace start game 1 of the LDS.  But since there is another wildcard team and only the winner of the 1 game playoff makes it to the LDS, they will need to use their ace to play in a do-or-die game.  Some people (let’s call them “Braves fans”) think this is unfair, as Atlanta is going to end up 7 or 8 games ahead of the other wildcard team.  Meh - I’m not too bothered by that aspect of it.  However, what is unfair is that if they win, they will start the LDS without their #1 starter available. 
The other difference is that St. Louis and the Dodgers are fighting for the last playoff spot. In previous years, they would have been using these last couple of weeks to evaluate September call ups.   Ok, so we have some more meaningful games for these two teams.

The differences are much more pronounced in the AL.  In the East Baltimore and New York are fighting neck and neck trying to win their division, while Texas and Oakland do the same in the West. In previous years, winning the division instead of a wildcard wasn't a big concern, so these teams could coast.  Sounds like the playoff format change has led to more meaningful games this week.  Except, that in the old system only 3 of these teams would make the playoffs, so each game would have added importance!  Instead of the division losers needing to play each other in a 1 game playoff, oner would win the wildcard, and the other would go home!  So we've lost that aspect of it.  
But the big benefactor of the added wildcard are the Tigers.  They would have won the division, and made the playoff in either playoff system, in spite of having the 7th best record in the league.  That's always going to happen with divisions.  Older fans will remember 1978 when only 2 teams won more than 95 games.  The Yankees with 100, and Boston with 99.  But of course, Boston sat home and watched the playoffs. In his autobiography of the 1978 season, Sparky Lyle re-affirmed that Boston was the best team they faced all season.  More recently, the 103 win Giants missed the playoffs in 1993, while 3 teams with worst records kept playing.

But more egregious than a 7th place team making the playoffs, however, is the huge advantage they will have starting the LDS.  All 4 other teams may need to play a meaningful game 162.  That means starting the LDS as a #3 seed, they will face a team that may have just used their ace to avoid having to play in the wildcard game.

Before the season started I described my radical plan for restructuring the playoffs.  I wonder what the last couple of weeks would have looked like in that scenario.

Anyhow, we're stuck with the existing structure, and you still have a couple of days left to enter the playoff predictions contest.  

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