Monday Superlatives

The Yankees and Red Sox are proving that Major League Baseball needs to fix its playoffs...now

May 14, 2018
Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees
Jim McIsaac

This past week, my renewed baseball addiction hit a fever pitch with the intense, nerve-shattering three-game series between the Yankees and Red Sox. I am a Yankees fan, but I will be the first to admit that I'm a bad one. The peak of my fandom came in the World Series year of 2009, when I lived in Brooklyn, attended about 20 games, and watched almost all the rest on TV. After that, my commitment dwindled with the team's fortunes, and by the time we hit the 2012-2016 rebuilding stretch, with exactly one playoff appearance (that lasted exactly one game), I was out.

Now, though? I'm back, baby! The Yankees are young and awesome, the Red Sox are evil, there's bad blood everywhere, and I've jumped back on the bandwagon whether they want me or not. Pinstripes for life! Or at least until the next sign of trouble!

But there's something wicked brewing on the baseball horizon in 2018, and I'm already mad. It just so happens that the Yankees and Red Sox are the two best teams in the game—we're already a quarter of the way into the season, so it's not even that early anymore—and it's all leading to a nightmare October scenario. See, the longstanding rivals play in the same division, and there's a very good chance that the loser of their AL East race will be forced into the dreaded winner-take-all Wild Card Game. History teaches us that the WCG is fickle, where any old thing can happen, and the best team doesn't always win.

(Note for the uninitiated: In baseball's current playoff system, the three division winners from each league—East, Central, West—earn an automatic berth to the best-of-five opening round divisional series. The two teams with the best records after those division winners, regardless of their own division, face off in a single game to earn the fourth "normal" playoff spot. This is the "Wild Card Game." And when your team has to play in it, life is terrible.)

Here's the glaring problem: The hypothetical second-best team in baseball should not have to suffer the win-or-go-home game. Like, ever. Ever ever ever. That's not what it's meant for. It would be unfair if it happened to the Yankees, and it would be unfair (but hilarious) if it happened to the Red Sox. Other sports with long regular seasons, like the NBA and NHL, understand this principle—even a best-of-five opening round series was deemed too capricious for the NBA's taste, so they got rid of it in 2003. The baseball season is about twice as long, but MLB still has a format that could potentially subject its second-best team to what is essentially a coin flip. After 162 damn games!

Actually, this is not just hypothetical—it's happened before. In 2015, the Pittsburgh Pirates had the second-best record in baseball, but they happened to be in the same division as the St. Louis Cardinals, who were two games better. Because of that piece of bad luck, they were forced to play the Chicago Cubs in a one-game playoff, and they lost 4-0 when Jake Arrieta pitched a complete game shutout. Then they went home.

Icon Sports Wire

A strong Pirates team losing in a one-game playoff in 2015 illustrated the problem with the current playoff system.

That's madness! That's not at all fair! The Pirates destroyed their opponents for 162 games—I have to keep repeating that number—and then one bad day, representing 0.6 percent of their entire season, ended it all? When they would have won literally any other division? That's like reducing a team's NHL season to five penalty shots. Or, imagine this—imagine the Golden State Warriors, defending NBA champs and the team with the second-best record in the Western Conference, had to play one game just to make the playoffs. Am I making the awful insanity of this situation clear enough to you?

That Pirates debacle prompted a few calls for change, but no change has been forthcoming—probably because the Pirates don't command enough clout or national attention. If it happens to the Yankees or Red Sox? The earth will shake—you'll see a change before 2019, guaranteed.

And while it's true that the playoff scenario is rarely quite as unfair as it was to the Pirates in 2015, it's almost always a little unfair—most years, at least one Wild Card team has a better record than another division winner in the same league. Last year's unlucky squad was the Diamondbacks, who would have won the NL Central, but instead were forced into a one-game playoff with the Rockies. They won, but it threw off their pitching rotation, and they got swept in the next round by the Dodgers.

Even when there's the appearance of balance, the schedule itself is imbalanced, so who's to say it's actually fair? If the NL East is weak, for instance, would a Mets team with a .600 winning percentage be as good as a Dodgers team that finishes at .580 in a stronger NL West? There's only one valid answer: who knows? The Mets would be playing more games against worse competition, and there's no fair way to compare.

There's a very easy solution here—put all 15 teams in each league into one division, and have them play an equal schedule against each other throughout the season. Travel issues would have made that impossible years ago, but modern conveniences render it both simple and practical. You could still group games regionally to cut down on travel costs, and you'd still have the same "one floating Interleague series at all times" situation.

Then, at the end of the season, you'd have a legitimate pecking order. Keep the current playoff system, expand it, contract it, whatever—the ranking of every team would be indisputable, because none would have a built-in divisional advantage. If you want to pit the league's fourth and fifth best teams against one another in a one-game playoff, great—they earned it. If you want to just take the top four and lose the Wild Card system, great. Personally, I love Phil Rogers' proposal for six playoff teams with two automatic byes, but it doesn't matter.

Regardless of the new format, you'd be rid of the current system, where the best-case scenario is merely avoiding the disastrous, 2015-Pirates kind of injustice, and where total fairness is fundamentally impossible. Even the good years are bad today, and when the second-best team in the entire sport can be knocked out of the postseason in a single game, a change is not just warranted—it's necessary.

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