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Musical Chairs Playoffs

September 9, 2015
In keeping with the utter lack of practicality in these proposals (which, I’ll remind you, had the effect of inspiring my brother to offer to toss me from a car I was driving at the time) I’d like to do away with the playoffs entirely, and propose a system I think offers a more riveting alternative.


As nutty as these proposals may be, I should note, some of them are essentially reactionary, striving backwards in time rather than proposing something completely new, capturing some qualities of the past that I miss, while introducing some novel means of getting there. "Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!" This is one of those.


Used to be, when I was a lad, in addition to walking both to and from school uphill all three ways, I used to watch all 8 teams (and later all 10) in each league compete for one playoff spot, each league’s winner meeting the other league’s winner in the World Series. Typically, that system resulted in boring the trousers off the fans of at least half-a-dozen teams in each league by August 1st. Any team more than 10 games behind with less than sixty games to go could forget about the pennant, so two-thirds of all fans would have no real reason to follow their teams much beyond late July, other than blind loyalty, complacence, and cluelessness. (As a clueless lad,  I rooted for the early Mets right up to the final out of their mathematical elimination—and doublechecked the math to make sure they were really out of the race, which, of course, they were never  really in to begin with.)    So, after enough expansion had taken place to fill the Hindenberg and several birthday-party balloons, and after the10-team leagues had been carved up into 5-team divisions, and then after the Wild Card had been created, the possibility of post-season play was granted to maybe half the teams in the league for August and parts of September, extending the point of hopelessness for most fans by six or seven weeks, which has been exciting.


So why do I propose doing away with the wildly successful and exciting playoffs and the Wild Card? Do I really hate baseball that much?


Well, if you’re a Wild Card-contending team’s fan reading this on or around September 15th, you probably understand that your team is competing with a bunch of other teams for a single playoff spot. That gives you hope, but it’s really not a lot of hope most years—more like owning a lottery ticket than holding a good poker hand. The appeal is that, technically, you haven’t been eliminated even if your division has a runaway winner.  Every game your team plays in these last few weeks is pretty important—they need to get hot now, and stay hot, for the rest of the season. But there is no one single do-or-die series that grabs your attention, when your stadium is packed to capacity, like it will be for the playoff teams all through October. What I’m proposing gives every team at least one playoff-type series, that they have to win or go home. Many teams will have several such series.


Let’s reconfigure baseball, such that we have four eight-team leagues (or divisions, or gaggles—the nomenclature doesn’t matter. This assumes expanding to 32 teams, which will be the subject of an upcoming column.)  The eight-team leagues will compete for the pennant just as they do now-- only the regular season, as we know it, is over by the middle of August. At the conclusion of the 126th game, the four teams in first place are declared the pennant-winners.


We will pause briefly as traditionalists attempt to throttle me, not caring to learn whatever answers I might supply to questions like "Since baseball history needs 162 regular-season games, how we will we be able to compare one season to another if the season suddenly ends after 126 games?" Forget that until the 1960s, baseball used to have 154 regular season games, and after you realize that my throat is frustratingly inaccessible to your grasping hands, please hear me out. There are 35 additional games I have in mind, 35 games whose stats will count as regular-season numbers. (Another pause as you add up 126 and 35 and get 161, which is close enough to 162 by almost anyone’s standard.) These 35 games, the final six weeks of the season, will also substitute for most of the playoffs.


In the 126-game regular season, by the way, each of the eight teams will play each of its opponents 18 times apiece (which just happens to be the exact number of games each team played its opponents during the sainted 1960s—just a coincidence but a happy one.)  The first two regular-season series between each opponent (home and away) is five games, and the next pair of series is four games apiece.  (Makeup games will be played on an open date at the end of the final series, or in the All-Star break, which will occur at the end of the regular season and will be a few days longer than it is now, both to accommodate the makeup schedule and to account for added dramatics of this scheme.) Ah, the dramatics:


The first series after the All-Star game, the first one that matters very much, and the one on which playoff-style attention will be focused, is a five-game series between  each league’s eighth-place team and its seventh-place team, who commence fighting for their lives. The team that loses this series gets eliminated from playoff contention— their entire season rests on these five games in late August.


This series is nationally televised, of course. During the All-Star break, the managers have been talking up their starting rotation, and their strategies for taking the series from their foe. It should be an even series, since both teams are the two worst teams in the league. For the one team that gets eliminated, they have no real kick—by this point in the season (around August 25th), over twenty-five percent of the teams would otherwise be out of the running for the playoffs anyway. My way, half of those teams—the winners of the first elimination series-- will be playoff contenders.


While these two bad teams duke it out, what happens in the rest of the league? Do they just hang out, drinking beer, eating fried chicken, and idly watching the playoffs? They do not. They pair up, playing each other. But apart from accruing stats, what’s the point of these games?  Of each league’s six "safe" teams, now the one with the worst record at the end of 131 games (unless it’s the team that was declared the pennant-winner at the end of 126 games, which is highly unlikely) plays the next elimination series against the winner of the first elimination series. There will be considerable pressure on teams to avoid being in sixth place at the end of 131, because games 132-136 could eliminate them from the playoffs too.


And so on. Every week, a different set of teams (one in each of the four leagues) will fight for survival, while the rest of the league strives to avoid facing the winner in the next elimination series. There are seven such elimination series, the final one being between the team that won the pennant on  August 15th, and has been tuning up ever since, and the final team left standing at the end of these elimination series.


Do I hear someone saying "A travesty!"?  Okay, I don’t actually hear anything, but it might seem to make a mockery of the pennant race if the team in last place after 126 games has a chance to win the pennant. But if they win all seven series, they deserve the pennant, in my view. The worst record with which a triumphant last-place team could possibly finish the seven final series is 21-14, a .600 record, and that’s possible only if they win all seven series by three games to two. If they go 4-1 even once, and sweep one elimination series, that makes them 24-11. That’s championship baseball. Moreover, think about that final series, in which they’ll be facing the best team in the league (as of August 15th) that has been able to rest their tired players, heal their wounded, set up their rotation with this series in mind, while the last place team has been forced to play for their lives non-stop for the past six weeks. Finally, the 126-game pennant race winner will, like all the last-place team’s opponents, have the home field advantage in this series. If David defeats Goliath for the pennant, he will have deserved his victory.


The post-season proper will be as it used to be: a seven-game series between the two league champions, and its stats will not counted in the season’s stats. This will also have the effect of returning post-season stats to what they once were: World Series records, so we can once again compare today’s post-season performances to what used to go on before 1969, when the system of complicated post-season competition began.


My next column will present a different idea for realignment of the divisions, some suggestions for expansion teams, and another system for rearranging the playoffs so we’re not watching a bunch of guys playing World Series baseball between snowstorms.


COMMENTS (15 Comments, most recent shown first)

.....and I neither.
From anything I can tell, the current playoff format seems to be an extreme success, and I'm not seeing or hearing any loud complaints and hardly even any audible complaints about it.
1:19 PM Sep 22nd
Um ... maybe there's been a furious national outcry against baseball's playoff structure that I've somehow overlooked, but you kinda seem to be solving problems that I don't think all that many people see as problems.
12:27 AM Sep 22nd
Reminds me too much of the Republican debate format. :-)
2:17 PM Sep 13th
A couple of years ago somebody at (IIRC) Hardball Talk proposed this: On September 1st, the first- and second-place teams in each division move to a six-team super-division and play a 30-game round-robin tournament; the remaining nine teams in each league would have interleague play the rest of the season. The winner of the AL super-division would then play the winner of the NL super-division in the World Series, starting October 1st. This setup, I could get behind.
1:29 PM Sep 13th
Steven Goldleaf
Some late corrections, courtesy of helpful readers:

1) "Hindenberg" should be spelled with a "u"--no, not "Hundenberg" but "Hindenburg."

2) there have been TWO Wild Card spots, not one, available for these last few seasons, "so your team is competing with a bunch of other teams for a single playoff spot" should be "...for two playoff spots."
2:09 PM Sep 12th
Steven Goldleaf
gfletch asked: "what do the teams that lose the first round of playoffs do for the last 20% of their season? Finally, reality do they get paid?"

I'm not sure what you're asking. The players get paid because, like now, they've got contracts for the entire season, and probably beyond. Are you asking: how do the teams that been eliminated earn money after being eliminated? If that's the question, I'd answer again: same as now. The teams continue playing, though (in early September with a seriously below-.500 record for an last place team that has been eliminated, same as now) they cannot win the pennant. They would play the teams that are still in contention. I would suggest that the team that's eliminated first would play the winner of the league while the second elimination round is taking place--I'd seek to reward the first place team at every point I could. I'm all about incentives for finishing first, and teams trying their damnedest to win every game they can.

7:06 AM Sep 12th
re KaiserD2, "The second wild card has been an absolute disaster because it condemns what may be the second-best team in the league (e.g. the Pittsburgh Pirates?) to a 50% chance of playing just one post-season game......"

And I think it has been tremendous and a huge success. Compared to the prior system, it has re-incentivized winning the division, big time. Also of course it keeps many more teams in the race for the post-season -- which, as you say, rewards some mediocrity and perhaps perpetuates it to some extent. But I think that's outweighed by the rest, especially this:

The do-or-die Wild Card Games are spectacular. I don't mean just that the actual games we've had are spectacular; I mean that the phenomenon itself is spectacular. My favorite of all games is Game 7's, and I suppose, Game 5's of a division series, but there's never any guarantee that there'll be such a game and usually there isn't (i.e. it's less than half the time). But, the wild care games are like Game 7's, plus they're like 1-game condensations of a whole series -- and we know there will be two of them every year.

I love the phenomenon of the Wild Card Game so much that I'm almost glad that my team (Yanks) will probably 'only' make the wild card, especially because it would probably be a home game and I'll be able to go see it. My favorite games to attend would be Game 7's of the World Series or Championship Series. The Wild Care Game is a very close next. To me, the adding of the second wild card and the particular way it was done was a brilliant step by MLB.
3:35 AM Sep 12th
...and Kelly Johnson instead of Daniel Murphy, and Conforto instead of Cuddyer, and Uribe instead of Wright, and Plawecki instead of d'Arnaud. Assuming we're talking about the series opener against Atlanta.​
7:29 PM Sep 11th
Let's do it. a tightly bunched year, couldn't a team eliminated in the middle rounds go on a tear and wind up with the best record? That is one the saving graces of the wild cards.

Also, a five game series might be a bit much. I don't need to see Kershaw twice if there is a rainout or a rest day.

I think I still would be more interested in exploring a split season. It occurs to me lately how absurdly different a September team is from an April team after roster expansions, trades, etc. You might as well be counting 2014 records in there.

PS: a debate honesty admission here....I went to make my point by comparing their last night's lineup with opening day pitching Colon....but it was the same with exception of Yo-C for Lagares.
2:20 PM Sep 11th
Professor. I think your brother needs to look into investing in an Aston Martin DB5. Like the one James Bond had in Goldfinger. The car with the ejector seat.
10:12 AM Sep 11th
Well, I don't think proposal would help very much. I would propose, to begin with, a small step in the other direction.

The second wild card has been an absolute disaster because it condemns what may be the second-best team in the league (e.g. the Pittsburgh Pirates?) to a 50% chance of playing just one post-season game. Baseball was a hell of a lot more interesting when the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays were competing for two genuine playoff spots. Mediocrity in baseball, as I will show in a book in progress, is at an all-time high, and this is partly because it simply makes no sense to spend money to build a great team when the best team wins the World Series only 28% of the time (stat contributed by Pete Palmer.) I think baseball would become a more worthy rival to the NFL if we went back to four playoff teams.
3:43 AM Sep 11th
The two expansion teams should be Montreal and Brooklyn.
10:29 PM Sep 10th
I actually like this a lot. I've been arguing for an expansion to 32 teams for years, and for a reorganization into 4 leagues (with, I might add, no inter-league games). But I really do like your playoff system. I think it could be very interesting, at the very least. Maybe someone who does simulations could run some and see what a "normal" pattern of outcomes is?
7:01 PM Sep 10th
Well, you almost lost me at fried chicken, but I hung in there and...okay, it's not that complicated. Might be fun, but I think we've already reached the saturation point of interest in playoff matchups. Curious, though...what do the teams that lose the first round of playoffs do for the last 20% of their season? Finally, reality do they get paid?

Tell you something else...isn't the first round of playoffs, with many series going on, the most interesting part of the season? I certainly find that that is so. The more rounds of playoffs, the more I find my interest in the final series lessens, unless my team is in it for the whole ride. I see this suggestion as just another way to devalue the world series.

Thanks for another novel idea.
5:30 PM Sep 10th
Well, Steven, it doesn't appeal to me very much, but let me focus on one thing you wrote: "But there is no one single do-or-die series that grabs your attention, when your stadium is packed to capacity, like it will be for the playoff teams all through October." Well, now, I beg to differ. Try Yankee Stadium tonight through Sunday--weather permitting of course--when the AL East division-leading Blue Jays enter the lion's den to take on the second-place, by only 1.5 games, Yankees. Think you can get a seat? Or the just-completed series in Washington DC where the Mets played the Nationals, who helped by manager Matt Williams's misplaced faith in a shaken Drew Storen lost all three games and effectively the season. Or the Dodgers and San Francisco last week. And these are only a few of the high-stakes series we'll get to enjoy over the next month. So no, a thousand times no, I don't want to give this up.
3:04 PM Sep 10th
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