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September 13, 2010

Joe's Blog

Yankees/Rays

by Joe Sheehan

I want to be excited about tonight's Yankees/Rays game. I want to be pumped about the clash of the two best teams in baseball, separated by a half-game in the standings, with two of the best pitchers in the AL squaring off in the opener. I want to be invested in the outcome, either as a Yankee fan since childhood or a professional writer for about half that time. I want to believe.

I can't do it. The game just doesn't mean very much. I have no doubt that the players on both teams will go all out to win, and I am sure that Joe Maddon and Joe Girardi would rather win than lose, but I know the history. We have 16 years of evidence that suggests that teams that have locked up postseason berths treat winning the division rather than being the wild card as something nice to have, rather than something necessary.

Let's go back a year, to Joe Girardi's first time front-running as a manager. During a late-season West Coast trip, the Yankees' lead in the AL East had been shaved from nine games to five over less than two weeks. With the lead at six games, the Yankees' last game on the trip came in Anaheim, a getaway Wednesday afternoon game. Girardi sent A.J. Burnett to the mound. Burnett struck out 11 over 5 2/3 innings, then was pulled after surrendering a run on two hits and a walk in the sixth.  Damaso Marte was called on to retire Chone Figgins, and did. Girardi went on to use Jonathan Albaladejo and Phil Coke to pitch the seventh, and Ian Kennedy -- injury-riddled starter prospect making his first MLB appearance of the year -- to protect a one-run lead in the eighth. Girardi stopped messing around in the ninth, getting Mariano Rivera in for the save. The entire pattern, though, screamed, "I really don't care about the outcome of this game." This is one example of many, by Girardi and by Joe Torre before him, of the Yankees putting preparations for October ahead of wins in September.

What about Joe Maddon? In 2008, his Rays had a big lead on the Yankees for the wild card, while locked in a close battle with the Red Sox. It's not quite as cut-and-dried, as he seemed to place some value on the Rays winning the division for the first time in their history. The rotation stayed in place (but for some movement due to the schedule) down the stretch, and his lineups remained mostly intact. His bullpen usage is hard to evaluate as he was changing things on the fly to account for the loss of Troy Percival. The changes he was making were in an effort to win games, not to keep players fresh.

The experience of 2008, though, is likely to inform 2010. The Rays have a division title under their belt, and that achievement won't nearly be enough this time around. Home-field advantage in the '08 postseason wasn't terribly important; they went 5-3 at home, and while they did win Game Seven at home against the Red Sox in the ALCS, they lost Game Six (and for that matter, Game One) in the same setting. Maddon's rotation features one starter, in David Price, headed well past his previous usage, and two others who have very recently been on the disabled list. His bullpen, a significant strength, is anchored by two hard-throwing right-handers with extensive injury histories.

I have no doubt that everyone wants to win, and that everyone will say all the right things. Both these managers know, though, that where they play games in October is much less important than who plays them and the condition they're in when they do. I'll watch tonight -- well, at least until Padres/Rockies at 8:40 ET -- and I'll appreciate the greatness of two left-handed starters and try and gauge just how many people have made it to St. Petersburg and think about how poorly the Yankees match up against good left-handed pitching.

I just won't confuse it for a real pennant race. That's what we're getting in the National League, and that's what going to get the blood pumping and the keys clacking throughout September.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  The Clash

35 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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DavidK44

Joe - any thoughts on some people asking for a 2nd wild card to be added in each league, and having the two wild cards play in either a 1 or 3 game series? Stark wrote an article on ESPN about it and I've read others asking for it before.

Although it would seem to "dilute" the regular season even more, it actually would put more of an emphasis on winning your division, as "settling" for the wild card means you have to beat the other wild card just to get to the Division Series. I bet the Yankees and Rays would be battling a lot harder if the difference between 1st and 2nd is not having to play the Red Sox in a 1 game playoff in order to advance to the Division Series. And, presumably, the wild card teams would have to burn their best pitcher trying to win the "wild card round", and would then be traveling to the league's best division winner with a sub-optimal starting pitching configuration

The wild card is here to stay - there's too much $ for the owners to let it go - but this actually adds more playoff games, keeps more teams in contention (teams fighting for the 2nd wild card spot), and if it's a 3 game series, means 2 more teams get at least one home playoff game - so the owners get more $, plus, the division winners "get" something.

I don't think you've commented on such an idea - and I know you've been a fervent defender about the importance of the regular season and pennant races and how the wild card dilutes that.

Sep 13, 2010 15:41 PM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny

Jayson Stark and Tom Verducci are proponents of this idea - any more questions?

Sep 14, 2010 09:55 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I hate it. I hate almost all schemes that expand the playoffs, but what this one does is make playing in a weak division even more valuable than it already is.

So the Yankees and Rays have to kill themselves to stay out of that series, with the loser playing a short series against some team it was 10 games better than in the regular season, and the winner doing the same, but without the any of the benefits that being a division winner would usually convey.

It sounds like a great plan if you're the Rangers, though.

This doesn't make winning the division more valuable. It makes winning a weak division more valuable.

Sep 13, 2010 15:48 PM
 
Matthew Avery

Look, you can generate exciting pennant races (by making winning the division important) or you can not. But what you've done is argue for (or against?) both in the space of a column and a comment. FWIW, I think the imbalanced schedule sucks, but like interleague play, I think it's here to stay. In the current context, I'd like to see the division title be important again. But then again, I'm a Braves fan and had to see the Marlins win more world series than the Braves did in the middle of Atlanta's consecutive title run.

Also, "This doesn't make winning the division more valuable. It makes winning a weak division more valuable." is patently false.

Sep 14, 2010 10:46 AM
rating: 0
 
DavidK44

Thanks for the response. Do you have any suggestions for putting more importance on the division that work within the wild card framework?

As much as many of us would love to see a return to 2 divisions, no wild cards, I just don't see the wild card, and all the $ that it brings, going away. Do you see any way to keep the wild card but also put more emphasis on the regular season?

Sep 13, 2010 16:37 PM
rating: 0
 
soBC

If playoffs (especially those with wild cards) are not a true indicator of team awesomeness, since it's been said that any team can win a short series, then why have playoffs at all? Just take the team with the best record at the end of the year and crown them as the winner.

Or take the two teams with the best record, regardless of division or league, and have them play each other. If the Yankees and Rays are the two best teams in baseball at the end of the season, why shouldn't they play each other for the World Series title?

I understand the reasons behind not liking the wild card or expanded playoffs, but if we're trying to reserve the playoffs only for those teams who deserve it, getting rid of the wild card doesn't do much in that regard. Reducing the number of divisions, dissolving them entirely, or awarding playoff standing based solely on record would be better options to consider, although probably not popular ones.

Sep 13, 2010 17:02 PM
rating: 0
 
DavidK44

I think there are a lot of people on this site who wouldn't mind going to the English Soccer system - best team at the end of the regular season is the champion.

But it's not going to happen. There's too much $ to be made in the playoffs, and the wild card adds another round of $ and also keeps more teams "alive" in September and that also means more $.

My question is, can you put more emphasis on winning your division / being the better team in the regular season, without getting rid of the wild card (or at least keeping 4 teams in each league in the playoffs)? The 2 wild card idea does have the downside that Joe pointed out, but it at least gives an incentive to winning the division.

Sep 13, 2010 17:38 PM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

My plan involves contracting two teams, having four divisions and sending the top team in each league to the playoffs. (It'll end up being top two, which I can live with, unhappily.)

I'm not kidding. There's no reason "30" is some magic number of teams, and frankly, there are leeches on the industry than can be pared with minimal loss. You could even get to 26 if you wanted, though the fourth team would be tough.

Contraction was a bad idea in 2001/02 because it was contracting the wrong teams as part of a labor strategy. Now, it would be a means to culling two useless ownership groups in markets that have more or less rejected baseball.

The wild card takes more away from September than it adds. See "crowds" in some of these parks tonight as evidence that it's not bringing people to games.

Sep 13, 2010 17:59 PM
 
redspid

Joe - I enjoy your writing so much, but there is no way in hell that will ever happen. The wild card is here to stay forever. We need to move past that and find a better process rather than rail against something that will never occur.

Sep 13, 2010 20:03 PM
rating: 1
 
DavidK44

Thank you. This is my point. Although most of us would love to see a return to the 2 divisions, 1 winner per division format, it's just not happening. Even if the whole "wild card bump" is a myth, and that the September crowds don't get a benefit from the wild card, the owners think it does, and the owners think the wild card boosts revenue and leads to more $.

The wild card is here to stay. My point is that the two wild card format, to me, is better than the current format, and actually has a chance of happening.

Although I am a little confused - Joe, you said 4 divisions, top team in each league - do you mean top team in each division? The way you wrote it seems to imply that you'd have 4 divisions, say, AL East, AL West, NL East, NL West, but would only send 2 teams to the playoffs - the best team from the AL and NL. I assume you meant top team in each division, and that you'd "live with, unhappily", the top two teams in each division going to the playoffs.

I fail to see how 8 teams making the playoffs by way of 2 divisions, top 2 in each, is any sort of improvement over the current 3 divisions, top in each and one wild card. Both systems will lead to situations like Yankees/Rays where teams are merely fighting for playoff position, and the only pennant races would be races for the 2nd spot in the division. Unless I'm completely mis-understanding the proposal.

Sep 14, 2010 06:53 AM
rating: 0
 
DavidK44

I meant to add that perception is a powerful thing. The people in charge think the wild card is a great invention that leads to more teams being invovled and more money for their pocketbooks. Whether or not that's the truth doesn't matter. At least that's the way I see it. The mindset shouldn't be "get rid of the wild card", but rather, how can it best be shaped to still put emphasis on pennant races, because unless there's a drastic overhaul in baseball's leadership, the wild card's not going away.

Sep 14, 2010 06:56 AM
rating: 0
 
jerrykenny

The $$$ are in the network TV fees for the extra playoff round - not the regular season games.

Sep 14, 2010 09:58 AM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Contraction would be a serious disservice to the sports and more people than you can reasonably argue with. Just dump the bad owners. Just dump the divisions. Not realignment, but unalignment

Sep 13, 2010 18:31 PM
rating: 0
 
ScottyB

I'd rather miss out on a pennant race here or there than have a deserving team- like the 103-win Giants- miss the post-season because of geography.

Sep 13, 2010 18:48 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

so dump the geography angle. No divisions - just leagues.

Sep 13, 2010 18:49 PM
rating: -1
 
jerrykenny

You're missing the point entirely - without the pressure of having to keep pace with each other neither the Braves nor the Giants would have pulled out all the stops to win 100+ games that year. A compelling, winner-take all pennant race, providing day-in, day-out drama was the essence of baseball and Selig has ripped its guts out with this idiotic three-division, wild card scheme. The loss of the traditional pennant races in favor of the season-deadening effect we're seeing right now with the Yankees and Rays is incalculable.

Sep 14, 2010 10:07 AM
rating: 1
 
ScottyB

jerrykenny- that's a different question.

As for this year, I'd rather have both the Yanks and Rays (the two best teams in baseball) BOTH in the playoffs rather than have one of them miss out while clearly inferior teams play on.

Sep 14, 2010 15:05 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I could not possibly have advanced my thesis any more clearly than Joe Girardi did tonight.

Sep 13, 2010 19:41 PM
 
princecaspian7

Just got back from the "non pennant race" game at the Trop. Anyone who bothered to watch--nearly 30 K in St. Pete plus many times more that number on TV--was treated to 11 innings of one of the finest playoff-type games in many months/seasons? Sorry you missed out. Doc Fisch

Sep 13, 2010 22:28 PM
rating: -1
 
Richie

I believe the evidence is overwhelming that the wildcard has added on to September attendance. Anyone saying otherwise, I'd love to see your non-anecdotal evidence.

Sep 14, 2010 08:32 AM
rating: -2
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

The onus is on others to provide data to refute your belief.

Ooookaaayyyyy...

Sep 14, 2010 09:06 AM
 
Richie

And why in the world you'd put 'contract two teams' in front of 'let any team who wants move to New Jersey/Long Island/Connecticut/San Jose/etc.' is beyond me.

Sep 14, 2010 08:35 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I think it's much less likely to happen. The territorial rights are a big part of the franchise value for owners.

I also think the effect of moving, at least to the NY area, is overblown. The two NY teams mostly sell different products (AL and NL baseball), and you'd duplicate one of them. You'd be up against 50/110 years of entrenched fandom. It'd take a generation to get around that. It's not clear who would televise your games, if anyone, especially in light of the first point. I have no idea who's in the mood to spend a billion dollars on a ballpark, or where you might do so.

It's one of those ideas that, like an extra wild-card team, sounds great until you start looking at details. The details don't work.

(San Jose? Get there already.)


Sep 14, 2010 09:11 AM
 
Dan W.

How would you feel about adding 2 teams, going to 4 divisions of 8, no wild cards? Would the league be willing to sacrifice the wild card revenue for the two-extra-teams revenue, i.e. making the revenue sharing pie larger?

(I know it would dilute talent even further, but as the league expands and picks up more and more players from the international market -- and population grows in general -- this might be minimized somewhat, no?)

Sep 14, 2010 10:56 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

I'd be fine with that, but it won't happen. I strain to think of an example of a successful league reducing its number of playoff teams.

I think at 32, we get two leagues of four four-team divisions, winners only go. That works for me, as someone who likes races, but the broadcast partners will hate it.

Talent dilution isn't an issue for me at all. There are plenty of players and more coming.

Sep 14, 2010 11:23 AM
 
Richie
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

No, I'd say the onus is on you as part of this site to offer evidence that the wild card hasn't goosed September attendance some. Youse gots the resources, not lil' ol' me. Bill James is on record as saying certainly it has. It's also the conventional wisdom.

And saying territorial waiving is "much less likely to happen"? If by that you mean .1% vs. .4%, I suppose I wouldn't quibble. Each is as likely as Lady Gaga going out with me. From which I derive great comfort.

Sep 14, 2010 10:07 AM
rating: -7
 
jerrykenny

You need some training in basic logic. You've provided no evidence to support your "belief". How about a link to the Bill James quote? Calling it "conventional wisdom" is just silly - it used to be conventional wisdom that the Earth was flat, that the sun orbited around it and that sacrifice bunting in the second inning was a good strategy.

By the way, attendance statistics are pretty easy to come by so it's not a resource issue.

Sep 14, 2010 10:12 AM
rating: 3
 
jjschwar

Have we ever seen a pennant race as good as the NL West could be this year? Atlanta, Cincinnati, San Diego, San Francisco, and Colorado make 5 teams within 3.5 games of each other with only 3 weeks left battling for one playoff spot. I say get rid of the wild card.

Sep 14, 2010 10:19 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Joe Sheehan
BP staff
(17)

1967 AL, I guess. There are probably others. Someone did a book about great pennant races once...

Sep 14, 2010 11:24 AM
 
Richie
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

'Conventional wisdom' is only worthless if you have ego issues about how oh so much smarter I am than all the idiots out there. Otherwise it's a quite good initial default setting. See 'Crowd, Wisdom of the'.

Sep 14, 2010 11:35 AM
rating: -9
 
John Collins
(110)

Wisdom of the crowd is *not* conventional wisdom. Wisdom of the crowd is the phenomenon where nobody knows the right answer (as to, say, how many jellybeans are in the jar), but overestimations by some are balanced by underestimations by others, and the average of answers is right. It really has *nothing* to do with conventional wisdom.

As to conventional wisdom, arrogance is not the only reason to doubt it. The abundant history of conventional wisdom being false is evidence of the unreliability of such wisdom. Jerry Kenney gives an example of this (flat earth). It would be easy to come up scads of others.

Sep 14, 2010 13:12 PM
rating: 2
 
John Collins
(110)

Sorry, that should be JerryKenny, BP subscriber, and not Jerry Kenney, old Yanks 3B.

Sep 14, 2010 13:14 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

No, 'wisdom of the crowd' is not the idea that WAGs are equally likely to be high as low, therefore when accumulated will still get you near the correct answer. It was first exhibited with regard to agriculture, not silly jelly beans. See Wikipedia. Re the book itself, tho'. Not the self-congratulatory entry on the concept itself.

Sep 14, 2010 16:21 PM
rating: -4
 
John Collins
(110)

Yeah, the first example in the article you mentioned is a group of people guessing the weight of an ox. Exact same point as the jellybean example. The idea that conventional wisdom is right because it is conventional is the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad populum (aka 20 million Justin Bieber fans can't be wrong). But did you notice that Surowiecki gave 4 conditions that need to be met for collective beliefs to be "wisdom". One of them is that the beliefs were formed independently, for the most part. That's hardly the case in your example of collective wisdom (attendance rate spike due to wildcard). Quit while you're behind.

Sep 14, 2010 21:34 PM
rating: 1
 
Richie

No, it's not 'people' guessing the weight of an ox, but common farmers with some expertise in the matter. But it's time to drop this. As much as I enjoy getting negatived by the many Dwight Schrutes and Lisa Simpsons of the BP subscriber world.

Sep 15, 2010 08:34 AM
rating: -1
 
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