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October 9, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

The Sanctity of the 162-Game Season

by Brent S. Gambill

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Brent S. Gambill is Vice President & Director, Digital & Social Media, at Martin-Wilbourn Partners (MWPartners.com). He is the former Executive Producer for MLB Network Radio and SiriusXM Sports Social Media founder. Follow him on Twitter at @BrentSGambill.
 

There’s an unwritten rule in professional sports, “You never subtract. You only add.” Add teams. Add divisions. Add playoff teams. Add playoff games. Add television contracts. Add revenue. You get the idea.

With that in mind, Major League Baseball broke in another playoff format last Friday, adding a new round consisting of one-game playoffs between four wild card teams. Since its announcement in March, I have commonly called the new round the “contrived one-game playoff.” After 162 games, one-game playoffs make no sense. Teams don’t play one-game series in-season (make-up games don’t count). One-game playoff games should be reserved for their original purpose: deciding a race that remains tied after 162 games.

In the inaugural year of the new system, the American League wild card playoff was anything but contrived. The Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers had identical records at 93 wins. With or without the addition of the playoff game, those two teams would have played for the right to make the postseason. The only technicality is that the one-game playoff is now considered part of the postseason. Like the 1995 California Angels, 1998 San Francisco Giants, 1999 Cincinnati Reds, 2007 San Diego Padres, 2008 Minnesota Twins, and 2009 Detroit Tigers, no losing team will remember it as a playoff game.

In the National League, where there was a six-game difference between the two wild card teams, “contrived” fits perfectly. In any other year since the creation of the wild card, the St. Louis Cardinals’ season would have already been over. Under the new playoff system, they were like a reality show contestant being given a second chance to win the competition. Thanks to the new postseason system, the 88-win Cardinals got to take on—and defeat, in the only game that mattered—a team with a far superior record over a 162-game season.

My concern is the sanctity of the 162-game season. The regular season has less impact on the postseason than it ever has before. Commissioner Bud Selig should be commended for his progressive approach to increasing the game’s revenue and popularity, but those successes have come at a cost to the game’s competitive integrity.

No professional sport plays more regular-season games than Major League Baseball. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League play 82-game seasons. No one will confuse those leagues with ones that have meaningful, pennant race-like regular seasons. More than half of the teams—16 of 30—in the NBA and NHL make the playoffs. Both leagues have a regular season essentially to set seedings for their playoff brackets. I’m marginalizing those leagues’ regular seasons to some extent, but I can’t recall the last time anyone I know checked games back or games to clinch in those leagues.

The National Football League is a completely different animal. The NFL plays a 16-game season with only 12 of 32 teams making the playoffs. The marketing behind the league makes every game feel like it’s important, with television and fantasy football providing the greatest leverage.

From 1969 through 1993, only four teams made MLB’s playoffs; prior to that, only two did. (Of course, there were also fewer teams in the league.) With realignment and the addition of wild cards, the number doubled to eight in 1995. Most playoff arguments since have centered on the wild card team not being disadvantaged enough. Nine of the last 17 World Series have included at least one wild card team (the 2002 World Series had two). My least favorite fact is that the Miami Marlins have two World Series championships and zero division titles. How different would the last 17 World Series have been without the wild card? How different will they be in the future?

As a baseball traditionalist, I have a hard time comprehending the rationale for adding two more wild card teams to disadvantage a team in one round of a five-game Division Series. I’ll avoid discussing the decision to have a five-game division series, but if the NBA could change its first round at midseason to a seven-game series in 2003, there is hope that MLB will one day make the same change.

To provide greater balance to the playoffs with a larger disadvantage to the wild card team, the one-game playoff was created, and a flawed system was made even more flawed. How has the 162-game season been devalued? I’ve covered the wild card and one-game playoff, so let me discuss three other ways.

Realignment
When baseball moved from two divisions in each league to three, it lessened the chances of only the best teams making the playoffs. The moment relocation and expansion occurred in baseball, division alignments began getting out of whack. The 1993 NL West race is commonly referred to as “the last great pennant race.” That season, the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves each won 100-plus games and battled to the final day. The east coast Braves played in the NL West for many years.

By 1995, baseball expanded to six divisions with an unbalanced number of teams in each league. Before baseball realigned to six divisions, teams with fewer than 90 wins in the playoffs were rare. That is not the case today. This year alone, two 88-win teams qualified. The Detroit Tigers won the AL Central, and the Cardinals won the second NL Wild Card. Two teams with more wins than the Tigers were left out of the playoffs: the 90-win Rays and 89-win Angels. Divisions create artificial drama. It works well for selling tickets, but not for deciding the best teams in baseball.

Unbalanced Schedule
I have long been a critic of the unbalanced schedule. The addition of the wild card should have led to a balanced schedule. It would have insured a fair balance for the winner of the coveted non-division-winning playoff spot. Instead, baseball instituted an unbalanced schedule to heighten division rivalries and made the wild card a completely inequitable playoff spot.

The best argument for and against the unbalanced schedule has long been the AL East. The big-market Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees play 18 times each regular season. Those teams also play the smaller-market Tampa Bay Rays 18 times. The argument for the unbalanced schedule is the race for the division. The argument against is the loss of television money for those 18 games. A balanced schedule will come only at the approval of MLB’s television partners, and that will never happen.

Interleague Play
This was another of Bud Selig’s progressive moves, and it also greatly impacts the competitive balance of baseball. Some traditional rivalry matchups recur every year, while other teams are scheduled on a rotating basis. As if the unbalanced schedule was not enough of a competitive imbalance for the wild card race, interleague play exacerbates the unfairness of the situation, further unbalancing an already unbalanced race. All teams in a division do not play the same number of games against the same teams in interleague play. What makes it worse is that the imbalance is not against other teams in the same league, but other teams in another league.

With all the changes in baseball, why has the 162-game schedule remained? Two key factors: record and revenue.

Records
No sport respects records more than baseball. Fans, players, and owners all agree on one thing: records matter. Numbers like 73, 130 (Rickey Henderson’s single-season steals record), and .406 mean something. The 162-game season ensures that these numbers can be appropriately challenged. There’s something compelling about current players competing against the marks made by players in another era.

Revenue
More games means more revenue, but the increased revenue from the additional wild card isn’t only about the two extra games. Adding two more playoff teams provides a better narrative to sell tickets for “games that count.” There are fans in MLB cities that know their season is over by July, but with the additional wild cards, even those teams can sell hope to their followers. Every team has a chance to make the playoffs. Think about some of the September collapses in recent years: Boston’s and Atlanta’s 2011 collapses were not over divisions, but wild card spots. Additional playoff spots devalue the 162-game season, but there is no chance that owners will give up revenue by shortening the schedule.

No amount of disdain from this traditionalist will eliminate the wild cards. As is the case with the designated hitter, there’s a better chance for expansion of the wild card than elimination. Remember, professional sports don’t subtract. They only add.

The best addition baseball could make in 2013 would be an award similar to the NHL’s President’s Trophy. Baseball is a commitment for fans and players: six weeks of spring training, followed by a 162-game season with one off-day every two weeks over six months. There should be a substantive award for the best regular season record in baseball; an award that can be celebrated and placed in an organization’s trophy case.

Like most, I live the ups and downs of the 162-game season. I’m resigned to the fact that the best team will not always make or win the World Series, but let’s reward the team that proves over nearly 4,374 outs and 1,458 innings that it’s the best in baseball. I’ll always applaud baseball’s regular-season champion over the World Series champion. There are two different seasons, and the time has come to recognize the winners of each.

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Schedule,  Wild Cards

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