Friday, November 3, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, November 3, 2023 -- "Coda"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Coda
Vol. 15, No. 133
November 3, 2023

It’s not unfair to consider the 2023 playoffs a dud. The modern postseason can stretch anywhere from 32 to 53 games; this year, we had 39, on the lower end of that range. Nine of the 11 series were played in the minimum or one over. There were just two winner-take-all games, and neither of them was a classic. Most of those 39 games fit a formula, the winning team scoring early and never being caught. 

The lack of drama, as well as all the days without games, left a lot of time for the meta conversations that consume our baseball Octobers now. The Braves, Dodgers, and Orioles upsets, all 100-win teams losing, caused fans to focus on a playoff format that sits four top seeds down for five days before putting them up against teams that continued to play. For the second straight year, the #1 and #2 seeds in the NL were eliminated by wild-card teams. There’s a desire to explain these defeats beyond “it’s baseball.” Searching for a reason, people cite the high seeds’ time off between the end of the season and their first playoff series. As I’ve written, as Ben Clemens wrote, there’s not much evidence that excessive rest is a problem.

No, we’re reacting to what I call the second-chance issue. 

For the first 100-odd years of baseball history, second place was first loser. Originally, you won your league and were the champion. When the World Series took hold, you won your league and got to play for the overall championship. Starting in 1969, you won your division and qualified for a four-team playoff that fed into a championship.

In 1995 -- the rules were changed for 1994, but no postseason was played -- that changed.  On October 3, 1995, two second-place teams played in a playoff game for the first time in baseball history. Under the rules then, priority for home-field advantage was pre-set as opposed to being determined by record. In addition, MLB acknowledged the second-chance issue, decreeing that a wild-card team could not play a team in its own division in the first round. This would first be a factor in 1997. That year, the Marlins won the wild card behind the 101-61 Braves, but Miami played the 90-72 Giants in the first round rather than the top-seed Braves. MLB recognized, early on, that having a second-place team play the first-place team in its own division was a problem to be avoided.

As it turns out, that problem would materialize just weeks later, when those same Marlins, nine games worse than the Braves over six months, won four out of six over those same Braves to win the NL pennant. That was the first time the second-chance issue showed up. 

MLB changed the postseason format in 1998 to eliminate the pre-set home-field rotation, but even then, it kept the rule about first-round matchups. The Red Sox won the AL wild card after finishing eleventeen billion games behind the 114-win Yankees. They didn’t play those one-seed Yankees, but rather the -dians, the AL #2 seed. In 1999, both wild cards were shifted away from divisional foes in the first round, and they were in 2003 as well. This principle, that teams from the same division couldn’t meet in the Division Series, held through the entire eight-team playoff format.

Once MLB added the wild-card play-in game, though, they could no longer keep the principle intact. They wouldn’t know who the #4 seed would be until that game was played, and they could not hold up the entire scheduling process waiting to find out. In 2012, the Orioles beat the Rangers in the wild-card game and advanced to play the Yankees in the Division Series. From 2012 through 2019, there were six intradivisional Division Series matchups, with the division champion winning five of them. The one exception, the 2015 Cubs, had won 97 games.

I provide this history lesson to make a few points. One, that MLB recognized the second-chance issue from the jump and put in rules to avoid it. Two, that 25 years after letting second-place teams into the playoffs, MLB hadn’t really been bitten by it yet. Three, that the reaction to the 2022 and 2023 playoff outcomes is so strong in no small part because it is so new to us.

In 2022, the Atlanta Braves finished 14 games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies over six months. Over five days, they lost three of four games to those same Phillies and were eliminated. Across the country, the Los Angeles Dodgers had finished 22 games ahead of the San Diego Padres. Over five days, they lost three of four games to those same Padres and were eliminated. 

In 2023, the Braves finished 14 games ahead of the Phillies. Over six days, they lost three of four games to the Phillies and were eliminated. Across the country, the Dodgers finished 16 games ahead of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Over five days, they lost three straight games to those same Diamondbacks and were eliminated.

The focus, after these series, has been on scheduling, on the idea that a team that sat out a week is at a disadvantage to the team that kept playing. That’s not the issue, though. The issue is taking a team that was 14, 16, 22 games better than another over six months and throwing them into a best-of-five against the weaker opponent. There is no scheduling change that can make up for that.

What we’re reacting to, even recoiling from, is how easily the clear results of a six-month season can be voided. In the NBA, the better team wins a best-of so often that you can make the #1 and #8 seed play and it won’t matter. The NBA’s regular season is an extended seeding exercise in which even the teams don’t fully invest. The NFL plays just 17 games and, frankly, the NFL could feed orphans to lions at the 50-yard line before every game and the only thing anyone would ask is whether they could bet on it. The NHL has had a 16-team playoff since it had 21 teams in the league, the playoffs are their season.

In baseball, though, we invest in the regular season. We care about it. We ride the ups and downs. The regular season -- even defined as “The Championship Season” by the league -- has an importance that stretches back to the 19th century. There’s no such thing, never been any such thing, as a “pennant race” in other U.S. sports. Just baseball. 

So when a six-month romp is reversed in less than a week, it creates a credibility issue. When it happens in consecutive years in the same league, it cries out for an explanation. There is no satisfactory one, of course. The truth is “because when two good teams play a best-of-five, no result is a surprise,” and let me tell you that no one wants to hear that. 

Now, there’s no point to having playoffs if they always just advance the best teams. There’s also no point to a 162-game regular season if the results of it are so easily tossed aside. MLB recognized that in the initial playoff expansion, and MLB caught lucky by not having this bite them after its second expansion. Now, though, MLB is giving 80-odd win teams that finished two or three weeks behind a chance to throw a sucker punch, and in the last two years, four of those punches have landed. 

This is where I’m supposed to propose a solution. There is none. MLB hasn’t expanded the playoff field for any reason other than guaranteed television money. They literally sold the rights to the expanded wild-card round before that round ever existed. If the league had had their druthers, 14 teams would make the playoffs; that will happen as soon as 2027, and I expect a 16-team playoff field in the 2030s. These expansions will also be implemented solely for the purpose of adding guaranteed television revenue that gets split 30 ways, irrespective of team performance.

Of all the things I’ve hated about MLB’s choices over the last three decades, it’s this, the intentional degradation of the Championship Season, that stings the most. I enjoy the playoffs and World Series, but I love the regular season. With each decision, from playoff expansion to carnival extra-innings rules to tiebreakers, MLB has chipped away at what made the baseball season unique in American sports. They’re not going to stop, not when there is more TV money to be grabbed.

The second-chance issue is now a permanent fixture of the baseball landscape. It will become worse, actually, with future expansions that further lower the bar to entry. At 14 teams, it becomes likely an occasional sub-.500 team will get in, and at 16, it will be a regular occurrence. Those teams will sometimes find themselves matched up, as the Phillies and Padres and Diamondbacks were, with teams that lapped them for six months, and those teams will sometimes do, over three or five games, what they couldn’t do over 162. 

One of the talking points in the wake of this year’s Division Series was why these results are a problem. People love upsets in the NCAA tournament, so why not in MLB’s tournament? It’s a terrible comp. For one, the Philadelphia Phillies aren’t UMBC. For two, few people care about the college basketball regular season. For three, there’s a lot of evidence that people love upsets in the NCAA tournament in its first days, but they want the big brands to win on the second and third weekends. The NCAA tournament is large enough to provide both. MLB’s tournament isn’t.

I’ve made my peace with all of this. The regular season is a great ride that determines the best teams. The postseason is a great ride that determines the champion. I know I can’t get MLB off the teat of TV money, so I no longer advocate for smaller playoff fields. This is what baseball is now. Frankly, you have to be at least 45 to remember when it was anything better. 

What we need to do, though, is not get distracted by ephemera. These results aren’t because teams have too much rest or the series are best-of-three and best-of-five instead of best-of-seven. The only way to modify the MLB playoffs to truly give the better teams an advantage is to go to the KBO model where the higher seed starts up 1-0, and that’s too radical to sell.

No, it’s not about format. It’s about giving teams who were far behind the division leaders over six months a second chance over six days. The second-chance issue is the inevitable product of playoff expansion, and we have to just get used to it. The 2022 Phillies and 2023 Diamondbacks aren’t flukes. They’re the future.