Baseball, The Play-Offs, And Integrity

If the New York Yankees lose to the Cleveland ‘What’s Their Names?’ —Oh, right, “Guardians”…I forgot—tonight, it will eliminate New York and mean that only one of the teams proven by the 162 game regular 2022 season to be the best in Major League Baseball will have survived the early rounds of the play-offs to have a chance at the World Series. Over the weekend the L.A. Dodgers, owners of a record-tying 111-51 record in winning the National League West, were eliminated by the San Diego Padres, who finished a distant second in that division, not even winning 90 games. It took just three defeats (out of four games played) to sink L.A. Before that, the Philadelphia Phillies, a team that had been so mediocre for the bulk of the season that its manager was fired, eliminated last year’s World Series Champions and the winner of the Phillies’ division (over a 100 game winning runner-up: Philadelphia was a distant third).

If the Yankees go down (I’m rooting for that to happen, but I shouldn’t be), only the Houston Astros of the five teams that were objectively baseball’s best will have a chance to make the World Series, and that’s an ethical disaster. The World Series was devised to decide the best baseball team in the game, and for about seven decades, that’s what it did. Unlike all the other professional sports teams that polluted their post-season with multiple play-off levels, baseball alone had integrity. The teams with the best records in the American and National Leagues met for the first and only time in a season at the very end, in a best of seven, winner take all series. The system was meaningful, it was exciting, and it had integrity.

How baseball got to its current state, when the World Series is frequently a showdown between second place teams inferior to the squads they have surpassed in short play-offs with the Series opponents having already faced each other during the regular series is a sad study in entropy. This is how ethics yields to non-ethical considerations.

It went like this…

  1. Sixteen teams, eight in both leagues, weren’t enough to satisfy the growing U.S. population. Cities were beginning to steal teams from each other, and greedy owners were quick to sever their supposedly sacred loyalty to their communities and fan bases for bigger stadiums and larger profit opportunities. That meant expansion, and while cities had been remarkably patient and supportive accepting the fact that they might go decades without a sniff of a championship when their theoretical odds were one in 8, as the odds migrated south to one in 10 and then one in 12, it was decided that divisions were necessary to keep hope alive.
  2. Each league had two divisions of six teams each. One in six gave hope to traditional losers; it also meant that a whole division of mediocre teams could send a representative to the World Series if it got lucky in what was initially five game play-offs between the division winners. This happened, too: the Mets went to Series one year with a team that was barely over .500.
  3. So the Baseball Mavens decided to artificially make both divisions look good by eliminating balanced schedules. Now every team played the majority of its games in its own division. This was, of course, unfair to the teams in the strong divisions: in some cases, they would have won the title in the weaker divisions, but their records didn’t reflect it because they had to play better teams in more games.
  4. Two divisions in each league weren’t enough when the leagues expanded to 14 teams: seven in a division was awfully close to the old one chance in 8 math that had existed before expansion. So the leagues went to a 5-5-4 three division arrangement. One in 4 to make the post-season was ridiculous (like hockey), but the rationalization was that more teams would be “in it” longer, increasing interest and game attendance. In the “old” days, the fun was following the team and enjoying the beautiful game of baseball, with championships just something that came along as a special treat a couple times in a lifetime (unless you rooted for the Yankees). Now the whole game’s culture embraced the corrupting concept that only winning mattered.
  5. An odd number of divisions meant that there had to be an additional team added to the mix when play-offs arrived, thus the advent of the “Wild Card” , an abortion of integrity that migrated from the NFL, the source of all Evil. This meant that a team that had lost a 162 game race against the best team in its division might defeat it for the League Championship with just four fortunate wins. There were all sorts of rationalizations offered for why this was good and just, but it was intellectually dishonest: the justification was money. More play-offs meant more games, more TV contracts, more sponsors. Naturally, the TV ratings and the prestige of the World Series diminished proportionately.
  6. Interleague play during the season was added as a gimmick to goose season attendance, and it worked for a while until the novelty wore off. It also eliminated the rationale of the World Series being a one-time season showdown between teams that hadn’t played each other before. There is now about a one in three chance that the World Series opponents played each other during the regular season.
  7. This season, there are three “wild cards” in each league, meaning that six also-rans were eligible to make it to the World Series, supposedly the clash of the best teams in baseball, and not the “two teams that happened to get hot in a couple of short three and five game series.”

It’s still possible that that the Astros or the Yankees will make it to the Series and win, allowing one of the best teams in the game to stand as World Champion despite winning against a National League loser. If so, that will be just moral luck. The system has no integrity, and baseball’s integrity rot extends far beyond the cynical play-offs:

  • The game as devised required every player to play offense and defense, meaning that a player’s weaknesses could not be hidden, and that trade-offs were part of the game. Then pitchers became such terrible hitters that the Designated Hitter was devised to protect them from the humiliation of batting, and fans from the revulsion of watching them try. At the same time, it allowed one-dimensional sluggers who would have once been cut as defensive liabilities to lumber to the plate four times a game without earning the privilege by playing in the field.
  • The oft-extolled virtue of baseball over the other sports is that there is no clock. But next year, a pitch clock will be added because pitchers have been allowed to take so much time getting ready to throw the ball that the average game time has increased by 20%, all dead air. To be fair, a large amount of the increase has been TV contracts requiring extended time for commercials. The love of money is the root of dead integrity.
  • The game was intended to allow fielders to position themselves anywhere on the field. However, the availability of technology-tracked spray charts showing where batters hit the ball allows teams to use sophisticated “shifts,” lowering batting averages and making the game increasingly one of strikeouts and home runs, because players refuse to sacrifice the homers that lead to huge contracts for the humble success of a safe bunt to an unprotected part of the infield. Next season, shifts will be banned.

There is more, but the evidence is plain. Integrity no longer matters to baseball, and this will harm the game and long-term support for it, and in many unanticipated ways.

And baseball, like all sports, has significant influence over the culture as a whole.

19 thoughts on “Baseball, The Play-Offs, And Integrity

  1. One thing I like about how Europeans run their soccer leagues is the lack of play-offs, mostly.

    There are two competitions annually: The League, where the team with the best record wins, period – and the champion can be known weeks before the end of the season if they are a dominant team. And The Cup, which is an extended bracket tournament (hundreds of teams) where even teams in the third or fourth tier leagues sometimes manage to make it to the late rounds through a combination of grit and luck. Everyone knows the winner of the League is the one that counts, but the Cup is also prestigious, and there is a two-game Champion of Champions series between the winners of each competition, which is generally a fun and exciting game.

    I’d really like for US Soccer to adopt that competition model, instead of the current NFL-inspired one. And if leagues and divisions end up being meaningless in baseball (like they appear to be going) the MLB might be able to steal some ideas from this system.

      • Well, I don’t know. The Red So. Gave not done much of late to brag about.

        It could have been easy to miss that point in the last few months.

        -Jut

          • Jack,
            Remember, I’m from Minnesota. We have a more pathetic record that cannot be besmirched by your curse of the Bambino. We gave the Red Sox David Ortiz; we have the Celtics Kevin Garnett.

            We can’t win, so we have resorted to celebrating the players who leave us to find success elsewhere.

            We also traded 3 Super Bowls to the Cowboys in exchange for Herschel Walker. That still pisses us off though.

            -Jut

  2. I cannot really fundamentally disagree with your points regarding the expansion of the playoffs. We have now gotten to the point where 40% of MLB teams made the playoffs this year. , which I think is too many. Granted that one team per league won’t fly in this day and age, but it wouldn’t be a major departure from history to have stuck with two divisions, which would yield 4 out of 30 teams — 13.3%. On the other hand, it does get complicated when you look at balance.

    In the NBA, I believe just over half the teams make the playoffs. However, the teams that will make the finals can often be accurately predicted before the season even starts. That’s one of the reasons I don’t watch the NBA — if your team’s fate is preordained, what is the fun of following them? I don’t think that’s good for the sport.

    On the other hand, the NFL now has 14 of 32 teams make the playoffs with only the top team in each conference getting a first round bye — that bye is a lot more important in the NFL than in many of the other sports. But even though there are clear favorites each year, there are typically upsets throughout the playoffs — and there have been no real dynasties in the NFL for some time.

    Yes, yes, all of that is ‘It’s not the worst thing’ type of rationalization, but I think we do have to put MLB in the context of the wider world we live in. From a fan’s point of view, I believe that the original wild card added a huge amount of rooting interest to the MLB season. If you were the NY Mets this year, you weren’t looking at missing the playoffs with 101 wins. Previously, there were a lot of years where the playoff races were effectively over by Labor Day (or before), but more teams were in the mix with a single wild card.

    It was 8 of 30 teams — only about a quarter of the teams, and half the percentage for the NBA or NHL. The problem with this format was that there was not a big incentive to win your division, as long as you got the wild card, so a race like we had in the NL East this year between the Braves and Mets wasn’t that big a deal. Yes, winning your division gave you a better chance at home field advantage, but historically home field has meant less in baseball than any other sport.

    I thought adding the second wild card was a blunder by MLB. However, again as a fan, I was wrong — it added a lot more rooting interest to the mid and late season (which was expected). But with the one game playoff, that format restored the big advantage of winning your division — if you did, you didn’t have to play in a do-or-die game, you would have a five game series. That worked out a lot better than I anticipated.

    This year — I think baseball has the worst of both worlds. They’ve diluted the playoffs again, they’ve made it a lot easier to win as a wild card. Perhaps worst, the top teams are forced to take a week off — it’s an age-old debate, but I think the consensus would be that a long layoff in October is a bad rather than a good thing in baseball. We see this year that two and possibly three of the top teams with a bye have lost their first round. If that trend continues, MLB will be stuck. They can hardly go back to 5 playoff teams, and 8 would not only be a joke, but it would cause serious scheduling problems (November is just not a good time to be playing baseball outdoors).

    I think MLB has illustrated the Peter principle — they have pushed the playoff bubble one too many steps beyond what worked.

    It won’t surprise you that I have thoughts about the other issues, but I’ll have to split up this post.

  3. I agree with much of what you say, Jack, but I think baseball is maybe worse than some of the other sports in this department.

    Baseball is structured around a series of games. One team will play another team for two or three or four games in a row. Basketball, hockey, football all focus on individual games throughout the year. Because you rotate pitchers, the true quality of a baseball team is only realized over a stretch of games (rotating goalies in hockey is the only analogy I can come to and it is not a good one because they do not get rotated regularly). Because this is the structure of baseball, I feel: 1) one-game playoffs in baseball is just about the dumbest thing it has done as far as playoffs are concerned; and 2) I don’t mind that a team like the Dodgers gets knocked off by a less accomplished team in a series. They are called “Wild Cards” for a reason.

    By contrast, football is structured around the notion that “on any given Sunday” any team can defeat any other team. It is also a very short season in the sense that it is only 17 games. Because it is focused around single games, an expanded playoff field makes more sense because even really good teams can lose a string of close games and still get a chance in the playoffs.

    So, the World Series and the Super Bowl are two very different animals and both are well-suited for their respective sports. However, the NFL playoffs are superior to the trash heap the MLB has made out of its playoff series.

    On other notes, banning shifts is a stupid idea.

    The pitch clock, while understandable, is simply moronic. The shot clock in basketball and the play clock in football are necessary because they are timed events. Procrastination gives the winning team an advantage if there is no incentive to play. In basketball, the shot clock completely changed the nature of the game. And, even with the shot clock and the play clock, “clock management” is integral parts of the strategy in both of those games. The pitch clock adds nothing to the game. It might just make a 19-inning game 30 minutes shorter.

    And don’t get me started on the “spotting” a runner in extra innings rule….

    -Jut

    • Some points:
      1. Good baseball teams have the lowest winning pct. and bad ones the best of all the professional sports. “On any given Sunday” is a myth: the best NFL team wins the vast majority of the time.
      2. I don’t understand your Dodgers comment. Teams lose two of three and three of a five all season long—it literally proves nothing. A three or five game play-off is only less stupid than a single game play-off as a matter of degree. None of them make sense as we evaluate quality of baseball teams.
      3. Banning shifts is a REALLY stupid idea, and proves that the people who run baseball don’t undrstand their own sport.
      4. The pitch clock knocked 20 minutes off off 9 inning minor league games this year without any other negative effects. Utilitarian victory. Making batters stay in the box would take off another 15 minutes.
      5. The “Ghost runner” still is supposedly an accommodation to the %$#@! pandemic and was supposedly going away (like the 7 inning double-headers games did) next season. You note that they aren’t using the disgusting gimmick in the play-offs. (Speaking of integrity: playing under different rules in the season and play-offs…)

      • 1)And the home field advantage is the smallest in any pro sport. That’s why I never understood the maniacal drive to change a century of baseball tradition. So this year the Series starts in the AL park and next year the NL park. I never saw a problem with that setup (but at least we don’t have the All Star game intruding into it any longer).
        2)I think there is probably universal agreement that, if you must decide things with a short series, 7 games is the best compromise. However, baseball has painted themselves into a corner here. Given the expanded playoffs, they simply can’t have all the series be 7 games — playing the World Series in mid November would be lunacy. Unless, of course, it was mandated that it be played on neutral sites either in warm states or stadiums with domes. Imagine a Thanksgiving game at Fenway. Brrrrr.
        3)Banning the shift is kind of an acknowledgement that today’s hitters are not good enough to ‘hit it where they ain’t’, don’t you think? On a related note, I have also never understood the fascination by some sportscasters with the so-called ‘true outcomes’. And why are they ‘good’?
        4)The pitch clock is actually not the worst new rule they’re bringing in next year. It is positively benign compared to the new rule that you can only throw over twice to first base — that rivals the zombie runner for stupidity.
        5)I did a search last night, and I think they’re not going to have the zombie runner rule next year. It was actually hard to tell for sure, and one story talked about them putting it in for the 12th inning or after. As you note, they don’t use this Little League rule in the postseason, which has resulted in two riveting nailbiters during the playoffs already. Can you imagine what it was like for the Mariners’ pitchers knowing that each pitch they threw might end the season for their team? Which, of course, was just what happened. Those kind of games are just as suspenseful during the regular season.
        So what’s the next gimmick? Having a shoot out, NHL style, with home runs. Yeah that’d be a test of the quality of a baseball team.
        ================
        Overall, I understand that MLB had to make some adjustments over the past few decades. We’re not in 1952 any more. But I think they’ve become obsessed with trying to jazz up the game, rather than emphasize and promote the uniqueness and attractions that made it the nation’s pastime over 150 years.

  4. I was in Cleveland last week and wandered into a saloon while a game was being televised. Everyone was whooping it up like Indians. Guess the new woke name hasn’t seeped down to the masses.

      • To do that, you pontificate loftily from a left wing perspective with no basis of understanding either the issues or how to do things. You know, like the newspaper of that name.

          • To be fair, while the Guardian was based in Manchester it still had its feet on the ground and lacked most of the defects I ascribed to it. It is the same cutting loose from reality that happened to the U.S. idea of “liberal”, a change that is partial or absent in most of the English speaking world.

  5. Off he subject a little bit, but I am still incensed that Cora, who brought cheating and sign-stealing to the Astros, not only kept his job but in fact got a better one. This is not about the game itself, but the lack of integrity at the management level.

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