The Wrongitude of the Baseball Playoff System

Last season my team won my league’s fantasy baseball title. The Chicago Whales (named for the Federal League Team who first played in what is now Wrigley Field back in the 1910s) won the Shore Rats fantasy baseball league playoffs, and were crowned the Champion. We overcame a lot of injuries throughout the season, but a solid effort from our starting pitching down the stretch really cemented our all-out domination in the playoffs. Of course, you can argue that we may not have even deserved to be in the playoffs in the first place. The Whales finished the season 180-188-72. Yes, that’s a losing record. For a good bit of the season, the Whales spent time in last or next to last place in our 8 team league. At the end of the season, we made a strong push and propelled ourselves to 4th place—the last playoff position. From there we just had to survive two week long rounds of playoffs before we took our place in the pantheon of Shore Rats Fantasy Sports History.

I have won several Fantasy Baseball titles in my time within my friends’ baseball league (I think 4 to be exact). Only once, though, have I completely dominated the league, spending most of my time in first place, then running the table in the playoffs (Ah, the Springfield Isotopes. Now that was a team). The other times, I fielded a pretty mediocre team and was lucky enough to be playing good for the two or three weeks that we found ourselves in playoff time. Truth be told, last season Randall really deserved to be Fantasy Baseball Champion. His team, Schmasball, had a record of 281-119-40, and finished 40.5 points ahead of the second place team (and he finished 85 points ahead of my champion, Chicago Whales). Randall has been on the receiving end of this fantasy league shaft during several seasons. He drafted smartly, made incredible trades, and built the best team in the league, only to have them go cold for a few weeks towards the end, losing him the Championship to a lesser team who got hot at the right time.

In the Shore Rats Fantasy Baseball League, it is a cause for light-hearted complaining or undeserved pride, but I also think this problem carries all the way up to real Major League Baseball. The playoff system we have in place, regularly crowns mediocre teams the “World Champion,” just for getting hot at the right time, throwing out a good bit of the accomplishments of the regular season. The format is certainly exciting. Uncertainty always makes things a little more intense to watch. It is no doubt that some of the playoff games we’ve witnessed in recent years have produced many memorable moments that will be told by fathers to children to grandchildren on down the line. But, I’m not convinced that it’s fair to call the winner of a post season tournament the World Champion, leaving that team in the annals of history in our minds as the “best” team of that season.

Up until the 60s, Major League Baseball had 8 teams in each league. At the end of the season, the two leagues their best and had them square off in the World Series. This began because the two leagues were rival leagues, and there was dispute over which one actually played the best baseball. Owners decided that the best way to prove it (and more importantly to make more money) would be to have the teams play each other in a series. It became incredibly popular, and even after the leagues became one entity under Major League Baseball, the American and National Leagues still never played each other except during the World Series. Fast Forward to the 60s. New teams begin to come into the league and cities who never had Major League Baseball do. It becomes pretty clear, though, that this brand of baseball is going to bore some people, because with all these teams, some are going to get put our real early, and some might run away with it, leaving all the other fans staying at home. Enter the playoff system. Now to find the representative, we won’t just take our two best teams, we’ll have a few of our best teams play each other, then let the winners play each other. Fast Forward even farther. The league decides it is tired of American League and National League teams never playing each other and starts interleague play during the regular season. The playoffs also grow, because it makes baseball postseason more exciting (which to any owner matters because it means you can make more money).

So, present day 2013, we are starting a playoff system that uses 5 teams in each league (3 division winners and 2 wild card teams), and we separate the leagues still, even though they now play each other (though they don’t yet play all the teams from the other league in one season). This latest wild card team was just added to make the World Series more exciting, riding the excitement train from the 2011 World Series which many say is one of the most exciting they have seen. But, let me put this another way. In the current system, to be considered the World Series Champion—the best team of that season—you only have to be the 5th best team in your league, sometimes even lower than that, depending on your division. You could be the 15th best out of 30 teams. And, so it happens that in many World Series   these weaker teams in the league get crowned World Champion. Let’s look at the World Series outcomes from the past 12 years compared to the teams with the best record in each league. See how the World Series would have looked different if we still used the old format of taking the best team in each league.

World Series (winner in bold)             Best records in Leagues

2012: SF Giants vs Detroit Tigers            WAS Nathionals vs NY Yankees

2011: StL Cardinals vs Texas Rangers  PHL Phillies vs NY Yankees

2010: SF Giants vs Texas Rangers          PHL Phillies vs TB Rays

2009: NY Yankees vs PHL Phillies          LA Dodgers vs NY Yankees

2008: PHL Phillies vs TB Rays                 CHI Cubs vs ANA Angels

2007: BOS Redsox vs COL Rockies        ARI or COL vs. BOS or CLE

2006: STL Cardinals vs DET Tigers         NY Mets vs NY Yankees

2005: CHC Whitesox vs HOU Astros     STL Cardinals vs CHI Whitesox

2004:BOS Redsox vs STL Cardinals        STL Cardinals vs NY Yankees

2003: FL Marlins vs NY Yankees            ATL Braves vs NY Yankees

2002: ANA Angles vs SF Giants              ATL Braves vs NY or OAK

2001: ARZ D’Backs vs NY Yankees        HOU or STL vs SEA Mariners

As you can see, more often than not, the team with the best record does not end up in the World Series under this format. Let’s look a little closer at where the last 10 World Series teams ranked in wins at the end of the season compared to the other Major League teams:

2012: SF Giants — 3 way tie for 4th

2011: StL Cardinals – tied 8th

2010: SF Giants – 5th

2009: NY Yankees – 1st

2008: PhI Phillies – 5th

2007: BOS Redsox – tied 1st

2006: STL Cardinals – 13th

2005: CHI Whitesox – 2nd

2004: BOS Redsox – 3rd

2003: FLA Marlins – 7th

2002: ANA Angles – 4th

2001: ARI D’Backs – 6th

So, in the past 11 years, the World Series winner has, on average, had the 5th best record in baseball. At this point at the end of the 2013 season, the best records in each league belong to the St Louis Cardinals and the Boston Red Sox. It’s reasonable at this point they are both the best two teams in baseball. But, if the averages pan out in the way they have over in the past 12 World Series, the Pittsburgh Pirates who have the 5th best record will win. Another way of looking at it is the team who at the end of the season is beginning a hot streak. This is where a lot the “playoff excitement” comes from. A team not suspected to go far who gets on a winning streak at the right time and rolls over superior teams. So, as many sports analysts are saying, teams who we weren’t even sure would make the playoffs are the most “dangerous” teams. Teams like the LA Dodgers, have gained frontrunner status even though they had a terrible April that would have doomed them if not for an incredible winning streak in a weak division. But, it is exciting, and it makes a great story. If we didn’t have playoffs like this, what would LA have had to play for? I get that. But do they deserve to be called the best team of 2013, compared to a team like the Cardinals who got it done even in April? (Look, I”m even defending the Cardinals.)

Certainly, that is still exciting. This team was on the ropes, and they kept fighting, never giving up until the end. They didn’t count themselves out and just kept winning games, even games they weren’t supposed to. That makes for a great story and an exciting ballgame, but is it really fair? This is really the greatest team of this year’s season? I look back at the teams who have this distinction over the past 25 years or so in particular, and I have a hard time calling them World Series Champs. But this is inevitably what happens in our memories. You remember the World Series winner with each season. You might remember the opponent, but you sure aren’t going to remember who actually won the most games. And, honestly, isn’t the best team, the team who won the most games?

The playoff apologist, besides the argument of more exciting postseason, will also say that if a team can’t win it when it counts, then they don’t deserve to be called World Champion. But, what about the 162 games they’ve already played? That counts too, right? Is it really fair to win 20 games more than another team, then have them win a 7 game series and be declared better than you? If a baseball player hits 48 homeruns in a season, but gets outslugged in a series by a player on a hot streak who ends up 34, we still declare the one with the most homeruns the homerun champ. I don’t think it should be different in how we crown our greatest team each season.

I do agree, though, that having no playoff system would create more baseball that seems pointless. If we go back to just a World Series of the two best teams, by now, it would often have already been decided, making the games still to be played pretty meaningless. The Dodgers would not have dug themselves out of the basement, and the fans of all the eliminated teams would have moved on to football. Plus you don’t have the exhilaration of wondering if your team can sweep through the playoffs and prove all the haters wrong. I would miss that too. I think we should still have a tournament, but not make it decide who we call Champion. We can borrow from European Soccer’s system. They manage to declare the teams with the most wins champion while still having exciting tournament play. It is possible.

I love baseball, so even this aversion to how the playoff system soils the title of MLB World Champion for me will not keep me from watching each year and being interested. Being a huge Cubs fan, I realize that this system makes it more likely for the Cubs to win a World Series, and when it happens, it will likely happen when they barely make it in and get hot. As a Cubs fan, I will have to take what I get and enjoy it for what it is. I would prefer, though to see them dominate their league all season long and take down each team in the playoffs because of superior skill, not just because they were a mediocre club who got hot at the right time. That would make me feel like the World Champion patch they wear all next season would be truly deserved.

The Chicago Whales, champions of the 2012 Shore Rats Fantasy League

The Chicago Whales, champions of the 2012 Shore Rats Fantasy League

3 thoughts on “The Wrongitude of the Baseball Playoff System

      1. I gotchya. I recall everybody saying in 2011 that it wouldn’t be the end of the world for them if we didn’t play. I could be making this up, but I think I turned it down, because I was traveling all of May and most of June. But if only two people kept up with it, then hell, I probably could have kicked your arses anyway.

        If ever you guys decide to resurrect the ole league, lemme know.

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