What purpose September baseball?

Mailbag: Montero, Jeter, Injuries, Stats, Mets
Game 135: Stay hot

As the East Coast awakens this morning to news of a hurricane making its way up the coast, nothing in the American League East can rival that storm for excitement. The Yankees and Rays are locked in a pennant race that almost doesn’t matter, and while October might be more exciting with the top teams involved, the suspense of a race where the second place team goes home empty is gone.

Right now, the Yankees are in the driver’s seat. They’re 84-50, 34 games above .500 for the first time this year, and the Rays are nipping at their heels, 82-51. Even though Tampa Bay’s schedule remains easier, the Yankees, according to Cool Standings, have an edge in the race for the AL East crown. The Red Sox remain eight games out, and although their schedule gives them a slight opportunity to get back in it, they’re nearly dead.

But it all doesn’t matter. Because of baseball’s grand experiment, both Tampa Bay and the Yankees, division rivals to the end, have a better than 98-percent shot at October. If either team misses the playoffs right now, it will be due to a nearly historic collapse. Outside of the New York Mets, teams just don’t easily relinquish eight-game leads on playoff spots with 28 left to play.

For baseball purists, this 1990s development still rankles the soul, and in his column in the Wall Street Journal today, Jason Gay bemoans the division race that isn’t. “Feel the passion!” he writes. “Aren’t you just riveted by back-and-forth Yanks-Rays suspense? Either the Yankees will begin the playoffs at home or—hold on, just wait for it—the Rays will.”

What bothers Gay most is how the Wild Card — admittedly, as he says, a positive development for the game — has robbed baseball of what should be an exciting story line. “It’s hard not to feel a little cheated,” he said. “The two best teams in baseball—with amazingly paradoxical story lines and operating philosophies—have been playing each other razor-close for weeks (they recently spent eight days tied for first, a record this late in the season) and meet seven more times this month. Had this been the 1950’s, it’d be the kind of race they’d write show tunes about. Or books you buy in airports. But it’s not. It’s not a meaningless September in the Bronx. It’s just not as meaningful.”

It’s not as meaningless because the two teams are playing for something. As I noted earlier this week, home field advantage remains up in the air, and it’s tough to understate the importance of that advantage in the playoffs. In five of the past six seasons, the AL team with home-field advantage won the championship series and advanced to the World Series.

The problem though with playing for home-field advantage is that it’s an obtuse goal that doesn’t play well in marketing campaigns. Come see the Rays and the Yanks duke it out for home-field advantage! Come watch a potential playoff preview three weeks before the games truly count! The draw just isn’t there.

For the Yankees, September is important because the club has to get healthy. They have to align their rotation; they have to secure that playoff spot. There will be no Bucky Dent moments here, no situation where two teams win over 100 games and one goes home, no winner-takes-all moments. It’s just a September to get ready, not one to remember.

Mailbag: Montero, Jeter, Injuries, Stats, Mets
Game 135: Stay hot
  • FachoinaNYY

    I have no problem with this not being a “September to Remember”… as long as it is an October to remember. I personally don’t see the lack of a race for a playoff spot being a big deal.

    • whozat

      Perhaps that’s because we haven’t really seen any of these to-die-for races up close? For people who remember “THE GIANTS WON THE PENNANT,” I can certainly see how some of the shine of September might be gone.

      That said, the run the Rockies had a couple years ago was cool, though it still had this feeling of some team racing to the finish for the right to call themselves second-best, because they were gonna get the crap kicked out of them by the AL champ.

      • FachoinaNYY

        I agree, but every season is going to be different. The reason that those two examples are memorable is because they don’t happen that often. Would it be nice to have? Sure, but not really that big of a deal. This regular season “race” may not turn out to be that memorable, but that is just sometimes the case.

        • whozat

          I guess the argument is that it is now impossible for the two best teams in the league to fight it out for something over the course of september, by definition. For the race to be meaningful, it has to be between two also-rans (for the wildcard) or there has to be some team in another division blocking the wildcard spot — which means that team is better than one or both of the teams in the race.

    • It’sOver

      I agree. How is this a problem? As a Yankee fan, I want this to happen EVERY year. Hell, I would like my magic number to be 1 every September 3 of every year if possible. I want to pound the living #&$^ out of every team so there is no doubt come this time every year that we are in the playoffs. Realistic? Of course not. But who cares about no drama. Drama is for the playoffs.

  • A.D.

    I mean for the Yanks and Rays its not exciting, but for the Twins-Sox, Padres-Giants, Braves-Phillies, and the NL wildcard there are exciting races

  • Not Tank the Frank

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but this “playoff race” is absolutely a big deal to me. It may not draw in the crowds as Ben states, but to diehard fans like myself, I really, really, reeeeeally want that homefield advantage.

    Almost any team plays better at home than they do on the road, but some of the splits for players on this team are drastic, including Jeter and Posdada, who are so vitally important to this team. And even though your confident with CC anywhere, with the way he’s pitching at home, it’s tough not to think Game 1 would be in the bag if it’s played at the Stadium.

  • http://mlbprospects.wordpress.com/ Ben S

    I think I agree with Ben on this one… I’d rather have a major pennant race.

  • Pat D

    Aw, so the traditional pennant race is gone? Stop whining and just accept that things change.

  • theyankeewarrior

    Screw the pennant race. Forget the old timer’s memories of 1960’s baseball. Fuck the notion that the second best team in baseball will miss the playoffs because a team !1!!1!!!IN THEIR DIVISION!!!1!11! had a better record.

    The Yankees, Rays, and Sox all deserve a shot at the Wild Card each season. I’d trade all the drama that we sacrifice in September for a better and more competitive October any day of the week. Without the Wild Card, the Yankees and Red Sox could have never competed in the two greatest playoff series of anyone’s lifetime in ’03 and ’04. Those 14 games alone put more excitement and life back into the game of baseball than any fucking September baseball race ever could.

    Fuck the pennant. It’s the 21st century. We play for rings.

    /end rant

    • theyankeewarrior

      Note: this is not directed at Ben, just my opinion about the Gay article.

      Note: the article was written my a man named Gay. I was not calling the article homosexual.

      /end notes

    • nsalem

      Both formats are equally exciting to me. Game 7 ALCS 2003 was an incredible event. Perhaps though if you had experienced or even read about the excitement that the old system generated you would not criticize it in the manner you do. Years like 1949, 1961, 1962
      1964 and 1978 were equally as exciting and were played out over the summer months not just September. Appreciating the beauty of both formats is not mutually exclusive and claiming one is better is of an extremely subjective. What we know for sure is that the new system makes MLB much more money.

      • theyankeewarrior

        True, but many of those games (obviously besides the 1 game playoff in ’78) were not head to head match-ups.

        How can you decide which team (Yankees or Rays) is better by watching the Rays play the Royals in a 4-game set to close out the season, while the Yankees visit Fenway?

        It makes more sense for the Yankees and the Rays to play each other in a 7 game series with their pitchers lined up head to head.

        The pennant race is exciting for ten or so teams each year. But the real games are played in October.

        The regular season is FILLED with games vs. shitty competition. It’s filled with games vs. teams with terrible pitchers, hitters, managers, ballparks, fans etc.

        The playoffs are what count. The playoffs are EXCITING.

  • steve s

    I think its premature to conclude that the Yanks, Rays and Red Sox head to head games that are left are not as meaningful as prior year get to the post-season games were. Perhaps if the Rays go into Bos next week and sweep then you have a much better argument. You could have said the same thing about the Padres a week ago and you would be eating crow now.

  • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

    I forget where I read it, but I remember an idea for the wild card that was interesting.

    Top team in each division makes the playoffs, same as now. The next teams with the two best records then play each other in a one-game playoff to determine who wins the wild card. Simple as that.

    I like it because it means teams won’t be content to finish 2nd place in the division. They’ll fight harder to make sure they win the division and get a guaranteed spot in a playoff series. Imagine if whoever lost the division race in the AL east this year had to play the White Sox in a 1 game playoff? That’d be some high drama.

    • http://twitter.com/cephster Ross in Jersey

      Or, the Red Sox for that matter. That’d be pretty fun!

    • theyankeewarrior

      Imagine if the Yankees win 103 games this year and finish one game behind the Rays i the division.

      Now imagine that the Yankees have to play a team with an ace pitcher like Lee/Felix/Lester/Halladay/Liriano etc. and lost to them 3-1 and their season was over.

      162 games of great baseball and then they have to beat a top-tier starter or else they go home?

      That’s a little over the top. High drama, but over the top.

      • vin

        Yeah. This is exactly why that idea doesn’t work.

        In 2001, the A’s won 102 games, yet still finished 14 games behind the M’s. Imagine if they had to play the 85 win Twins in a 1 game playoff and Joe Mays gets lucky and shuts down the A’s? It’s an extreme example, but winning 102 games really should guarantee a playoff spot in the wild card era.

        The last great pre-wild card divisional race I remember was 1993. Giants and Braves were tied heading into the last day of the season. The Giants lost to the Dodgers 12-1 on that final day. Finished with 103 wins and missed the playoffs.

  • drill me deep

    without the WC, Marlins would not have had their cinderella story in 2003 or People would have been deprived of the epic 2003-4 epic ALCS playoff between the sox and yankees.

    WC has kept many hopes alive , many games interesting in it’s existence.
    This race for division winner remain to me as intense as ever , for the simple fact that the Yankees simply hit that much better at home than on the road.

  • vin

    “Had this been the 1950?s, it’d be the kind of race they’d write show tunes about. Or books you buy in airports.”

    This made me laugh.

    Baseball is at a bit of a crossroads right now. Fundamentally, the wild card implies the notion that the best teams (by record) should be in the playoffs. However, having separate divisions still represents the idea of the best team from a geographical region should go to the playoffs.

    I wonder if MLB feels like they need to pick one concept or the other. Right now they’re trying to be logical while still respecting history.

    Also, I don’t really see the difference between two division rivals going down to the wire for winning the division, versus the Giants and Phillies duking it out for the wild card. I understand the former has tremendous appeal if its Yankees-Sox or Giants-Dodgers. But what if its two teams without the historic rivalry? I guess if it was Rockies-DBacks year after year, then maybe a new rivalry will be born… which is good for business. That’s probably it. Geographically aligned divisions generate interest and excitement between specific teams, whereas constantly re-aligned or 1 division leagues don’t.

    The wild card is logical and profitable. Divisions are historical and also profitable.

    • whozat

      They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too. They added the wild card and the unbalanced schedule at the same time. They wanted to get the teams with the best records into the playoffs, AND put more weight on regional rivalries.

      • vin

        Excatly. Many times baseball seems to be a slave to tradition. I’d love to see something like:

        154 game regular season. 6 teams make the playoffs with the best 2 teams getting byes in the first round… but I just don’t know if its feasible since too much time off can really be a negative for a team (especially offensively).

        The more I think about it, the more I think they have the best solution.

    • drill me deep

      i like to see MLB address the unbalance schedules in interleague plays. it creates advantages and disadvantages for teams within the same division. The fairness sake i think they should go to a balance schedule ,it simply eliminates another variable in the name of fair competition.

    • Tony

      nice point

  • Tony

    I love the current format. It would be a shame if a team with over 100 wins does not make it but a team with say 90 wins does (the nl west winner)

  • Guest

    I am definitely pro-wild card. Way pro wild card.

    First, the wild card often improves the regular season, rather than diminish it. It creates, essentially, a fourth race that has the potential to be exciting in and of itself. Look at the NL this season (Phils, Cardinals, Giants, etc.). Furthermore, this “fourth race” forces the fans of teams involved in that race to care about games/teams from outside of their division. For example, Phillies fans are now watching Cardinals games and Giants games and Rockies games, not just Braves games.

    Second, the only time the wild card truly robs us of anything is when we have a situation like the one we have in the AL this year. Namely, a situation (Jersey Shore/d) where the two best teams in the league (by far) are in the same division. Without the wild-card, they would be locked into a heated battle to make the playoffs, with the loser goiong home. With the wild-card, winning the division becomes way less important because the loser’s record will be so much better than everybody else’s that they are assured of a playoff spot as well. I agree that this does cause us to lose out on a division race between great teams, which no doubt would be fun down the stretch.

    BUT. Think about what we get in return. In return, we get a guarantee that the two best teams in a league will get to play October baseball. An October with the Rays/Yankees loser is WAY better than October baseball without that team. Plus, given that the wildcard can’t play anyone from its division in the first round, it sets up an epic ALCS if the division winner and the wildcard winner meet in the playoffs.

    I mean, yes, the next few games with the Rays and the Yanks would be more exciting if only one of them made the playoffs. But how much more exciting/dramtic/edge of your seat-y will a seven game ALCS between the Yankees and the Rays be? I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to breathe for two straight weeks if that happened.

    The wild-card gave us two ’03-’04 Yanks-Sox that I still don’t think my heart has recovered from. It gave us an amazing ’08 Sox-Rays. I’ll take that over some added September juice any day.

  • drill me deep

    1.have a balance schedule
    2. have more punitive effects other than one less home game for the WC. weighs it more severely in favor of the Div winners, i.e WC get one home game in ALDS, 2 in ALCS .

    just two of the things i think that would help to ‘juice’ the race for division winners.

  • Yank the Frank

    I remember a number of years in the eighties where there was just the two divisions and no wild card and the Yankees always seemed to be the third best team in the American League and missed the playoffs. Me likes the cushion of the wild card.

    • KeithK

      I remember those years too. But if you’re not the best team in your division you don’t have a right to play for the world championship. Period.

      Personally I hope the Yankees never, ever win a world series (or even play in one) as a wild card team.

  • dsss

    I think the whole concept of a “wild card” needs to be eliminated. I don’t care how good a team is, it should be win or loose, first or nothing.

    Why not change the whole structure:
    1. Expand to 32 teams in each league.
    2. Instead of 3 divisions in each league, change it to 4- North, East, West and South.
    3. Only the 1st place team in each division goes to the playoffs.

    I know there are disadvantages: re-alignment, quality diminution, breaking up of some rivalries, perpetual bottom dwellers
    because of their operating philosophy or market.

    There are also some advantages: the same number of teams in the playoffs, less traveling and time-zone changes, and it will give more of a chance to players languishing unjustifiably in AAA ball simply because there is someone blocking them.

    • Guest

      You really think the Twins are more deserving of being in the playoffs than the Rays/Yanks? Because they are in first place in a division that includes the White Sox (meh), the Tigers (bad), the Indians (very bad), and the Royals (very, very bad)?

  • Total Dominication

    Well, that’s not an aspiring start. Regroup Ivan.

  • Total Dominication


  • Total Dominication

    Nunie, come on. Great job Robbie!

  • roadrider

    I vehemently disagree with all of the comments supporting the wild card. The wild card is a stain on baseball that destroys the integrity of the regular season pennant race which is what made baseball unique from most other sports and provided some of the most dramatic and memorable moments in the history of the game. It has been cast aside in a craven effort to emulate other sports with their tournament style playoffs and (most importantly) chase television dollars.

    I grew to love baseball because of the season-long commitment to keeping up with my team and the urgency of scoreboard watching to keep up with their chief rivals. I can go back to 1980 and remember the Yankees and Orioles, separated by a game or two in the standings, winning and losing in unison for what seemed like months (it was actually only weeks) until the Yankees finally pulled away. And of course there was a significant race in 1977 and who can forget 1978? The entire drama of that September would have been blunted if the wild card system had been in effect and there would have been no “Bucky Fucking Dent” to taunt Red Sox fans with.

    I can barely get interested in watching the games these days because there’s little at stake except positioning for home field (the advantage of which I think is seriously overstated in baseball) in the playoffs. It’s kind of hard to get excited about that.

    As for the arguments that the wild card is “logical” and that it is necessary to ensure that the best teams get into the playoffs, I can’t agree. The wild card is only “logical” under this idiotic three-division setup which has created a number of weak-sister divisions. Go back to a two-division per league setup with only the divisional champions advancing to the post-season and I guarantee you that you will never have a non-deserving team in post-season play. Yes, you may have a second place team with a better record than the winner of the other division go home empty handed. However, the wild card apologists in this thread have argued that the regular season race is much less significant than the playoffs which is logically inconsistent with the argument that it’s always necessary to have teams with the best regular season record advance to the playoffs by diminishing the value of winning a division championship. So stop pretending that logic is on your side when your own arguments are illogical.

    For every one of the silly arguments that we wouldn’t have had team X win the World Series in year Y I can cite a counter example of a desirable situation (like the Yankees/Red Sox race in 1978) that the wild card makes impossible. Furthermore I can cite examples of how the wild card produces negative effects. I recall one of the first wild card seasons in which the Astros and Dodgers went down to the last game of the season separated by one game with the loser guaranteed the wild card. They played the game like a fucking spring training exhibition! This seriously violates the integrity of the competition which is what makes professional sports worth watching and rips off fans who paid to see that game (many of which, no doubt were not among those who can afford or have access to inflated post-season tickets).

    As for those claiming that they’re only interested in the playoffs, well, you’re entitled to your opinion, however idiotic it may be. The playoffs are only worth anything if the teams participating have earned their way there. Otherwise, why even waste time on a regular season? You could simply have a lottery to select the participants and get on with it. Frankly, I find the playoffs way too long these days and extending too far past the spring/summer/early fall time frame in which baseball has been traditionally played. Do I have to remind you of the 2008 World Series debacle (which will certainly be repeated in the future – Target Field at night in early November anyone?). The 2 week time frame of the pre-wild card post-season was just enough to satisfy. The current, bloated playoff schedule larded with a ridiculous number of off days and shoe horned around football and prime time TV schedules is a disgrace designed to milk network TV money no matter that it blunts the urgency of the competition, provides some teams (like last years’ Yankees) with an undeserved advantage and is a real disservice to fans.

    I realize I’m swimming against the tide here but I can’t escape the feeling that whatever has been gained with the wild card has come at too high a cost and that it was implemented first, second and third for money-making reasons rather than to improve the sport.

  • http://www.pennantracebaseball.com Cliff G.

    What more needs to be said after roadrider, but I do have a few points.

    Pennant races by themselves are better than wild cards all year round, in September, and in October. It is more competitive, higher quality, and certainly more intense and dramatic. For these reasons, it would be better for attendance and for media dollars.

    This said, I would add one more thing. I would replace wild cards with “Tiers” and make the tiers a part of schedule making. Teams that finish in the 1st Tier play teams in the 1st Tier of their leagues other division. Same with the 2nd Tier. When you add this feature, pennant races and tier chases are even better than wild cards for season long satisfaction of fans of individual teams.