The problem with the playoffs

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After a rough September, the Yankees stormed into the playoffs nearly a month ago. In three games played over four days, they quickly dispatched the Minnesota Twins to reach the American League Championship Series for the second straight year. And then they sat, sat and sat some more.

In total, the club sat for six days before playing Game 1 of the ALCS, and the Yanks never seemed to click in their series against the Texas Rangers. The pitching wasn’t sharp, and after a long layoff, the bats seemed sluggish as well. While speaking on the air earlier today, Yanks’ owner and Manager General Partner Hal Steinbrenner fingered the long delay as a culprit behind the Yanks’ ALCS loss. “We seemed a little bit cold in that series. I don’t know if it was the long layoff or not,” Hal said, obviously intimating that it was indeed the long layoff.

The problem seems particularly exacerbated when we look at the playoffs on the whole, and the problem starts with the ALDS. When the baseball season ended on Sunday, October 3, teams were granted two days off before the first Division Series games. The LDS slates were designed to take forever in the grand scheme of baseball. Due to built-in travel days, had the Yanks gone to five games, the series would have taken seven calendar days. The Reds and Phillies played only three games, but it took five days for the series to wrap.

The layoff in between the LDS and LCS series is problematic too. Had the Yankees gone to five games, they would have had two days off in between series as the Rangers did. At that point, they would have played five games over nine days since the regular season had ended. Outside of April and the All Star Break, at no point during the season do teams play just five times over nine calendar days.

The break after the LCS and the World Series is nearly as painful. This year, the two League Championship Series finished in six games. The Rangers wrapped their series on a Friday with World Series Game 1 scheduled for the following Wednesday while the Giants had three days off after their Game 6 win. This development too is a relatively new one.

A few weeks ago, I dug up playoff schedules for 1998 and 2003 as a point of comparison, and the changes were apparently from the get-go. The 1998 season ended on Sunday, September 27, and the playoffs started on Tuesday, September 29. The Yanks needed just three games to beat the Rangers in the ALDS that year, but their five-game set was slated for just six calendar days with no day off between Games 4 and 5. The other ALDS series enjoyed the same schedule so that the two would have ended on the same day, and the ALCS was slated to start on Tuesday, October 6 with just one day off between a potential ALDS Game 5 and ALCS Game 1. Game 7 of the ALCS was scheduled for Wednesday, October 14, and the World Series started on Saturday, October 17. Game 7 of the 1998 World Series was scheduled for two days before the start of the 2010 World Series. The 2003 playoff schedule was similarly more condensed.

In essence, even though the Yanks swept their ALDS series in 1998, they had just three days off before the ALCS started. Compare that to this year’s six-game vacation. No wonder the team came out of the gate seemingly playing slowly.

So what went wrong? At some point over the last few years, baseball decided it needed more days off. It needed to make sure that no Division Series game overlapped with another. It needed to maximize prime time playoff exposure while discarding baseball continuity. It had to make us nearly forget in between the ALCS and World Series that baseball was going on.

The sport’s reaction is, of course, the opposite of what you would expect it to be. Instead of proposing to fix a situation where the World Series winners played 15 games over a span of 27 days this year, Bud Selig and Co. want to expand the playoffs. More teams! More rounds! More days off! Coming to a baseball stadium near you in 2012.

The details are sparse, and the MLBPA and Commissioner’s Office will hammer out in agreement when the Collective Bargaining Agreement comes due next year. Selig, though, has his flawed rationale. “We have less teams than any other sport” in the playoffs, he said in September. “We certainly haven’t abused anything.” If the NHL and NBA both allow more than half of their teams to reach the endless dance these leagues call the playoffs, why shouldn’t baseball? Brilliant, indeed.

The answer is a simple one: Baseball should prepare for flexible playoff scheduling while restoring the master schedule to the 2003/1998 model. The league doesn’t need all of these days off in between the end of the season and the playoffs, in between the end of the rounds and the start of the next. At the very least, considering the options are narrowed just by the initial schedule, baseball should be able to determine that, if the ALDS series end early, the ALCS can start earlier. If the two LCS series end early, move up the World Series.

Baseball is meant to be played every day, and for six months, we see our teams take the field day in and day out with off-days few and far between. In the playoffs, the season grinds to a halt. It stretches from early October into early November for only one reason: money. It doesn’t always have to be about the money, and as baseball in October starts to feel fleeting, the herky-jerkiness of the playoffs should give way to a smoother schedule. It would be for the good of the game.

Thanks to Jeff Quagliata, the research manager at the YES Network, for tracking down the old playoff schedules. Find him on Twitter at YEStoResearch.

Banuelos & Heyer combine for six strong innings
Report: 'No chance' Greinke would accept trade to NY
  • Matt Imbrogno

    I really, REALLY hope they don’t add more playoff teams.

    • Mike Axisa

      Yeah I know, that’ll solve nothing. It’ll just create more problems.

    • mbonzo

      If we’re talking about restructuring the leagues I have always thought it was best to remove divisions. It has become a problem now, where divisions like the AL and NL east often put up 3 or 4 of the best teams and only end up with 2 getting through. The game is more fair if each team plays each other an equal amount of times. It allows for an equal amount of revenue brought to each team. It makes rivalries more special, unlike now when the Yankees seem to play the Red Sox at least once a month. The leagues were created in 1969 and are no longer necessary imo. Sure its might be a pain in the ass to travel across the country to play more games, but its not like that isn’t a problem now; better schedule structuring could fix that. Choose the best 4 or 5 teams (whatever you want Selig) from the AL and NL and finally… the only game where and AL and NL team should play each other is the WORLD SERIES!

      • mbonzo

        My point is that the problems between weak and strong divisions are much bigger than adding an extra wild card.

      • Ed

        While your idea is makes sense for ensuring that the game is as fair as possible, that’s not actually what baseball wants. The current structure Creates a balance between making things fair and maximizing fan interest.

        The unbalanced schedule is great for fans, as it ensures that their team plays the majority of their games in their local timezone. While I get tired of seeing the Orioles and Jays 18 times a year, I’d much rather have those games than have a balanced schedule with twice as many 10pm games. TV ratings for Yanks/O’s at 7pm are probably much better than for Yanks/Angels at 10pm, despite the Angels usually being a much better opponent.

        But the real winners from divisions are the bad teams. It’s much easier to be excited about a bad team that’s in 5th place than a bad team that’s in 14th place. 5th place feels like a hole you can dig out of – improve your team, get a little lucky, and finish in 2nd to win the wildcard sounds like something that can be accomplished and allows you to keep hope. If you’re in 14th place, you need to pass 10 teams to make the playoffs. That’s tough, and would most likely cause a lot of fans to loose interest.

        • mbonzo

          I see what you mean. Divisions are definitely a tool to increase revenue and please a fanbase, but I think there are answers to both of your arguments.

          Games between a west coast team and a east coast team can find a health medium. A 6:00 game on the west coast means it starts 9:00 on the east. Similarly start east coast games against west coast at 8:00 so that theres starts at 5:00. These times are most likely managed by the home teams however, so I don’t know what the mlb could do about that. This year there were 13 road games for the Yankees that were affected by the 3 hour difference, not counting the 3 games v. the Dodgers since that’ll change every year. If you play an equal amount of games you’ll only end up playing 17 games on the road with the 3 hour difference.

          As for the claim that divisions make the season more intense because you have a better chance of coming back, I don’t agree that this is good for baseball. I think the more teams you compete with for your rank, makes you a more competitive team. Maybe if the Pirates were in the NL east or AL east they would be forced to put money in to the team. It may seem wonderful that a team that was under .500 comes back in the second half of the season, but when another team with more wins in another division is not brought in to the playoffs, it looks like the post season is a joke. I would rather see the best 4 teams in the playoffs than let the second rate teams think they have a chance at the playoffs.

          I do think you might a good point though.

          • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

            One more thing about why MLB probably prefers to keep the divisional structure – MLB doesn’t want entire swaths of the country to not have a team in the playoffs. (I’m not arguing for the superiority of the current or a possible division-less system here, just pointing out what one of MLB’s interests is.) For example, in 2009, if there was no geographically-based divisional structure, the AL playoffs would have included teams in NY, Boston, LA and Dallas. That’s a rather large swath of the middle of the country that would not have a team in the playoffs. And this wouldn’t be such a rare scenario – the same thing would have happened in ’08 (AL Central would have been shut-out of playoff positions), and in ’07 the AL West may have been shut-out depending on how tie-breakers came into play (Yanks and Angels tied for 4th in AL behind Boston/Cleveland).

            Again – not arguing the relative merits of that argument, just pointing out that it is something that MLB is most likely pretty concerned with. The divisional structure might not lead to the best teams making the playoffs all the time, but it does, at least ostensibly, lead to each large segment of the country having a team in the playoffs.

            • CubanC


              • The Honorable Congressman Mondesi

                Arlington, for those who need the exact location of the team’s stadium. The Dallas market, if you will.

  • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    (golf clap)

    Added bonus: if they eliminated all these superfluous off days and actually wrapped up the World Series by, say, October 25th or so, we could actually get to watch Fox’s Halloween shows on *gasp* Halloween instead of November 7th, the official international “Date Nobody Gives A #$%& About Halloween Anymore”.

  • Nick!

    I’m sure the layoff had something to do with it, but we can’t use it as a scapegoat. I figured the Phillies would lose to the Rays in 2008 for this very reason, and we all know how that ended.

    • bexarama

      Agreed. I don’t think the 100000000 days off are a good idea in general, and as much as I love baseball I don’t really want to see the playoffs expanded to include more teams, but it didn’t hurt the 2009 Yankees.

      • Benjamin Kabak

        Honestly, blaming the days off for the Yanks’ ALCS loss this year is probably a red herring, but I using mostly as a rhetorical device to transition into the larger problem of the playoffs. There was no good reason for the Yanks to have six days off between Game 3 of their ALDS and Game 1 of the ALCS.

        • bexarama

          Totally fair, I agree with that general point.

  • dkla

    “it doesn’t always have to be about the money”

    yes it does

    • Benjamin Kabak

      The points I also didn’t make there include:

      1. MLB already has the money because they keep the revenue from the TV rights no matter what.

      2. I’d believe that lost revenue due to overlapping games or fewer days off would be negated by a higher level of sustained interest throughout the playoffs if the games were played in a shorter span of time.

      3. Happier fans = more money.

      So it can still be about the money.

      • CP

        1. MLB already has the money because they keep the revenue from the TV rights no matter what.

        True, but they’ll have to sign a new contract at some point, and the value of that deal will be based largely on the ratings in the current deal.

        2. I’d believe that lost revenue due to overlapping games or fewer days off would be negated by a higher level of sustained interest throughout the playoffs if the games were played in a shorter span of time.

        That’s possible.

        3. Happier fans = more money.

        No, more fans = more money. They don’t have to be happy. The networks’ goal in driving the schedule is to get ratings as high as possible. I would tend to trust their judgment on when to air the games to get the most viewers.

        • Benjamin Kabak

          I would tend to trust their judgment on when to air the games to get the most viewers.

          Considering how lackluster the non-Yankees non-Red Sox playoffs have been lately, I’m not so sure I’d believe that judgment.

          • CP

            Do you really think that ratings would be higher if the games started at a different time, or there were slightly fewer off days?

            I doubt it. TV networks know when people watch TV and they want to schedule these games at times and on days that will maximize their ratings. There’s nothing they can do about the teams playing.

            • Benjamin Kabak

              I have to think that the four days off in between the end of the LCS and the start of the World Series caused some casual fans to just stop caring. Hell, I found it tough to get interested in the start of the World Series after so many days off because I had already gotten into the Hot Stove League mode. I can’t imagine how those who aren’t as plugged in as you and I are would feel.

              That is of course anecdotal, but it rings true.

              • CP

                I can’t imagine how those who aren’t as plugged in as you and I are would feel.

                Most likely, they won’t make plans around the baseball game, so the best way to get them to watch is to have it at a time/day that they’re likely to be watching TV any way. One of the main drivers of the off days is the fact that the networks want certain games on certain days – so they can catch those casual fans when they’re home.

              • Ed

                For Fox, the root of the issue is avoiding Friday night games. TV ratings are terrible on Friday nights. If they show a WS game on a Friday, they’ll lose a large portion of the casual fans.

                The other problem is that the Division Series is now covered by only one TV station. It used to be covered by two, which meant two games at the same time happened frequently. This causes the first round to be spread out much further. Combine it with the Friday issue, and you get a lot more off days to help the ratings.

                I don’t see a good solution unless they go back to two stations covering the first round.

  • lordbyron

    Thank you for bringing this issue to a public forum – the playoff scheduling gets worse every year and definitely affects the quality of play. Selig and his minions need to step up and address the issue.
    I agree with Mr. Kabak’s comment: happier fans = more money.

  • Jonathan

    Even if I was sure the layoff hurt us, and it wasn’t just the fact that we THOUGHT we had 2 reliable pitchers (we didn’t know about CC’s knee or Andy’s other injuries, but Hughes’ workload was a known risk) and had several players slumping badly while our 3 hole fought through countless injuries, the days off saved our asses last year. We think AJ was bad for a Game 4 starter this year, imagine tossing out mind fucked Joba or Gaudin vs the Phillies or Angels…scary.

  • BigBlueAL

    “Even though the Yanks swept their ALDS series those two years, they had just three days off before the ALCS started.”

    I guess I will be the ass to point out that the Yankees did not sweep the ALDS in 2003, they lost Game 1 before winning the next 3 games. But your point is well taken :-)

  • Kiersten

    I personally don’t think there should be a day off between Game 5/7 and Game 1. If it takes you the full 5 or 7 games to win the DS/CS, well then that’s the disadvantage you have going into the next round. The Rangers needed 5 games while the Yankees only needed three, yet the Yankees had the disadvantage.

    • CP

      What happens if one of the games gets rained out? (Personally, I’d advocate for a double header, but I can’t see baseball doing that)

      • Kiersten

        If there’s an off day before game 5 you make it up then. If Game 5 gets rained out, then you push the CS back a day. What are the chances of game 5/7 getting rained out?

    • mbonzo

      I also don’t think there should be a day off between traveling days. If there is a day game 2 and a night game 3 there is plenty of time between games. Why should there be an extra day to settle down when you are coming off the energy of game 2?

  • unSATISFYing

    what if the playoffs were like a small season. where both leagues were combined into a 8 team – 24 game season and the two teams with the best record after the 24 game post season played each other in a 9-game world series?

    this would make the playoffs more like the regular season.. the grind; the marathon, and less of a sprint.

    9 games may be way too long but that’s the way it was way back when the black sox scandal happened.

    too progressive?

    • kosmo

      too regressive !

    • Jerome S

      way, way too progressive. The baseball season is already biblically long, and what you’re talking about would chug about half way into November. If anything, we need to shorten baseball.

  • Mike R

    Even though it might be lame to say the Yankees probably looked rusty due to the long layoff, it’s probably true. I feel like they never really hit their stride and were able to play like they did for most of the season. I also think the long lay off hurt the Rangers. I mean I give the Giants all the credit but the way the Rangers line up was hitting verse us they would of either won or made the World Series a lot closer. You can say that the Giants pitching was great, but especially after being down earlier the Rangers looked like they were pressing. I saw Hamilton swing at balls that he would simply spit on verse the Yankees same goes for most of their line up.

    • kosmo

      I tip my cap to the very good if not great Giants SP.

      Baseball scheduling in general has bugged me since the advent of the 4 team playoff .

      I really don´t like watching baseball into late October.
      Reduce the regular season by 5 games which would shave off 1 week of the season.If necessary bring back the doubleheader.
      No more than a 2 day layoff between rounds .Bring back day playoff baseball .Night games starting at 8-9 pm is to this observer an abomination.
      Off topic-I agree with Nolan Ryan do something about the DH disparity between leagues.

  • Nostra-Artist

    Both teams have to contend with the layoff, so it’s an even playing field. If anything, the Yanks were pretty banged up heading into October and the layoff may have helped guys like Posada, Tex, Alex and Pettitte.

    I’m slowly coming to the realization that the playoffs don’t mean as much as we want them to, win or lose. The best teams not only don’t always win, they don’t even generally win. Despite all the drama, it’s really just another month of Baseball, and whoever gets hot at the right time walks away with a trophy. A trophy that doesn’t deserve all the attention it gets.

    • kosmo

      Well said !

  • Matthew G.

    There are no words for how strongly I agree with you, Ben. Thanks.

    And to be clear, we cannot blame the layoff for the Yanks’ defeat in the ALCS. Every team has to deal with the weird schedule, and Texas beat us, fair, square and professionally.

    But you’re absolutely right that the countless off days dilute the way baseball is supposed to be played. Long gaps for media hype are for the NFL. Baseball should be on, on, on, every day, until the World Series is over.

    You’re even more right that further expansion of the playoffs is a horrible idea. Baseball is the only sport with a truly magnificent _regular_ season, and one need only look at hockey to see that diluted playoffs hurt, rather than help, interest in the regular season.

  • JerseyDutch

    I’d like to them go back to a 1998-type schedule for one reason. The fans. It was really a disservice to us to make us wait nearly a week between the LDS and LCS. It’s just too long. If they really want to create excitement and drive up revenue, go with the shorter schedule. Casual fans loose interest quickly and the shortened schedule would keep them around longer. A short schedule would be better for the game and better for the business.

  • Clay Bellinger

    More playoff teams is a bad idea. Who wants the first round to be like the NBA playoffs? Why can’t they just leave it at 4 per league and expand the first round to a best of 7 series? It’s always seemed ridiculous to me that a best of 5 series follows a 162 game season. One hot pitcher can account for 67% of the reason that a team advances…ala Jaret Wright in ’97.

  • Mike HC

    The off days are ridiculous. Just play the games. Nobody likes them except the owners obviously. Other than the Yanks owner, and I have the feeling the Yanks see things quite differently from the other owners much of the time.

  • hogan

    I hope they add two wild cards and force the wild card teams to play a play-in-game or mini-series. That way you punish the wild card teams. Then the winner of that play in series should have to play the team with the best record regardless of division the day after that series ends.

  • hogan

    I’d love to see them, if not shorten the regular season, at least have some more scheduled double headers to shorten the length in days.

  • hogan

    If each league had two wild cards and the wild cards could come from the same division and those two teams had to play in a one game play-in or three game series then this year’s AL matchup would have been……….


  • hogan

    Why the hell does the NL Central have six teams and the AL West have four? Why did Selig move the Brewers to the NL? Made no sense. Move Houston to the AL West and then you have six divisions of five and now you have a Texas rivalry. The Alamo!

    I like the unbalanced schedule. More 7pm games. Baseball is a regional game anyway. I like that each geographic region generally has its own mini-league.

    Scheduled double headers on Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day please.

    • Benjamin Kabak

      Because if you have two leagues of 15 teams each, then either one team per day is always enjoying an off-day or you have constant Interleague Play. Neither of those outcomes is desirable.

  • http://seligsucks godfather

    no matter what else is said about the playoffs, the best-of-five abbreviation that opens it is just stupid; a wildcard team gets the advantage of a five gamer to advance, and that shouldn’t happen; bad enough that the playoffs focus on nucleus rather than roster, the short series emphasizes it…as far as the layoff hurting nyy, the layoff was the only time they didn’t creak of staleness…my most pissed moment came in the fifth or sixth of a game they led 5-1; with a guy at third, one out and babe gardner at-bat, all he would have had to do was bunt to the right side to fetch a run…see aubrey huff, a power guy at that, doing it in the series…nyy overachieved this year. after all; a tranfusion of new blood is needed because even a best-of-five might daunt this group