The problem with the playoffsBy
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.