On parity and the playoffs in baseball

The writers at Pinstripe Alley post a question about a parity in baseball. They note a recent Peter Gammons column about parity in which Gammons writes:

In those 30 years, 20 different teams have won World Series titles, and it would likely be 21 without the 1994 strike that cost the sport’s best team — the Montreal Expos — a chance to win it all. In those 30 years, 14 different teams have won the Super Bowl, 13 have won the Stanley Cup, nine have won the NBA championship.

PA asks, “Does the three tier playoff system create parity in baseball, or do the short series create the illusion of parity?”

Now, assessing parity is a dangerous exercise. If you go back in time too far, as Gammons did, you run the risk of heading from one economic era to the next. In baseball, the past 30 years has been an eternity. The average salary in 1978 was just under $100,000. That’s just $325,000 in 2008 or less than the current MLB minimum.

So let’s start in 1995, the year after the strike and arguably the beginning of current economic era in baseball. We’ve witnessed 14 seasons of baseball and nine different World Series champions. More impressively, 26 different teams have made the playoffs since 1995.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. In the AL, five teams — the Yanks, Red Sox, Indians, A’s and Angels — have made the playoffs five or more times, and in the NL, that numer is four (Braves, Dodgers, Cardinals, Astros). Is that parity? It’s hard to say.

I think jscape’s question is tougher to answer than with raw numbers. By having a field of eight head into October, MLB guarantees that 26.6 percent of its teams will make it to the postseason. That’s enforced parity. But if the same teams return on a near-annual basis, are different World Series victors simply illustrative of the fact that in a short series anything can happen? Perhaps so.

What I do know is that of the 2007 playoff teams, just two — the Cubs and Red Sox — made encore appearances in 2008. Money may give teams a natural advantage, but in the end, I’d say that baseball has done an admirable job of creating parity. Most teams have a shot at the playoffs each year, and any team can win in October. That’s good for the game no matter how you slice or dice it.

GMs may do away with the coin-toss tiebreakers

It’s a quiet night in Yankee-land. The GMs are heading home, and the dealing won’t come down for a few more days. But for playoff-watchers, the General Managers are close to making a significant change. They want to do away with coin-flip tiebreaker scenarios. Right now, MLB determines home-field advantage for potential tiebreaker games based on a series of coin flips. The GMs would rather see the advantage awarded to the teams with the best records in head-to-head competition. Either way, it’s all kind of arbitrary, but this seems more fair than a bunch of coin tosses.

One for the ages

Seven years ago, I was a freshman in college. The country was just seven weeks removed from the horrible events of Sept. 11, and the Yankees were battling it out against the Diamondbacks in the World Series as the city poured its heart and soul into the games.

The night before, I had been at Yankee Stadium. Of course, I had leaped at the chance to go to game three of the World Series. With the Yanks down 2-0 to the Diamondbacks, they needed a win and got a solid, steady performance. As I returned to suburban Philadelphia and settled in to watch the rest of the series from the couch in our lounge, little did I realize the excitement and utter heartbreak the next five days would bring.

Halloween in 2001 was a Wednesday, and this midweek game would pit Curt Schilling against Orlando Hernandez. Prior to the game, Schilling lambasted the Yankee Stadium mystique and aura. He said that mystique and aura sounded more like cheap strippers than anything related to baseball. Little did Curt realize who would show up in the 9th and 10th innings.

For seven innings, Schilling and El Duque put on a show. Curt struck out nine in seven innings and gave up just three hits. The only blemish on his record was a Shane Spencer home run in the third. El Duque allowed eight baserunners in 6.1 innings, but Mike Stanton got Tony Womack to hit into a double play. Through seven, the game was knotted at one.

In the top of the eighth, Arizona broke through and carried a two-run lead into the bottom of the ninth. The Yanks were in trouble, and I and my fellow Yankee fans were slumping on the couches, dejected at the thought of a 3-1 Diamondbacks lead in the World Series. Byung-Hyun Kim was due to pitch, and he had been stellar that year with 113 strike outs in 98 innings.

Derek grounded out, but a Paul O’Neill single kept the inning alive. After Bernie Williams struck out, the Yanks’ fortunes rested on the bat of Tino Martinez. The Yanks’ first baseman wasted no time. On the first pitch — BAM! — tie game. Tino’s blast to nearly straight-away center field brought life back to the Yanks. It was his first hit of the series.

Kim would allow two more baserunners that inning, but it wouldn’t be until November that the Yanks would win this game. Shortly after the clock on the scoreboard hit midnight, Derek Jeter blasted a home run into the night as the Yanks drew even with the Diamondbacks.

I went to bed that night quite content. I wondered if I’d ever see anything as dramatic as that Yankee rally in the World Series again. Little did I realize what the next night would bring.

Fixing the playoffs

It’s cold outside. With the temperatures in New York hovering at an unseasonable 40 degrees and the ever-present wind chill making it much, much worse. As the wind in New York howled, as Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske, as the Philadelphia Phillies downed the Tampa Bay Rays in a disjointed and prolonged World Series, winter finally settled upon the baseball world.

For the Yankees, this winter promises to bring change, and we’ll get to that over the next few days, weeks and months. Tonight, let’s bury the baseball season.

The last few weeks have been a trying time for many baseball fans. We’ve seen a lot of starts and stops in the playoffs. We’ve suffered through a series of mostly dull games that, outside of a seven-run Boston comeback on a day that seems like it was ages ago, left little to the imagination. While there may only be one October, this October, for the vast majority of baseball fans, failed to elicit much excitement.

For the most part, national baseball writers have focused on the World Series. Jeff Passan’s Tuesday column about the indifferent reaction to the World Series is indicative of the prevailing views. Between games that normally start too late, one game held to 10 p.m. due to a rain and another — the clincher — suspended mid-inning because Bud Selig failed to read a Doppler forecast, this World Series came off as irrelevant to baseball fans outside of Philadelphia and insulting to baseball purists.

But the truth is that this problem extends well beyond one boring World Series. This year, it extended back to a postseason that really laid bare how badly MLB sells its baseball soul to the networks. It started with five-game sets that take seven or eight calendars days to play, followed by seven-game series spread out over 10 days. Do teams really need three days off over seven games? Do we have to sit through a 2-2-1-2 format for a seven-game set and a 1-1-2-1 format for best-of-five series?

Now, while the playoffs aren’t as far gone as the baseball writers would have you believe, this format seems broken. Allow me to humbly present a few suggestions for fixing what should be the game’s crowning tournament.

First, excitement for the World Series and the playoffs has to begin well before October. It has to start with FOX and TBS’ broadcasting schedule. While New York, Chicago, LA and Boston offer big markets, baseball — and good baseball at that — exists outside of the major media markets. While it may not be in the best interest of FOX’s bottom line to broadcast the games between Tampa and the Twins, these games should be on national TV as part of an effort to promote the game of baseball. If Bud Selig and the owners didn’t negotiate contracts with FOX and TBS that allows for the national TV rights to promote the best interests of the game, then they have failed at their jobs as the game’s gatekeepers.

Second, Bud Selig has to retain more control over the postseason schedule. It simply isn’t doing anyone any favors to have sets that don’t make sense given the daily nature of the regular season. During the season, teams don’t play a game, have a day off, play another, have another day, play two, have a day off and then play again. This isn’t hockey or basketball. In baseball, the teams play every day, and the same should hold true in October. If the sport needs to schedule travel days for the Anaheim-to-Boston trips, then play a 2-2-1 set. Everyone else should be able to survive on one or no days off.

Breaking up the series simply curtails fan enthusiasm. If fans get into a game only to have to wait 48 hours for the next, they simply grow impatient and disinterested. Again, the network suits might like it, but baseball’s overall national popularity should transcend the wishes of a few rich executives.

Third — and this point is related to the second one above — start the games earlier. There is no good reason why a game between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia should start at 8:30 p.m. I understand that West Coast fans can’t see the games if they start much earlier, but an East Coast-dominated World Series will draw predominantly East Coast fans. The supporters in these two towns can’t stay up until midnight or later to watch a game, and forget about the kids.

When the Yankees were in the World Series throughout my years in high school, the games would start between 8:08 and 8:17. Over the last few years, FOX has inserted a creep into the broadcast, and for once I’m not talking about Joe Buck. Every year, the first pitch is later and later. This practice should end. Games should start at 7:30 p.m. local time. I doubt ratings would dip that much if at all. The game should be more accessible for the fans.

Fourth, in a rather dismaying exchange, Bud Selig expressed his desires for more October day games but says that the networks flat-out said no. This is a completely wrongheaded approach to baseball. If Selig wants day games, if everyone else wants day games, if no one wants to sit outside on a cold night in 38-degree weather, then schedule some day games. While FOX is well within their rights to say no — they did, as David Pinto points out, after all, pay for night games — baseball should hold the line the next time they can and demand day games from whoever is paying. Again, it’s for the good of the game.

And finally, I can’t leave out good old New York. In the annals of American society, New York holds a special place these days. While for a few months in 2001, Americans rallied around New York, we’re once again the city too good for the rest of the country. Everyone hates us, and that’s the way we like it.

To that end, the playoffs need the Yankees. It’s no coincidence that the Yankees draw the highest TV ratings; baseball fans need someone to root against as much as they need someone to root for. When that someone to root against is also from the country’s most arrogant and insufferable city, even better. Baseball shouldn’t root against the Yankees.

Now, granted that final point is a rather contrived conceit. I want to see the Yankees in the playoffs every year no matter what, but there is some truth in it. The Yanks are a draw. But the playoffs should be a draw no matter what. If they weren’t exciting this year, if they’ve gotten less compelling as time marches on, then something is wrong not with the games or with the fans but with the system. It’s time to fix it.

Almost worse than 2004

When the Rays were up 7-0 in the top of the seventh and had two runners on, they had a 99.3 percent chance of winning the game, according to the game’s win probability. Back in 2004, David Appelman noted this week, the Yanks had an 83.8 percent chance of winning game four and an 87.9 percent chance of winning game five. While I’m still working on the odds that the Sox would win four in a row in 2004, Tampa came very close to out-choking our Yankees. I’m glad they didn’t.

Going to the best when it counts

There’s a reason why Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell aren’t starting pitchers, and there are reasons why the three of them aren’t top-notch closers. Sometimes, it pays to remember that.

For the last few days, sportswriters and baseball analysts have been tossing out the same old excuses. The Rays, they say, were thrilled to win two out of three in Boston. They were happy to return to the cozy confines of the Trop with a three games to two lead over the defending World Series Champion Red Sox. I wonder if they’re still so pleased.

On Friday, I discussed my belief that Joe Maddon should have turned to James Shields to close out Boston on Thursday. Had the move backfired, Shields would have gotten some work on a throw day. Had it succeeded, we wouldn’t be whiling the hours away until game seven. It is in this decision that good managers show their mettle and bad managers emerge.

I know people will long argue that Balfour had stellar numbers against lefties, that Dan Wheeler didn’t throw enough strikes. I know people will say that the series isn’t over yet, and it’s not. But it shouldn’t be here.

In the playoffs, managers have to take chances, and they have to recognize that sometimes what works during the regular season isn’t the best option. They have to realize that, when facing the opportunity to put away a resilient opponent, the best choice isn’t your bullpen but your number one starter for two innings.

Maybe Tampa will score four runs early against Jon Lester tonight and coast to a victory. Maybe Boston explodes against Matt Garza and a shell-shocked Rays team that had a World Series berth in its grasp. But the truth is that Tampa just shouldn’t be here. They had the Sox down and out and made a few strategic mistakes that could haunt them for a long time.