Let me second Ross Douthat’s plug for TAC contributor Michael Brendan Dougherty’s foray into baseball writing. When I hear the ping of Michael’s link-rich email newsletter “The Slurve” hitting my inbox each morning, a smile crosses my face, coffee touches my lips—and my day begins aright.
Ross considerately takes issue, however, with Michael’s argument in The Daily Beast that Major League Baseball is in the midst of a “golden age.” Ross raises a few red flags: is the steroid era truly behind us? Is sabermetrically-driven efficiency-seeking making the sport less fun to watch? And what about this expanded playoff system with its two additional wildcard slots?
About the latter, Ross writes:
[L]ast year’s postseason — in which one of the two sudden-death games was tilted by an umpire’s lousy call, and that game’s winner, St. Louis, came within a Barry Zito masterpiece of representing the National League in the World Series — was exactly the kind of outcome I expected: Far from giving division winners some massive advantage (just ask the Washington Nationals about that) or putting an extra small-market Cinderella in the postseason, the additional wild card provided a safety net for a big-market team having a down year, and then that team proceeded to knock off a team that would have finished ten games ahead of them had they shared a division.
Initially, and even after the conclusion of the 2012 postseason, I shared Ross’s disdain for the second wildcard. The fashion in which the superior club—the Atlanta Braves—lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in an umpired-marred single elimination game was an ugly thing to watch. But over the winter, I had second thoughts.
Those second thoughts go like this:
Baseball purists’ original argument against the wildcard system, instituted in 1994, was that it diluted the significance of winning a division outright. In a just world, this argument goes, a team that proves its mettle over the course of a marathon six-month season should not be subject to the any-given-day arbitrariness of competing against an inferior team in a short five-game series.
Under the new playoff system that began last year, the significance of winning one’s division is not fully restored to the status quo ante 1994, but it’s hard to deny that there’s been at least a partial restoration. Ross writes that the new system doesn’t offer division winners a “massive advantage” and offers the fate of the Washington Nationals, who lost to the second-wildcard Cardinals in NLDS Game 5, as an example.
As a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies, my response is obvious: was the fate of the Nationals any worse than that of 2011’s Phillies, who lost in Game 5 to the Cardinals under the old wildcard system? Measured by regular-season wins, both the ’11 Phillies and ’12 Nats were the best team in baseball—and yet both were eliminated by those lucky (dammit!) Cards.
In that sense, the expanded playoffs are no worse than the old system.
I would argue that they’re better, for this reason: despite a heartbreaking loss to the Cardinals last October, wouldn’t you have preferred the position of the Washington Nationals as opposed to that of the Braves? Sure, they won 94 regular-season games, compared to the Cardinals’ 88. Was it a fair outcome for the Braves to have been knocked out by the Cardinals in just a single game? No; it wasn’t.
Do you know what the Braves could have done to potentially avoid that outcome?
Win their division.
I’ll agree with Ross that division winners don’t have a “massive” advantage—but it seems to me they have a decided one.
They’re assured at least three games against a hot wildcard upstart, not merely one.
Ideally, I’d like there to be no wildcards at all. But Major League Baseball obviously will never return to that playoff system. That being the case, I’ll take this new one.