This Post is Long, but Baseball Needs to Shorten Its Season and Change Its Playoff Structure

Last week, I wrote about a “short” column about an easy baseball fix with which all fans should agree.  This post is going to be different.  I am going to propose two more drastic changes to baseball.  These changes are likely to be more controversial than simply limiting the number of relievers per game, and this post is guaranteed to be much longer than last week’s.  Let’s dive right in:

Change #1: The MLB season should be cut to 144 games.

There is only one good reason to have a 162-game season.  That reason is, “We have no playoffs, just a World Series.  Therefore, we want a big enough sample size to ensure that the best AL team and the best NL team make the World Series.”  That reason did exist from 1961 through 1968.  I will add that, prior to 1961, there were also no playoffs, just a World Series; but the season was 154 games long.  Frankly, I would personally love to eliminate divisions and return to the 1961-1968 “162 games, no playoffs” format, but I realize that this country is no longer equipped to handle a scenario in which half the league is eliminated from World Series contention by Memorial Day.  Therefore, I am not proposing that.  Moving on…

Since 1968, MLB has expanded its playoff three times:

1969 – NL and AL were split into divisions apiece, and the ALCS/NLCS round of playoffs was born.

1994 – NL and AL were split into three divisions apiece, and the ALDS/NLDS (with one Wild Card per league) round of playoffs was born.

2012 – NL and AL each added a second Wild Card team and a Wild Card play-in game.

In my opinion, MLB and the MLBPA dropped the ball on one major thing with these three playoff expansions: Each expansion of playoffs should have come with a decrease in the length of the regular season.  Again, the one reason to have a 162-game season is to ensure that the best team has enough games to rise to the top of its respective league.  However, as soon as a playoff system was created in 1969, that concept was gone.  In baseball, the underdog typically has a reasonable chance to beat the favorite in any series.  As far back as in 1973, Reds manager Sparky Anderson was quoted stating his displeasure that the Mets (82-79) were even given the opportunity to defeat the Reds (99-63).  He felt that the Reds deserved to play in the World Series, as a result of having a far-superior record over 162 games.  I don’t blame him.  After all, for all of baseball history until a few years prior to that, Sparky’s Reds would have been in the World Series.  I can’t find Sparky’s exact quote, but I know that I have heard it.

Anyway, I am glad the 1973 Mets beat the Reds.  Without that, Tug McGraw’s “Ya Gotta Believe!” likely would not have become one of the Mets’ mottos, and 1973-Mets-Manager Yogi Berra’s “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” would be less famous.  Meanwhile, Sparky Anderson’s anger unintentionally brought up the reason why I favor a shorter MLB regular season.  When MLB decided that playoff series – much more random than a long season – would determine who plays in the World Series, the need to play 162 games disappeared.  Unfortunately, I had not been born yet, so I could not inform anyone of this.  Enough though about stuff from 44-48 years ago.  Let’s bring this discussion to the modern era.  Let’s look at the regular-season finishes of the World Series participants of the Wild Card era (1995 – 2016: 22 seasons).  The chart below shows how many World Series participants finished with the best record, second-best record, third-best record, etc. in their leagues.

 

National League   American League  
Best Record 6 teams Best 9.5 teams
2nd-Best Record 5 teams 2nd 5.5 teams
3rd-Best Record 4.5 teams 3rd 4 teams
4th-Best Record 4 teams 4th 2 teams
5th-Best Record 2.5 teams 5th 1 team
6th-Best Record 0 teams 6th 1 team

*If a team finished in a tie between two places, I counted that as “half a team” for each place.

Notice that only 6 of 22 NL regular-season leaders made the World Series and that only 11 of the 22 NL World Series teams even finished with a top-two record in the league.  In the AL, regular-season champs fared better, with 9.5 (including the 1998, 1999, 2003, and 2009 Yankees) of 22 reaching the Fall Classic.  In the AL, 15 of the 22 years saw top-two finishers reached the World Series.

That all said, when you throw the NL and AL together, a mere 15.5 of 44 World Series participants (roughly 35.2%) were AL or NL regular-season champs, and 26 of 44 (59%) finished in the top two of their respective leagues.

Why am I harping on this?  I harp because you don’t need to play 162 friggin’ games if it is still 40% likely that someone who finished with the 3rd-best-or-worse record in your league is going to make the World Series!!!   The playoff structure obliterates the premise that baseball rewards the team who is best over a long period of time.  Instead, the structure rewards the team who is best in short spurts while good enough to make the playoffs.  Since the “best team over a long period of time” claim is now devalued, let’s at least shorten that “long period of time” from 162 games to 144.

Let’s now talk about the 2017 season.  In mid-August of this season, what did we know?  We knew that the Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers, Indians, and Astros were going to win their divisions.  We knew that the Red Sox and Yankees would make the playoffs, with the Red Sox more likely winning the division.  We knew that the Diamondbacks would be an NL Wild Card.  We knew that the Rockies would likely win the Wild Card.  The only thing that was greatly up for grabs was the second AL Wild Card.  In mid-August, the entire AL was seemingly alive for the race.  Now, the race has been whittled down to just the Twins and Angels, a tight battle that is captivating the nation.

Yes, the Indians’ winning streak was extremely exciting.  Yes, it is interesting to see the Dodgers lose 14 of 15 after winning of 14 of 15 earlier in the year. Yes, it is an exciting time for fans of all playoff and potential playoff teams.  However, the playoffs need to come fast.  We have known for a few months who the true contenders are. I feel like the Yankees have been at least 3 games up in the Wild Card and at least 3 games back in the division for months.  We really need a 144-game season.  We should have really eliminated 6 regular-season games each time a playoff round was added, but let’s make up for lost time and eliminate 18 games now (2018).

With a 144-game season (and theoretically 4-5 extra off days), the MLB season would have ended this past Sunday, Week 2 of the NFL.  This would have been great for several reasons:

  • The World Series would now end in mid-October, as it should.
  • Fans of bad teams check out around Labor Day. Four weeks later, when the playoffs start, these fans are long gone.  However, with only two weeks until playoffs, some of those fans might stick around to watch more of the postseason.
  • With the regular season ending sooner, perhaps demand would more generally increase for watching playoff games. Remember that the addition of the Division Series more or less coincided with lower ratings for all playoff rounds and the World Series.  While I cannot guarantee causation for this correlation, I can guarantee that when the supply of a product goes up, the value of the product goes down.  Therefore, I am going to assume at least some causation.  Now, it’s time to turn things around.  By decreasing the supply of regular-season games, hopefully the value of postseason games, and the ratings of said games, increases.

 

  • In an era in which it is miraculous to have any pitcher avoid injury, 18 fewer games and thus 18 fewer pitcher starts seems like a good thing.

 

  • With players not taking amphetamines and theoretically not using PEDs, the 162-game season takes a greater toll on players than it did in previous days. With 18 fewer games and a few extra off days, the quality of play would likely improve.

Naturally, the first retort to a “let’s shorten the season” proposal is that teams would lose money.  If teams are going to lose money, the idea will not happen.  However, are we really sure teams would overall lose financially?  Bad teams play in front of empty stadiums all September long.  Do teams really profit from these games?  There are a lot of costs in running a stadium, and I don’t believe that revenue exceeds costs if the stadium is 15% full.

Maybe I’m wrong.  If I am, here’s another thought.  With 9 fewer home games (81 down to 72) per team, each team can charge a little bit more per ticket.  Each game will be a bit more in demand, and the same goes for TV.  Somebody should do a study as to whether or not ratings would go up per game if there were few of them.  If ratings were to rise, MLB teams could theoretically maintain the same level of ad revenue as they currently receive.  After all, we know the following things:

  • Football is the ratings king because it has so few games.
  • The NHL and NBA did well with ratings and ticket prices during their lockout-shortened seasons.
  • MLB would never do a 200-game regular season, because that would be considered unprofitable (for many of the reasons mentioned earlier – demand, injuries, etc. – and quality of play). Plus, as I said earlier, the quality of play should be greater with fewer games.

 

Therefore, if we have established that a sport with 16-game seasons is king, that a 200-game season would be unprofitable, and that fewer games means greater quality; are we really certain that a 144-game season would be less profitable than a 162-game season?  I am not.

 

To summarize, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  If we are going to spend the summer of 2006 getting pumped for the Subway Series, only to end up with St. Louis/Detroit….if we are going to spend the summer of 2002 getting psyched for the Braves and the Moneyball A’s, only to end up with Angels/Giants….and if we are going to spend the summer of 2014 looking forward to a Trout/Harper Fall Classic, only to get a dual-Wild-Card SF/KC battle; then let’s at least have 18 fewer games and keep more fans watching the playoffs through the disappointing WS matchup.

 

 

Change #2: Go back to having one Wild Card.  Change the Division Series to Best-of-7.  Give the #1 seed 5 home games against the Wild Card.

 

When I first heard the proposal of the second Wild Card and the Wild Card game back in 2011, I hated it.  Six years later, I still hate it.  To be clear, it’s not just because the Mets lost in last year’s Wild Card game that I hate it.  As you have probably gathered by now, I don’t exactly love that a sport that plays so many games allows so many teams into its playoffs.  The first Wild Card has always seemed reasonable to me, given that there are many times when a league’s second-best team has the misfortune of playing in the same division as the top team in the league.  However, the second Wild Card was a bridge too far.  For every 2015 Cubs (97 wins), there are a whole bunch of sub-90-win teams – like the 2014 Giants – earning those second Wild Card spots.

 

Having a one-game playoff in baseball is just stupid.  Baseball is the ultimate marathon, and then you have a one-game playoff?  It does not feel right.  Some people advocate making the Wild-Card Round a “Best-of-3”, but that would not be good either.  In baseball, the rust factor usually outweighs the rest factor.  In the NHL or NBA, it is typically an advantage to get extra rest before a series.  This is not so in MLB.  Just look for example at the 2006 Tigers, 2007 Rockies, 2012 Tigers, and 2015 Mets.  All of these teams dominated the LCS, only to look rusty in the World Series after a long layoff.  Therefore, to make the #1 seed get rusty while its Division Series plays out its Best-of-3 series seems like a bad idea.

 

Why did baseball add a second Wild Card?  One reason was to keep teams “in the race” longer, but the main cited reason was to increase the value of winning the division.  I have always liked that rationale.  I didn’t like that, in 2010, the Yankees and Rays, both seemed to want the Wild Card, not the division crown.  Re-establishing incentive to win the division was a good thing.  That is why I would have and still would eliminate the Wild-Card game, extend the Division Series to Best-of-7, and give the #1 seed home games in Games 1-2 and 5-7 in the Division Series.  This accomplishes the goals of the Wild-Card Game but in a more satisfactory way:

  • There is still a clear benefit to winning the division over the Wild Card, as a team with only 2 home games is at a major disadvantage.
  • The Best-of-7 aspect actually likely adds more playoff games and more revenue than just having the two Wild-Card games themselves.
  • I’ve always felt a Best-of-5 is too short for a baseball series, as teams can often get by with two great pitchers. The Best-of-7 tests a team’s depth.
  • You don’t have the mediocre second Wild Card team needing to win only one game to upend a superior team. I hate the Yankees to an unhealthy degree, but having the Twins or Angels in the ALDS because they won one game against the Yankees is just not how baseball is meant to be. I’ll be rooting hard against the Yankees in the ALDS because I hate them, but I will be rooting for them in the Wild-Card Game to satisfy the baseball purist in me.

 

Meanwhile, some might counter my anti-second-Wild-Card logic by saying that more teams will be out of playoff contention earlier.  While this is true, I don’t think it would be too drastic a change.  More years than not, the two Wild Card teams are close enough in record that there is not a huge impact.  The Angels and Twins would still technically be alive now if there were only one Wild Card.  Plus, fans don’t typically even get that excited when chasing the second Wild Card because their teams usually aren’t that good.  If you are chasing the second Wild Card, you are likely just a few games over .500, if that, and fans can spot mediocrity.  Angels fans are not showing up in droves because of a chance at the second Wild Card.

 

So there you have it. Rob Manfred, let’s drop down to 144 games and change the playoff format.

 

PS  I was going to add a whole thing on how the NBA and NHL should also cut back from 82 games (6 months) to 66 games since over half of each league makes the playoffs, but this post is already long enough.  That said, I do advocate those changes as well, for reasons analogous to those listed for baseball.

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