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Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Anomaly of the NL West

Right now there are some interesting playoff races going on in Major League Baseball. The NL East has no clear best team, and that makes the race for both the NL East title and the NL Wild Card look like L.A.'s rush hour. The NL Central has the Secretariat of the bunch, the Cardinals, with the Astros trying to hang on in the chase for the wild card. It may be that good pitching beats good hitting any time, but you can't win if you don't score. Tell your pitchers that they have to toss shutouts to get ties, and they might press too much. That's the predicament the Astros are in.

Then, of course, there is the NL West, where the winner of that division will be lucky to break .500 and win 82 games. As much as I like it that the Padres beat the Braves in extra innings last night, the fact remains that the Pads might finish below .500 and take their division. Needless to say, that would make the Cardinals happy, as they could like their chops at the prospect of facing a team in the first round that would have finished dead last in the NL East. That's probably the closest thing to a bye that could happen in the history of Major League Baseball, or at least since the 1904 Giants elected not to play in the World Series.

And it isn't fair. Not that there haven't been other imperfections in the history of the majors and its post-season games, but this one would take the cake. There should be no way a team that doesn't break .500 can make the post-season, period. Even if it wins its division.

If I were commissioner for a day, I would create an edict (not that anyone would follow it anyway) that in order to make the playoffs, a team has to play at least .500 ball (if not achieve a record that goes 82-80). If a division leader doesn't achieve that record (and I don't think that this situation has come up before in MLB), then the team with the fourth best record overall in that team's league makes the playoffs instead, even if it means that three teams from one division make the playoffs.

As a result, instead of the Padres, you could end up with the Braves and Cards as winners of their divisions and then the Phillies and Marlins in the post-season. Given how close the NL East has been this year, and given that the play within that division has been superior to anything put up in the NL West, that's not an unfair solution. Let those teams go head-to-head in the post-season to slug it out one more time. The drama would be compelling, even if it would mean pitting teams against division rivals in the first round of the playoffs -- something that MLB has avoided at all costs.

Because those teams would have earned it.

And you'd enhance your product's credibility by making sure that only the worthy make the playoffs (something that cannot always be said for your brethren in the NBA and NHL, where too many teams make the post-season).

Sure, some teams limp into the playoffs, having won wars of attrition against bitter rivals by throwing out their starters on three days' rest and exhausting a bullpen that's been expanded in September to include eight or nine relievers. Yes, some of those teams are battered and tired and have nothing left to give in the post-season.

But at least they've played well enough to earn the right to be there.

Right now, it's hard to argue that anyone in the NL West can make that claim. To be fair to those teams, they are playing as hard as they can under rules that they didn't create. Right now, their stalking horse isn't the Cards or the Braves, but the Padres, and that's the way it should be.

But the Lords of Baseball should plan for the future and see a much broader picture. Hopefully, when they do, they'll adopt the rule I suggest, so that they can avoid the mockery that the NL West has become this year.

Perhaps the Padres or someone else will go on a tear in the last six weeks of the season, win two-thirds of their games and make the prospect of embarrassment vanish. That would be great for baseball.

As would a rule that would help ensure that a sub-.500 team will not be able to make the playoffs.


Blogger Charlottesvillain said...

The timing of a Padres winning streak could have grave implications for the season, and for baseball. The flaw of divisional play is that even after a grueling 162 game season has clearly determined relative strength between teams, there is always the risk that the inferior team gets hot in the post season and dispatches the superior team. This risk has simply been compounded as playoff opportunities in baseball have expanded. The Padres (or another team from the West) making the playoffs with a sub .500 record would be bad. Far worse would be if they somehow knocked the Cardinals out of the playoffs. Now that might be the kind of injustice that actually gets MLB to consider your rule change.

9:49 AM  
Blogger callmemickey said...

I think the case will be pushed even if a sub 500 Padres makes the playoffs and gets swept in a horribly embarassing first round series. Nothing pushes change like poor ratings. Just watch, or not watch, how much better the NHL will be this year after the lockout and bitterly depressing years prior.

10:24 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for the posts. Villain, you're right, you'd be drinking a lot of your fine Caribbean rum if somehow the Padres were to win a playoff series, but strange things can happen. As for the NHL, Mickey, I probably won't watch, but it should be interesting.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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They just released IPO'S for NHL Hockey this week, so there are alot of good deals there.

Keep up the good work on your blog!

4:13 PM  

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