The MLB playoffs begin in earnest tonight as the New York Yankees host the Houston Astros in the 1-game Wild Card play-in game.
Tomorrow, on the National League side, the Chicago Cubs will make their first post-season appearance since 2008 when they take on the Pittsburgh Pirates in Pittsburgh.
Wild Card play-in games started in 2012 when a second Wild Card team was added to the playoff picture, and Wednesday night’s NL game shows more clearly than ever why baseball’s playoff system is inherently flawed and already in need of serious upheaval.
By all accounts, the Cubs and Pirates had terrific regular seasons. In his first season as manager, Joe Maddon led an upstart Cubs team to a 97-65 record — the third best in baseball, but also just the third best in the NL Central division. The Pirates did the North Siders one game better, finishing with a 98-64 record — the second best in baseball, but again, just the second best in the division.
Were either of these teams to play in any other division in the National (or American) League, they’d have won their division by a mile. The Cubs and Pirates are plagued by bad regional luck and the fact that the best record in baseball belonged to the NL Central divisional foes St. Louis Cardinals, a team that won 100 games.
The divisional break down is, of course, completely out of either team’s control, but that these three teams managed to finish with such stellar records while also playing one another so frequently only proves how good these teams were all season long. And yet, as a result, the Cubs and Pirates must face off in a one-game, winner-take-all affair. And a one-game series is decidedly antithetical to the rest of baseball’s playoff format. Rather than rewarding depth and longevity of starting rotation and bullpen, a one-game series chiefly favours the team with the best individual pitcher — in this case, the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta.
Arrieta has flat-out dominated the Pirates all season long. His line vs. Pittsburgh in 2015: 3-1, 0.75 ERA, 0.639 WHIP, 33 strikeouts in 35 innings. (His numbers all season long have been similarly dominant: 22-6, 1.77 ERA.)
If Pirates fans are upset about their batters having to face Arrieta tomorrow night, Cubs fans will be equally worried about Gerrit Cole, the Pirates ace. Cole has a career record of 7-1 against the Cubs and a very solid 2.88 ERA.
As it is now, the playoff system means that either the second or third best team in baseball (record-wise) will only play in one playoff game, while the Dodgers and Mets will be rewarded an entire series despite worse records and weaker divisions. Pirates fans know this all too well: tomorrow night marks the third consecutive year in which the Pirates will play in the play-in Wild Card game, having lost each of the last two years.
Under a different scenario, the Pirates versus the Cubs could be an NLCS match-up, in which fans could watch at least four games, and games in both ballparks. Fans could see Jon Lester on the mound in Wrigley, and AJ Burnett in PNC Park. Instead, one of the best three teams in baseball will bow out before the NLDS.
The two-team Wild Card scenario must also frustrate another team and its fan base: the St. Louis Cardinals, who will face the winner of Tuesday nights’ game. Say what you will about the Cardinals and its fans, but winning 100 games ought to earn you an easier divisional series match-up than either of these two teams. And, the series between whichever team wins on Tuesday night and the Cardinals is a match-up with NLCS-calibre talent, deserving of a 7-game series and not the 5-game divisional series situation it will ultimately get. Again and again, the playoff system is flawed and needs to be changed.
So, the question then is how to fix this system. In April, NBC sportscaster Bob Costas offered one viable option that seems to be the best available. His plan:
1. Shorten the regular season from 162 games to 154 games, which would allow for more playoff baseball.
2. Convert the Wild Card round from a one-game playoff into a best-of-three series with all three games played at the ballpark of the team with the better record. (I’d contest this second point and instead have both teams play in their home park, though a 1-1-1 scenario is admittedly not great logistically.)
3. Convert the division series from best-of-five to best-of-seven.
4. Give the no. 1 seed an extra home game against the Wild Card team in the division series.
Costas’ plan would save owners money and, on a logical level, make a lot more sense. More than anything else, this system means more playoff games and fewer seemingly meaningless regular season games.
In the end, both tonight and tomorrow night will be highly entertaining games in a way that’s completely unique to playoff baseball. But these two games, and especially the Cubs and the Pirates, will only whet our appetites for these teams, when both the fans and the teams themselves deserve more than just one playoff game.
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