Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wild Card Playoff: MLB's Version of Adding Plus/Minus Grading

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland


Saint Louis, MISSOURI — Let me preface this by saying I conceptually like the new Wild Card format. Why? Because someday I want my Cleveland Indians to be in the driver’s seat like the 2013 Boston Red Sox currently sit. I want my guys to be tweeting the outcome of an intrasquad scrimmage, patiently waiting other teams’ grueling postseason stress. The new Wild Card scenario serves the top seed a sleep-deprived, jet-lagged ball club, down one starting pitcher. In theory, this all works fine.

I was surrounded by Cardinals fans, watching Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS; seeing first-hand what an ace, in a short series, can do. Having Chris Carpenter throw twice, against the Phillies, indirectly won the Cardinals that World Series. Winning the Wild Card was never even a slap on the wrist. Each year, it was like being the fourth division winner. Even better if the league's best record came out of your division; not only were you unhindered by rest restrictions or personnel decisions, but you got to play the two seed in the tournament. It certainly needed a change. 

I found out last year, but especially last night, that a one-game playoff was not the answer. 

Before I get hate mail from some 80 year-old Cubs fan — that my team has it easy these days  let me back up. I am happy with the unexpected success this Cleveland ball club had this year. Furthermore, I understand that you are at the mercy of the format in place at the time. The Indians are lucky to even be considered a playoff team at all. As recent as 1968, there were only two playoffs teams, period. These teams would annually meet in the World Series, without Wild Cards or Division winners or anything. The path to the postseason certainly has added more lanes, right or wrong. After one 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay, I am simply questioning why Cleveland's lane was forced to exit. 

The “modern” construct, the format that I grew up with, would have benefited Cleveland emphatically. The Indians, winners of the one-and-only Wild Card, would be gearing up for a best-of-five series with Boston. I could not wait for the 24-hour sports media machine to construct bulletin board material, trying to play up the psychological battle of a fired coach coming back for revenge.

Instead, Cleveland has to pick up the pieces and focus on 2014 far too soon. The Indians may not feel like they were hosed, but I sure do. Hear me out before you say that I am being unjustifiably spiteful to a system I would have trumpeted as “brilliant” should the Tribe pulled out the win. I wrote a shorter post about this very topic last year, when the Atlanta Braves were the home team that went one-and-done. I denounced the nature of the one-game playoff, despite its unpopularity among all my Cardinals friends/coworkers who profited from it. My stance is the same as it was; it just happens to have a victim with some greater emotional connection. 

I will start with a little story. In 2005, my alma mater — the Kent State University — implemented the plus/minus grading system. Prior to that, students received a full A (and more importantly, a full 4.00 points towards their GPA) for work that was 90% correct/satisfactory. Suddenly, as a sophomore in college, the world changed in an instant. We were not grandfathered out with the system with which we started. Instead, a 90% in year two of similar courses would earn us 3.66 GPA points and an A- grade.

Now, my argument is neither for nor against these systems. In fact, the plus/minus saved me enough times; granting an extra .33 boost to the GPA on classes where I scored an 88% (err, 78%). I am simply crying foul for lack of consistency. Feats should be rewarded in the same vein as they always were.

If you would like to award another team a spot in the playoffs, I am for it, but it should not come at the expense of another 
 having to prove their inclusion as they never had to before.

This is the basis for my argument. That Major League Baseball, in creating a second Wild Card, has decided that it is okay for the best second-place team in each league to not be included in the Division Series  something it has consistently offered for nearly two decades. If you cut through the clever labels and catchy names, Commissioner Bud Selig is simplistically taking the 90% A effort of the past and branding it an A-. Then, he goes on to say “only teams with a solid A are allowed in the playoffs.” This decision robs deserving people the opportunities of those that came before. 

The Wild Card saw its first playoff action in 1995, and with that, certain privileges incurred. You, the Wild Card, got a state-issued best-of-five series, for you to prove you should advance in the playoffs.

The Major League Baseball postseason schedule has not shrunk in 91 years. That year, 1922, the World Series scaled back from a brief, experimental nine-game series. Other than that, it has always been build, build, build. Include more, travel more, create more, celebrate more, and sell more. 

The playoffs expanded in 1969 to a four-team playoff, allowing two division winners per league to duke it out in a semifinal. Those first League Championship Series were best-of-five. In 1985, we got up to a seven-game LCS. 

1981’s strike-shortened season notwithstanding, the first-ever Division Series was played in 1995. Those remain best-of-five, as they always have been. But, as history has shown us before, growing this playoff round to seven games is not far-fetched. There is nothing more inevitable than change. It took 16 seasons for the LCS to expand. This year marks the 20th annual NLDS and ALDS, so we shall wait and see. 

Last season, we were introduced to an “exciting new round of playoff baseball.” The Wild Card would expand to include one more team. Okay, right there I was on-board; Selig had me at “hello.” 

It keeps more teams alive, for longer. It adds drama to already-exciting September baseball. It prevents wholesale roster dumps at the Trade Deadline. On-and-on I went, thinking this is a fantastic move. 

But then it hit me. The league was actually subtracting by addition. That is what has me upset this morning, and not just because it is my beloved Cleveland Indians who were affected. Major League Baseball is retracting its postseason offerings for the first time since 1922, but in a much bigger way. In fact, prior to 1919, the World Series was a best-of-seven match-up. Thus, the only time baseball ever rescinded the volume of potential playoff games, it was doing so with precedent.  

With this Wild Card Game, Selig is attempting to put the lid back on Pandora's Box. He is conceding that he gave past Wild Cards (especially the five World Champions) too much equal footing. But now the whole system has lost its historical context. It is like adding a plus/minus system right in the middle of a student’s academic career. The best second-place team in any division is now guaranteed one game… one game. For 18 years straight, the team that met this identical qualification was promised three. That is the injustice. 

Forget the fact that, if Cleveland won last night, they would get their chance at a guaranteed three. This is not about what a team could do with their playoff opportunities, it is about the bare minimum that Major League Baseball provides. Currently configured, that safety net surrounding one bad game is non-existent. That is where I take umbrage. 

Their first time ever winning the Wild Card  the “true” Wild Card, the best second-place team in any division  and they do not get to play under the same format as all the others that came before; a system that has produced five World Champions. How many of them would have lost a one-game playoff to an inferior second Wild Card? With only one game to decide it, you cannot say with certainty. 

After 162 games, a scenario of being one-and-out is reserved for tiebreakers, not playoff contenders. It is a tough sell to a fan base that we were better than the Texas Rangers this year, but we exit in a similar fashion. We earned the right to prove ourselves over a course of, at minimum, two games. 

There is something so karmic and reciprocal about baseball. It is the reason statistic nerds like me love the game. We speak of “baseball gods” and laws of averages that regress players to the mean over time. We spend all season trending data, but never dwelling on the anomalies of just one game. Then suddenly, that one game means everything. The umpiring alone has proven far too suspect to leave it up to one game. You get a perfect storm of wrong plate up for the wrong pitcher, and your team could be wearing a hole in the couch for the rest of October. There is no do-over; no chance for the baseball gods to right a wrong. 

Every level of baseball, from Little League to college, has a double-elimination structure. Where does Major League Baseball, the crème de la crème, get off booting someone after one poor performance? It becomes extra hypocritical when we load clubhouses with champagne after the longest season in any professional sport in the world. 

An irritating sidebar to this is the merchandise. It just looks bad, like a typical MLB cash grab, for New Era and Majestic to litter our players up with “POSTSEASON” patches on everything under the sun. It invites fans to spend hard-earned money on celebratory gear, only to kick one team to the curb before the party even truly starts. I want all sales of such merchandise to be refunded to any Cleveland fan. Funny, our champagne-drenched caps say we made the postseason, but it sure never felt that way. 

And they spun all of this “second Wild Card excitement” in a way to make all of us fans feel better. I do not feel better; I feel robbed or cheated. I feel like baseball is apples all year long, and when the moments of October importance come around, baseball becomes oranges. What team is built for such a switch in tactics? Why carry a full roster into this silly one-game playoff? Ultimately, fifteen guys decided the entire fate of a long season last night. Some postseason experience for those starting pitchers that never even got to throw.  

If I am Tampa Bay, I have to feel like I stole something. Two years ago, they would be fishing with the record they posted. Even if the Indians and Rays finished with reverse records, and the Wild Card Game was in Tropicana Field last night, I would feel like Cleveland should have to “prove it”  a la the final shot in a game of “H-O-R-S-E.” You cannot walk into somebody’s house, challenge a superior opponent, win once, and claim total victory. Where is the rebuttal? In a sport predicated on coming back the very next day to enact revenge (sometimes hours after a gut-wrenching loss), where is this opportunity when the games matter the most?

How do we fix this? My sources tell me that it could theoretically be done for 2015, without creating too many waves. Logistically speaking, however, there are some undeniable preventative obstacles. Namely, travel distances and that pesky other Division Series that is forced to idly sit, without any chips in the Wild Card Game. The Oakland A’s and Detroit Tigers earned their rest, but awaiting the outcome of a Wild Card five-game series, and then an ALDS five-game series, would be too much.    

So why not take a page from the regular-season itself? Throw Tampa Bay and Cleveland into the gauntlet in the same way they would meet in mid-May: a three-game series.  


Owners need to take a small hit to their bottom line, in order to get the integrity of postseason baseball back in balance. Take a “loss” at the turnstiles on holidays, and return baseball back to its glory days of Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day double-headers. It is relatively easy to condense the 2015 schedule enough to squeeze in a Wild Card best-of-three series. 

End the season on a Wednesday, instead of a Sunday. Leave Thursday open for a tiebreaker (in this case, Tampa Bay vs. Texas) and start the Wild Card Series on Friday afternoon. Put the start time at 4:00 p.m. local time, and allow the lesser Wild Card (i.e. Tampa Bay) to host game one. Charter a flight to Cleveland after the game, where game two and — if necessary  game three will be played. Saturday is a night game, with a chance for a sweep in primetime. Sunday moves to a day game, which is typical. The whole model better emulates the natural ebb and flow of the MLB schedule. The early start time on Sunday also buffers in travel time that night for the winning team in the decisive third game. The ALDS could then begin on Monday (for Oakland and Detroit) and Tuesday (for Boston vs. Wild Card Winner). 

Major League Baseball would get exactly what it had this year: playoff baseball every single day, from the last day of the season to the start of the Division Series. The only difference with my proposal is Boston receives one extra day of rest.  If that is the trade-off to ensure better playoff integrity, I feel it is a no-brainer for the competitive committee to adopt. 

2013 Wild Card Redux, Rays 2-1 series winners. Major League Baseball is happy; they get more postseason cash, from two different cities hosting games. They get more opportunities to sell all this garb that they branded with “POSTSEASON” logos. The Tampa Bay Rays (winners of this hypothetical scenario) are happy; even though they spent some bullets, they get to advance. What more could any team ask for? Even the Cleveland Indians are happy (or at least I sleep better); they now understand that winning the division is extra important in this new playoff system. But at least they had a shot as a Wild Card, not a coin-flip outcome. The Boston Red Sox (in this contemporary example) are happy; they get to face a team that uses up more than just Alex Cobb. 

The last piece of that equation was the real reason for the second Wild Card to begin with. If a casino dealer has to burn a card, the Wild Card has to burn an ace. Using up only Danny Salazar would have done nothing to hinder the Tribe’s chances if they advanced last night. You need at least a two-game sweep to effectively put the Wild Card at a pitching match-up disadvantage.   

So, as I embark to Busch Stadium this afternoon, to watch the Cardinals battle the Pirates, I sheepishly grin. Must be nice for Pittsburgh, the “true” NL Wild Card. They get to settle in, reshuffle the deck, and prep for a best-of-five series against a division winner. I want Major League Baseball to explain to me, and all of Cleveland, why they get to do that and the Indians do not. The body of work was ultimately the same in their respective leagues. Should MLB get back to me, their answer better be something more calculated than “they [the Pirates] showed up to play on their Wild Card night.”  

This is not Any Given Sunday. This is not the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. Requiring one baseball team to put the hopes and dreams of their entire city on the table, all-in, is asinine. It is as foreign to the nature of the regular season as an NFL coach, from a cold-weather town, gearing up to play in the league’s freshly-minted “Super Bowl Series”  a best-of-three championship played indoors in New Orleans.

When did sports leagues stop caring about how you got to the playoffs? Should those last games of the season not be the pinnacle test at whether the regular-season results were a fluke? In the contemporary sports landscape, with its gimmicky postseasons, it feels like we throw our title fights to chance. 


And Pirates fans, of which I have many friends that are diehard variety, you should be just as agitated as I am about this topic. Your first taste of the postseason since 1992 and Bud Selig wants to put it all on one game. A game you did win, but a little too risky to have your decades of despair to hinge upon. After the season you had, the last thing you needed was another test. A multiple-game series should be granted to all those who achieve such seasons.   

Ultimately, I am just sad. I did not want to switch to woefully optimistic mode for at least another two weeks. But time will pass, and I will look fondly on this exciting year for Cleveland baseball. I will, without a doubt, look back on the season series with my detested Tigers, wishing we could flip the script just once. Doing so would put us in Oakland. Ugh. 

Living in St. Louis now, I "had to" listen to each game instead of watching. Now, I prefer it. It really made me fall in love with the team all over again. Tom Hamilton is, bar none, the best in the business. I wanted too hard for them to be the team of destiny; play the Cards, so I could see an Indians World Series Game. Perhaps I wanted it too much. 

Call this online venting sour grapes; pass judgment that I am just bitter because they lost. I do not care. Take away from this article whatever you would like. I will never stop caring about this team, nor this game, as the passion I write with challenges both to be better in the future. 90+ wins immediately after a season of 90+ losses; I like where Terry Francona and Chris Antonetti have this thing going. In a perfect world, Major League Baseball listens to such proposals as mine. In a real world, I hope this is some other fan’s problem to deal with next year.