So the first two teams to clinch postseason places were the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were seen as a powerhouse going into this season regardless, and the Chicago White Sox, third-place American League Central finishers last year and perhaps the most pleasant and entertaining surprise this side of the Slam Diego Padres this year. The Tampa Bay Rays—tied with the White Sox for baseball’s most wins this morning—followed quickly enough.
We know they’re going to have to navigate this pandemic-truncated season’s expanded playoffs. Will they have the same competitive incentive playing a normal 2021 season? Or, will commissioner Rob Manfred and those owners who back him on it get his way and keep regular-season and championship dilution next year and, bite your tongues, eternity to follow? Baseball’s inquiring minds demand to know, because what Manfred and company think they’ll gain isn’t good for the game.
Keith Law—author of two imperative books on re-marrying the thinking person’s sport to thinking, period (Smart Baseball, The Inside Game), and now an analyst at The Athletic—objects like me to that prospect. Let’s presume concurrence, too, from Law’s two analytical superstars, Joey Bagodonuts and Twerpy McSlapperson.
“Going forward . . . expanded playoffs would be primarily a money grab,” he writes, “and they risk diluting the regular season as a unique product while simultaneously reducing the value of individual games as broadcast properties in the playoffs. It also prioritizes short-term gain over the long-term financial health of the sport.” He knows that the regular season is supposed to mean something, and long enough did, and that baseball’s former disinclination to go the way of the NHL and the NBA (more than half its teams entering their postseasons) robs championship of more than half its meaning.
Law also thinks that making this year’s expanded baseball postseason eternity’s as well threatens the game’s integrity and the integrity of a fair and open market for those we spend our hard-earned money to see—and it isn’t Manfred or the owners he admits are his first priority in office.
It also feels like a possible shadow move to discourage the best teams from spending at or above the luxury-tax threshold, because the reward for being the best team in the regular season is so much less than it was previously. Winning 100-plus games in the regular season meant a guaranteed playoff berth when those were somewhat scarce — no team has won 100 games and missed the playoffs in the wild-card era — but with 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs, 90 wins would almost certainly guarantee you a ticket into the postseason.
If 100 wins doesn’t do much for you but improve your seeding, what is the financial incentive to spend more to get to 100 when we know that the results of playoff series aren’t that far from 50/50, and making your team that much better on paper barely increases your odds of advancing? The answer is probably “very little,” and that would impact the free-agent market at all levels — even at the very top, as teams that typically run huge payrolls would no longer see the return on a $30 million investment in one player as they did under a system where fewer teams made the playoffs, and you could easily win 95 games and go home on Oct. 1.
This year, the expanded playoffs carry a concurrent threat—to player health, particularly pitchers’ health, particularly the health of relief pitchers, some of whom have already had their struggles this season thanks to the pandemic-imposed truncation’s side effects.
Don’t think for one moment that spring training’s abortion and the eventual speedy enough “summer camp” didn’t knock several players including relief pitchers off their fulcrums going in as it was. The postseason tournament will be compressed, with no off days. Uh, oh. “The more we ask guys to pitch on short rest, the more they tend to get hurt,” Law reminds us. “These innings are already high-leverage; asking premier relievers to throw more such innings on little to no rest seems like a recipe to blow guys out.”
When I began thinking hard about postseason expansion and Manfred’s wish to make it eternal, I feared with reason that it was liable to do little to arrest baseball’s recent tanking trends and, if anything, give tankers even less incentive to break the habit. When Law addresses the tankers now, he takes a different stance, one that isn’t exactly dismissable too readily. He thinks the tankers will be “disincentivised” with the postseason bar no longer even a .500 record, necessarily:
[These teams] projected to win 75 to 80 games is on the edge of playoff contention, and they’d have a much harder time selling their fans (or players, for that matter) on tanking. These teams probably won’t be in the market for the elite free agents, but they’re less likely to sell off talent, and that could in turn prop up salaries for some lower tiers of free agents because buyers would have fewer options available in trades.
The problems include what Law notices and I fear: the tankers’ fan bases may be re-engaged deeper into the regular season, but the fan bases of the superior teams may be disengaged because their playoff berths could be secure (this is my guesstimate, not his) as early as late enough August. Law also notices what I have otherwise: this year’s model made eternity’s “also puts worse teams in the playoffs, a time when you expect to see the best of the best on the field, and increases the risk that we’ll see more blowouts against depleted or just inferior pitching staffs.”
For the longest time I’ve heard those lost for ways to re-engage long-incumbent baseball fans and court prospective new baseball fans suggest that expanded postseasons were just about the likeliest saviours. Even if they agreed that most such schemes ultimately equate the game’s common good with making money for the owners. Such people could be convinced only on rare occasions that perhaps the biggest factor separating baseball from the rest was that its ultimate championships were the least diluted of any major professional American sports.
Like me, Law thinks some of baseball’s changes have been or will be better for the game. Like me, he loves the universal designated hitter: “[It] is almost certainly here to stay, which absolutely will help the sport, removing the worst hitters in baseball from National League lineups.” Like me, he applauds the automated strike zone and rejects any lingering Luddism that rejects technology when it stands to improve the game: “[T]he idea of eschewing available technology in favor of noticeable errors is confusing to anyone who didn’t grow up a fan of the sport (and to many of us who did).”
In other words, Law—like me—is very willing to trade the intellectual delights of revisiting and re-debating the most notorious blown calls in the game’s history on behalf of getting things right and, concurrently, removing excuses when many blown calls lead to blown outcomes. Don Denkinger, call your office. We’ve had too many decades worth of fun deconstructing and reconstructing Jorge Orta and the bottom of the ninth, Game Six, 1985 World Series. Let’s say it now, Don: You blew the first out but that’s not really why the St. Louis Cardinals lost that Series. But you became in due course an outspoken advocate of replay, which has done the game a huge favour, really, bless your heart.
Sam Holbrook, call yours likewise. We know you blew the interference call on Trea Turner when you didn’t acknowledge a terrible throw pulled Yuli Gurriel off first base and his glove right into Turner after Turner was safe at first. But we also know the Washington Nationals were made of tougher stuff than the ’85 Cardinals. You saw it yourself, Sam, when one out later, with Yan Gomes returned to first, Anthony Rendon hit one into the middle of the Crawford Boxes and saved you from becoming the 21st Century Denkinger.
But diluting the meaning of a championship even further than the wild card era’s done it just to make money for the owners? (And, the players, more of whom would get to divvy up at least some of the postseason spoils even if they and their teams had no legitimate business playing toward a championship in the first place.) Remember the meaning of an emergency measure: the key word is emergency. When the emergency passes and things return to something resembling normal, emergency measures made permanent lead to new and prospectively more grave disasters.
Hasn’t baseball had enough disaster over its long and mostly storied history? Weren’t the self-destruction of the 1877 Louisville Grays (forced out of business in a gambling scandal), the Black Sox scandal, the Ray Chapman tragedy, the colour line, the 1957 Cincinnati All-Star ballot-box stuffing scandal (it cost fans the All-Star vote for over a decade to follow), the 1981 strike, the 1985 Pittsburgh drug trials, the mid-to-late 1980s owner collusion, the Pete Rose scandal, the 1994-95 strike, the era of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, and Astrogate/Soxgate more than too much of enough?
Since it’s so much on behalf of the owners making money, Law reminds us, too, that a few too many postseason games erode their value as broadcast properties from which the owners make millions enough. They’ll also help suppress the ratings already being suppressed in the wild card era, or doesn’t anyone think about viewer/listener over-saturation as much as they might? Should?
The safest bet on the planet right now may be that Manfred didn’t think all that hard about that part. The bet safer than that is that Manfred didn’t and doesn’t think.