The good news, as reported by The Athletic Wednesday evening: last year’s expanded-to-the-stretching-point major league postseason won’t happen this year—so far. The bad news, as reported by the same journal’s Evan Drellich: neither will the universal designated hitter return this year—so far.
I say “so far” because Drellich says reversals can never be ruled out, even though “both sides are proceeding as though there will not be any last-minute addition of the DH in the National League, or additional playoff teams from the current field of 10, for 2021.”
Here’s to hoping at least one reversal among the two is ruled in—and that it won’t be another expanded postseason past the customary three division winners and two wild cards in each league, either.
That’s the one that was agreed upon at the eleventh hour last year, after the owners tried pulling a few fast renegings on previous season agreements with the players and the players told them, appropriately, where to shove them. The one that ended up including two teams with losing records into the postseason at all.
Sound thinking required the hope that some way, some how, the Astros (29-31) and the Brewers (29-31 likewise) would bump, nudge, elbow, shove, kick, and bop their way past all comers and face each other in last year’s World Series. The reason: it would have shown only too vividly the absurdity of allowing losers or at least so many lesser winners (including the Astros and Brewers, there were ten wild card teams in the rounds) to even think about playing for a championship.
I’m not married till death do us part to tradition for its own sake, even in baseball. There have been traditions worth keeping and traditions worth sending to the place where the Edsel reposes and where the ball point pen, the bagless vacuum cleaner (go ahead, tell me you just love getting a faceful of dust when you empty the cup and those mounds of dirt hit the rest of the trash and recoil), and artificial baseball turf ought to repose.
Sound championship competition doesn’t deserve to end. “The players are concerned an expanded postseason harms competition,” Drellich writes, “disincentivizing teams from adding talent they would otherwise pursue for a chance to crack a smaller field. The league believes the effect would be the opposite, that the format would encourage teams to upgrade in an effort to claim additional spots.”
The players know the owners only too well. It would be nice, however, if they’d also speak up for two further points: 1) The more expanded the postseason remains, the greater chance for saturation than existed already, something you’d think the broadcasters buying postseason baseball would enunciate as well. 2) The harm to competition goes a lot deeper than just removing incentives for teams to improve on the fly.
If anything, the format rudely interrupted by last year’s pan-damn-ically provoked irregular season deserves to be reduced further. There’s already been a postseason saturation factor for a long enough time. There’s also no reason why the World Series should remain practically just another playoff round.
As things turned out, the two winningest teams in last year’s irregular seasons did wrestle their way to the World Series, and the Dodgers won it (at last!) in six gripping games. I say “winningest” instead of “best” because, in several ways, the irregular season stopped enough teams short of the chance they’d have had in a full season to re-horse and rise from the dead a la the 2019 Nationals. (19-31 after 23 May; 74-38 the rest of the season and, oh yes, they won the World Series.)
But wouldn’t real fans prefer to see a postseason such as what I’ve said before but will say again, and as often as necessary?
* If we must have three-division leagues, the wild cards should be eliminated and the division winner with the best season record should get a round-one bye while the other two division winners play a best-of-three division series.
* The bye team and the division series winner should play in a best-of-five League Championship Series. (There was a tradition worth keeping: from its 1969 birth through 1984, the LCS was a best-of-five.)
* The primacy of the best-of-seven World Series would be restored appropriately. The postseason saturation factor would likely reduce to zero. Teams would no longer have several disincentives, including and especially working toward playing for the thrills, chills, and spills of fighting to the last breath to finish . . . in second place.
Now, about that universal designated hitter. Bringing it aboard last year was as much a question of assuring pitchers’ health further as a question of sound baseball playing. Still. “The DH in both leagues has long been of interest to the union,” Drellich writes, “because it means an additional talent set that teams would pay for and pursue.”
That’s only half right. Teams probably would pursue off-season free agents they might not think about otherwise in the instances of players whose defense is dubious but whose bats are true weapons. But speaking technically, absent a team signing a Marcell Ozuna or a Nelson Cruz the universal DH wouldn’t add jobs so much as create them for the incumbent pine riders whose defense would have them on trial for treason but whose bats would add runs to the scoreboard.
Incidentally, and I discovered it last October, the designated hitters in the National League (one of whose owners thought of the idea in the first place, in 1891) out-hit the American League’s, and the Braves’ DHs out-hit everybody else’s. (The Braves’ DHs slashed .316/.411/.589 and a 1.000 OPS. They also hit more home runs than anyone else’s except the Twins’.) Did I mention again that six of the top ten teams’ DHs for OPS were National League teams?
Tell me now that you’d rather return and keep permanent all those .130/.161/.165-slashing National League pitchers wasting a lineup spot that could be deployed better with solid bats—maybe even a second cleanup hitter or a technically extra leadoff type which, by the way, has been tried and not found wanting.
Tell me you absolutely must continue a lineup spot filled with batters who’ve hit about .166 on average from the advent of the live ball era through the end of the 21st century’s first decade. Show me one position player who’s going to have a major league job hitting like that even if he might be the second coming of Mark Belanger with the leather.
Tell me it was really worth all that waste just to have seen Bartolo Colon hit one out at long enough last, and to have watched him run it out like a pregnant hippopotamus on feet flatter than the first five lines of a Rob Manfred speech.
Tell me again Thomas Boswell was wrong when he wrote, “It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out like he thinks he’s Ty Cobb. But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”
Tell me it’s worth it to see a pitcher at the plate when no few pitchers have had careers interrupted, compromised, or ruined because of mishaps swinging or running the bases. (Sandy Koufax, Carlos Zambrano, Adam Wainwright, Steven Wright, Chien-Ming Wang, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacob deGrom, for openers, call your offices.)
You want to say those are outliers or aberrations? So are Don Drysdale being the 1965 Dodgers’ arguable best hitter, Madison Bumgarner hitting a pair of Opening Day home runs, and Shohei Ohtani, period—though Ohtani won’t be the DH on the days he pitches. Try again.
The owners recently tried to strong-arm the players into accepting the continuing expanded postseason if they wanted the universal DH that badly. The players told them, politely but firmly, where they could shove that trade-off. Both sides should be thinking not of trade-offs but of sound baseball and the overall good of the game—which isn’t the same thing as merely making money for it or for them.
Baseball government letting the National League continue standing upon a nebulous tradition isn’t as grave or as grotesque as Kenesaw Mountain Landis allowing the major league game to remain segregated until the days after he died. But the time for ending the NL’s nebulous “tradition” is long past. The universal DH is sound, smart baseball the way expanded postseasons are not. It’s long past time to bring it aboard to stay.