Subtraction By Division
The 2016 regular season is now over, and everyone can breathe a sigh of relief after all the excitement of the playoff chases.
Say what? There wasn’t all that much excitement, you say? The playoff chases were more like gentle strolls? Now that you mention it, yes, this season’s stretch run was mostly a dud. Four of the six division races were runaway wins, and really it was more like five of the six since there was no real drama in the NL West for most of the last three weeks. Only the AL East threatened to go down to the wire, and that too turned out to be a relatively easy win for the Red Sox.
Wasn’t the Wild Card supposed to remedy the problem of lack of competitive races in September? Well, this year it didn’t–though several teams remained alive in both leagues until the final few days of the season, there wasn’t actually any real movement in the Wild Card standings. The teams that held the Wild Card positions for the last two weeks–at least–are the same teams that will be contesting the play-in games the next two nights. Not exactly a barn-burner of a stretch drive.
This is nothing really new. Your correspondent wrote a piece for the Baseball Research Journal fifteen years ago pointing out this very simple fact: the Wild Card format promises much more excitement and competition than it actually delivers. (The piece was in the 2001 edition, which unfortunately is not yet in the archive.) For all the rah-rah and shouting that always accompanies coverage of baseball’s last month, most of the “excitement” tends to be just the cries of shills and tools.
Consider this year’s division races. Four runaways, two relatively close division races that featured no lead changes for the last few weeks, and two Wild Card races that, again, featured only minor position changes among the top two teams, both of which ultimately held their positions and earned postseason births. Is that all that much better than we had back in the four division days?
Well, if we turned back the clock on realignment and reverted the leagues back to their previous four division setups, what would we get? The Rangers would still have won the AL West in a runaway; the Dodgers would have claimed the NL West with a relatively comfortable margin, as it was this season; and the Cubs would have raced out to the win in the NL East. No changes there.
But the AL East would have come down to a battle between the Red Sox and the Indians that would have most likely gone down to the wire. The teams entered the last week of the season separated by a mere game and a half. While the Blue Jays and Orioles would have been out of luck in the pre-1995 set-up, Boston and Cleveland would have been duking it out for a division crown. Not a battle for a third-place, loser’s division position; a full-blown fight for a winner-take-all prize: a chance to take a division, earn a playoff spot, and fly a flag next year.
Are two relatively tame Wild Card chases, where up to four teams know they’re going to make the postseason, really better than one such do-or-die showdown in final week of the season?
It might not even be just that one division race, either. The realignment into six divisions changed the scheduling for all the teams in both leagues. (The shifts between leagues for the Brewers and Astros, as well as the additions of the later expansion teams, also altered the schedules, but we can leave that out of this argument for the moment.) If this season had been played under the old alignment, how might things have played out differently? Would the Cubs have been that far ahead of the Nationals had they played a slightly different schedule? Do the Rangers run away from the Mariners and Astros without the current set-up? We can’t know. But at least one of those other divisions might have been close enough to create another stretch battle for fans to enjoy.
And yes, there were enjoyable, down to the wire division races back in the days before the Wild Cards. Locals here in the Bay Area still fondly recall the 1993 Giants, who won 103 games but lost out to the 104-win Atlanta Braves–one of baseball’s great noble defeats. Just because you didn’t make the postseason doesn’t mean you failed.
There’s no doubt that the expanded divisional alignments and playoffs give more teams a shot at postseason play. Of course, for six of the ten teams it will be a temporary reprieve; only four of the playoff teams will be playing past next Thursday, at the latest.
But if you hear anyone claiming that the Wild Card provides so much more excitement at this time of year than there ever was before, don’t listen; that’s just marketing. You can’t really gin up late-season excitement; it happens when it happens, organically, sometimes magically. Just be grateful when you get it, and savor the memories once it’s over.