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They’re Not Worthy!

I don’t know why I do it.

After listening to Mike and Mike (Buster Olney this morning…) on ESPN radio this morning, I question why I do it day in and day out. Why do I subject myself to the torments of ESPN radio “experts” every morning during my drive to work? It only frustrates me…(well – except when they used to do the “stuff a donut in Golick’s mouth and try to figure out what he’s saying” schtick – that was freakin’ hilarious).

The topic this morning:  Should MLB (and other sports) ignore the “Wild Card from each League” approach and just take the teams with the two best records regardless of league?

ARGH!!! I hate this suggestion! It drives me insane when someone brings this stuff up (and not just because they consistently use “Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 with just 84 wins” as justification…althought that’s enough).

But enough ranting…for now…although I will point out this about the Cards’ ’06 team: Contrary to popular opinion, the Cardinals of that season did not “get hot at the right time”…they “got healthy” at the right time (among many other reasons they won NOT related to “got hot at the right time”). That team was decimated by injury after injury that season. At the end of the year, they were finally mostly intact. Some would say, “Well…that’s why depth is important,” and I can see that argument…but how important is depth in the playoffs? Aside from the occasional pinch-hitter, it means squat (of course, don’t tell Spezio, Miles, and Weaver that…but that only supports the Cards’ depth). You aren’t throwing out your backup guy to start 2 or 3 games in the World Series…you’re running your top-of-the-line lineup out there every day. Anyway, I could go on…but I won’t.

Below are my best reasons for NOT just picking the best two records regardless of league:

1.  Despite the occasional ridiculousness of inter-league play, the two leagues simply do not play the same competition. Comparing an NL team to an AL team based on their regular season record makes no sense – it barely works within leagues because of the drastic differences in divisions. You simply cannot compare an NL team to an AL team based on how many games they won or lost in the regular season. The teams play completely different opposition. It partially invalidates the record comparisons.

2.  It’s a different game! The NL rules are just different than the AL rules – even if it is just the DH vs. Pitcher debate…that one rule difference changes a significant portion of a team’s makeup and approach. This is a similar reason as number 1 – you just cannot compare two teams across leagues with different rules. It, once again, invalidates the comparison. This kind of stuff is basic Stats and Research, people. You give a certain NL team one more hitter to replace the pitcher in the playoffs – who knows what they can do? The opposite is true as well…take away one of the most significant bats in an AL team’s lineup and see how their offensive output changes. It just doesn’t work – not when you’re comparing the records across leagues. It’s a different game.

3.  Baseball is a game of adjustments. It always has been…it always will be…and the playoff system reflects that. Look, in basketball (an example of a sport where this MIGHT work), depth and consistency are important. You take the 5 best guys on your team, throw them out there every day, and you live and die by that lineup. Baseball is completely different at both the macro and micro level.Within a game, a starting pitcher must make adjustments from inning to inning. Maybe he establishes his fastball in the first two innings. Then, the second time through, he adjusts and starts mixing in some changeups and a flash of breaking pitches. By the later innings, the lineup is rolling around a third time – and this is when you separate the men from the boys, so to speak. A pitcher who cannot make adjustments (how he approaches a hitter from AB to AB, what pitches he gives him, where he throws them, etc.) will not be at the top of a rotation. His success depends on making adjustments.

Now, take that same concept and expand it to the macro level – the season record. In April and May, a team is still trying to figure out what they have (TLR says he’s learned it’s a perfect time to push and get some wins on other teams for that very reason). By mid-season, they’ve evaluated and assessed their roster and needs…and then they make adjustments. It’s the adjustments that, more often than not, determine whether a team is a playoff team or couch-warmin’ team in October.

What does this have to do with record comparison? It partially invalidates it. Part of the assessment and adjustment phase is trial and error. Try this guy at third – whoops – new guy. Try this closer – oh, crap – new guy. You’re going to lose games. It’s just going to happen. But a team that can make the right adjustments at the right time will be your late-season pushers – your on-the-bubble teams…often your Wild Card teams. In other words, a season record does not always fully represent a team’s ability or performance. Sometimes, there’s a few games in there that were sacrificed in order to make the right adjustments.

4.  Finally, History. For me, the World Series has always been about the AL vs. the NL. Our way vs. Your way in a best of 7 grudge match. It’s not just about finding out who the champion will be – it’s a feud. Our family vs. Your family. In that way, the NL deserves to fight it out with the same number of teams as the AL in order to find the best possible representative in their annual war against the Cheatin’ DH’ers. In baseball perhaps more than any other sport, it’s about the process – not just the result. It’s about watching the Series unfold…not just about who holds the trophy at the end. Both are important. That process is made all the richer by allowing the game to remain a Hatfield and McCoys feud between the NL and the AL. If we “tear the wall down” (as Olney puts it) between the AL and NL, we destroy the rich culture of both. I hate the AL…but I love the debate. If we make the decision to pick the playoff teams based solely on record despite the league differences…in a way, we’re saying the NL and AL are just the same and equally comparable. Vanilla. And it takes half the fun out of it.

BONUS:  Okay…I have to throw in one more item that’s a personal item. If we ever begin simply picking the best record instead of the best record in each league, we will be quickly forced to adopt one, single set of rules for baseball. And the way media, marketing, and offensive-minded fans lean…the NL will cease to exist and the DH will rule baseball forever. It will NOT go the other way. As MLB sees it, it would cost the teams money and excitement. It just won’t happen. So, for me, it’s selfish – a “universal, league-crossing” playoff selection approach will lead to the end of baseball as it should be played.

9 guys – 9 in the field, 9 at the plate. That’s baseball. Anything else is just cheatin’.

Wrap it up:  Look at that…I did it all without mentioning the concept of protecting the puncher’s chance for small market teams. And now, just 35 minutes from the second Cards/Cubs game of the season, it’s time to settle in, put your headphones on, and pretend to work while you REALLY listen to the game in your cubicle.

Helpful Tip:  Jumping up and down in your rolling office chair when Albert plants one in the stands is NOT the best way to maintain a low profile. Your boss IS watching…and he’s probably a Cubs fan.

GO CARDS!!!

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