Sunday, March 4, 2012

New Postseason Format: What I Don't Like

Yesterday I touched on the things I liked about MLB expanding the postseason by adding a 5th team to each league starting this season.  But it's not all peaches and cream with this new postseason layout.  There are also some things I'm not a huge fan of with the new format, and here they are.

- Wild Card Round Only Being One Game

As great as the concept of adding a team to the playoffs to reward them for 162 well played games is, setting that 5th team up in a 1-game playoff with the other Wild Card team to determine who advances to face the #1 team in the league takes away some of the rewarding factor by going against the standard structure of postseason series and baseball in general.  The beauty of adding the Wild Card in '95 was that it made the playoffs more exciting, and we've seen that play out plenty of times with Wild Card teams coming into the postseason peaking at the right time and advancing all the way.  Because of the unpredictable nature of baseball, however, that drama is removed in a 1-game format where anything can happen.  One game is not enough for the better team, or a team riding a hot streak, to prove its superiority over its competitor.  Anything can happen in one game, including one team just getting plain lucky and beating another, and to have advancement into the next round riding on one game rather than a series, where teams have a chance to overcome one unlucky play, is counter-productive.  There aren't any 1-game series during the regular season; why should that format go away when the games matter most?

- Scheduling

The schedule changes that will come with the addition of another team and round to the playoffs is also a problem for me, both in the immediate, near, and farther off futures.  In 2012, the format of the divisional round will actually will be affected by the scheduling changes made to accommodate this 1-game round.  Because there will be an extra game, and likely an extra travel day, added once the postseason starts, MLB had to cut a travel day out of the LDS so as not to risk extending the playoffs into November.  To successfully eliminate that travel day, MLB switched the format of the LDS to a 2-3 home-and-home, with the lower-seeded team getting the first two games at home and the higher seed getting the last three.  The fact that the extra days in the Wild Card series serve to potentially give the division winners too much rest before playing again is bad enough, but having the higher seeds then start out the next series after sitting for a few days on the road for two games is just downright unfair.  This will only affect the 2012 postseason, but this setup really rewards the Wild Card teams and potentially hurts the higher-seeded division winners, which should not be the case.

Looking into the future is where I see things really becoming problematic.  It's obvious that the playoffs were expanded because everybody wants to make more money.  Money drives sports, it's no big surprise, and this new wrinkle will almost certainly increase TV ratings and ad revenues.  If and when that happens, though, it's likely that owners are going to want to continue to expand the postseason and increase their bottom line.  This 1-game round could become a 3-game round, which could lead to the LDS going from 5-game to 7-game if ratings and dollar figures continue to increase.  If more games are being played, more days have to be added to the schedule, and I'm not particularly keen on the idea of watching teams play the latest parts of the postseason or the earliest parts of the regular season in wintry weather conditions.

World Series games don't need to be cancelled because of snow in November, something that can happen in New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Minnesota, Milwaukee, and Bahhston, and guys don't need to be tearing muscles and ligaments playing competitive games in late March when it's still freezing in those areas.  If further such expansion did take place, these are the types of scenarios MLB could be faced with, which would not be good for the quality of the game.

In short, as a Yankee fan I am very excited at the expansion of the postseason as it gives my team another opportunity to make the playoffs and win a world championship.  As a baseball fan, I am concerned about the logistics of this initial expansion and how they affect the other playoff teams, and more concerned about what kind of path this expansion continues down if people decide they want their greed to override their common sense.

The Horse Setting The Spring Training Pace

Among the bevy of labels that have been given to A-Rod since he joined the Yankees, "clubhouse leader" probably isn't one that's been attached to him very often.  Yet this story by Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports paints The Horse as just that; a veteran who has been through the battles before standing up in front of his teammates and rallying the troops, getting them ready for the season at hand.  It's a very interesting image to ponder and one that makes me excited about what this season has in store for A-Rod as it signifies both a change in role for him and a change in mindset.

For years A-Rod was the stereotypical detached superstar, seemingly out of touch with his teammates and the clubhouse environment and always looking out for number 1.  But over the past few seasons there has been a change in A-Rod; he's been more subdued in his superstardom, he's talked more about team-related things, and hasn't drawn as much negative attention to himself with his actions on or off the field.  Perhaps not so coincidentally, this change has occurred over a period of time where he has tumbled from the top of the MLB mountain, spending his last few seasons fighting injuries and watching his OPS and wOBA numbers shrink.  The Horse is now well set in the downside of his career, and he seems to recognize this with what he has been saying this spring, this pregame speech being the latest example.

That's not to say that A-Rod is completely done as a player.  He has shown that when healthy he can still put up well above-average numbers.  But his days of being the cream of the crop and the elitest of elite-level producers at the plate are likely over, and he has to find new ways to contribute to the team.  Filling the void of clubhouse leader could be one of those ways.  Even though he was minimally effective on the field last season, it's almost a sure thing that behind the scenes in the Yankee clubhouse Jorge Posada was still the main vocal leader.  With Posada now retired, somebody has to assume the role and it's a safe bet that it won't be Mr. Cool Derek Jeter.

As a guy with a reputation of being among the hardest working and smartest players in the game, who better than The Horse to become that voice of the clubhouse?  Older or injured or otherwise, his name and reputation probably still carries a lot of weight with his peers and teammates, especially the growing crop of young Yankees poised to take over as the next generation after guys like A-Rod, Jeter, and Mo move on.  He's a guy who has been there and done everything there is to do in the game, and because of that he should be someone that everybody looks up to.  A-Rod might be starting to realize that now, and knowing that he can't carry the team by himself with his bat and glove anymore he's willing to step up and be a guy who can help carry and guide the team with his words.

It's always risky trying to delve into the intangible side of baseball and talk intelligently about it, but I like the idea of A-Rod as the vocal leader of this team.  He still has a lot to offer on the field and if he now recognizes that he can offer just as much off of it, behind the scenes, that should be a good thing for clubhouse culture.  If a guy like A-Rod can stand up and talk about being "all in" during the first week of Spring Training when things have barely gotten rolling, and speak only of his desire to help his team win a championship rather than the individual things that he has to do in order for that to happen when talking to the media, that's a great foot to start this season off on mentally and emotionally.  Even though I can't prove it analytically or statistically, I've got a hunch that this new approach is going to pay off for The Horse on the field this year.  He may be settling into "grizzled veteran" status, but Alex isn't completely washed up yet and I expect him to remind everybody of that this season.