Baseball should learn from NASCAR

After five years of covering NASCAR for the excellent websites That’s Racin’ and The Frontstretch, my passion for the sport is completely gone.

I am, of course, not the only one. NASCAR is plummeting in popularity and there is no end to the freefall in sight. Ratings have been steadily dropping and recent numbers show that NASCAR has lost a quarter of its viewers in the last six years. At races, entire swaths of grandstands are covered with advertisements where there used to be fans. Sponsors are leaving. Teams are disbanding. It is now entirely conceivable that NASCAR could be gone as an entity in 10 years.

There are plenty of reasons for the decline that I won’t go into on a baseball website. But if you want to look at one change NASCAR made that represented a true turning point, look no further than the Chase.

The Chase for the Sprint Cup begins after the first 26 races in the 36-race season. After 26 races, the top 12 drivers in the standings have their points reset, and then 10 points are awarded to Chase drivers for each win they have scored. They resume racing, even with non-Chase drivers on the track, and the highest scoring driver of the 12 in the final 10 races wins the Sprint Cup.

If you think this is an ill thought-out and contrived attempt to force excitement, you’re not alone. NASCAR fans who were polled on the idea overwhelmingly opposed it then and still do today. Despite NASCAR’s lavish hype and promotion of its playoff, the Chase remains wildly unpopular with fans.

When I read about baseball considering adding two more playoff teams, possibly as soon as 2012, I shudder at the thought of baseball heading in this direction. Commissioner Bud Selig was quoted as saying “Eight is a very fair number, but so is 10.” Honestly, should the 10th best team in baseball be eligible to be a champion? Should baseball go through a 162-game season to still have a third of the teams be playoff-worthy? I’m not a Selig-basher, but I surely do not like where this is headed.

The idea of 10 playoff teams doesn’t rise to the level of the NHL or NBA, where teams with losing records qualify for the playoffs nearly every season. Or even the NFL, where a dozen teams have a shot at the Super Bowl. It certainly doesn’t compare to the oddity of a format that includes non-playoff participants in playoff events like NASCAR does.

But it still reeks of discarding excellence in the name of revenue.

Ted Williams once said of all of the theories on what made him the greatest hitter that ever was, he pointedly stated, “No one ever said anything about the practice. Dammit, you gotta practice!”

Achieving excellence in any endeavor requires great dedication and sacrifice, but this is especially so in professional sports. And baseball is the toughest of all of the professional sports, as all of us enlightened fans know. A baseball player must constantly hone any number of skills through endless repetition that most people who complain about their salaries cannot begin to conceive. No ballplayer makes it to the major leagues simply by being blessed with talent.

Similarly, to put together a team of such dedicated athletes capable of being the best of them requires endless patience, extremely thoughtful evaluation of each player’s skills, and yes, money, or at least the wise expenditure of it.

Over a 162-game baseball season, it is almost assured that the injuries, bad calls, lucky breaks, and other happenings that should be anomalies, in sports and in life, will eventually cancel each other out, and the cream will rise to the top. As such it is the 162 games in the regular season, not the “games that count” in the playoffs, that are the measure of a team’s greatness. A hole-in-one, even one low-scoring round, does not a great golfer make. But adding playoff teams creates that impression, diminishing the importance of the long, difficult grind that tests the physical and psychological mettle of even the most well-conditioned of athletes.

Major League Baseball will not endear itself to the longtime and truly appreciative fan—who has stuck around through embarrassing work stoppages, PED-enhanced shattering of long-standing records, and artificial turf—by giving unqualified teams an opportunity for undeserved greatness, in a transparent grab for even more revenue than the $7 billion baseball took in last season.

Consider the possible outcome of a 10-team playoff. Any fans that don’t like the idea to begin with—and there will be many—may decide to quit following the sport altogether if their team’s exciting and successful season and the possibility was of taking home the big trophy ended prematurely by a team that should not have even been eligible in the first place. Imagine if this were to happen to the Cubs, or the Mariners, or another team whose fans have been so unfailingly loyal through decades of disappointments.

With any playoff format, occasionally undeserving teams will win. That has been the case as long as I have been alive. But this does not mean that such a possibility should be encouraged just for the sake of it.

Had NASCAR considered this, Jeff Gordon might be going for championship seven instead of five, putting him in the elite company of names like Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and starting heated arguments over who was the best of the three. That might have created a strong buzz about the sport.

I’m speaking anecdotally, but in my experience, football, basketball, and hockey fans do not regard their sport with the reverence that baseball fans do and that NASCAR fans once did. NASCAR has dropped in attendance in a few years more than baseball did in 1995—and not for entirely different reasons. Fans of both sports definitely do not take kindly to what they perceive as unwarranted change or destructive greed.

Baseball may not think that adding two teams to the playoffs would be a disaster, and maybe it wouldn’t. But what is happening in NASCAR is a full display of the folly of attempting to contrive more excitement, and baseball should pay attention. That baseball has recovered from 1994 and appears to be surviving the steroid era offers no guarantee that there will be no backlash to more disrespect of the game in the future. There still may be plenty of baseball fans one work stoppage away from never returning.

NASCAR disregarded excellence in the name of revenue and it has cost them dearly, in both revenue and a reputation for disrespecting the sport.

Take heed, Mr. Selig.

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  1. David P. Stokes said...

    I’m not sure that a comparison with NASCAR is apt, but I do agree that baseball doesn’t need more playoff teams.  Right now, the NBA, NHL, and NFL all have too many playoff teams.  In the case of the NFL, I think it can be somewhat justified because of the relative shortness of the season.  But the NBA and NHL have gotten to the point that the regular season is basically a joke.

  2. Mike said...

    5 reasons why adding a team is better:

    1. It incentivizes teams to get the best record in the league as you’d rather play the wild card whose ace has most likely just used in the wild card play-in.
    2. It forces teams not to want to be the wild card, and play to be division winner – who wants to have to play the one-game playoff?
    3. Pennant races will matter again (you’d much prefer your team to be the division winner than the wild card)
    4. For the fans, one-game playoffs are exciting to watch.
    5. With more teams eligible for that extra team in the playoffs, more fans will be interested come late August and September (for MLB: $$$)

  3. SoxSail said...

    It’s the playoff format in general that bothers me.  It also makes for bad TV.  I’d be more inclined to watch if there were a round robin following the regular season, with the top two teams from each league playing a few additive games after the first 12 or 16, if necessary.  Every game would count, and you wouldn’t end up with long layoffs or needing only three starters.

    On the subject of a one game play-in for the wild card though, I wouldn’t mind it at all.

  4. Chris said...

    5 reasons why adding two teams is a bad idea:

    1. Neither the Rays nor the Yankees played like taking the division mattered last year. The reason being that because they were in the same division they couldn’t play each other anyway.
    2. Isn’t it supposed to be the two wild cards duking it out in a one game playoff? And even then, some teams would fare better because while they may have quality starting up and down the rotation, guys like Jimenez and Gallardo are so much better than any one else you may have to face. Besides, even the Royals or Pirates have a chance of beating the Yankees or Phillies in a one game match, best of 5 or 7? Not likely.
    3. Your reason here is the same as the other two, and really holds no weight
    4. I wouldn’t watch a one game playoff, it’s meaningless.
    5. It’s more money, but it’s more money at the expense of watering down the playoffs even more.

    What should happen:
    1. Two divisions in each league with two wild cards, one from each division. This prevents one division from being over represented, and the odds of the divisional winner or wild card in the expanded divisions being a sub .500 team (it’s happened in the present format) are slim to none.
    2. Move the Rays out of the East, or at least out of St. Petersburg, this could increase their revenues greatly and get them out of the funky stadium they’re in now.
    3. Quit allowing teams to circumvent luxury taxes and regulate the spending of distributed luxury taxes.
    4. Make the teams show their work! Keeping open books will hopefully force accountability of teams in how they spend their money.
    5. If you’re going to use Alias rankings and arbitrators at least have them track stats that matter, pitchers wins and saves are meaningless.

  5. SoxSail said...

    If the “wild cards” come from each division, then they’re not wild cards, they’re runners up, and you could have multiple teams miss out that are deserving.

    It’s Elias, not Alias.  Thanks for the specifics on ideas 2 through 5.

  6. Chris said...

    Specifics would be the allegations that Boston has already received an agreement for a contract from Adrian Gonzalez but won’t announce it or try to finalize it until they are past the luxury tax deadline.

    As for the move out of St Petersburg, well, almost any major US city could be an upgrade when you have to give out thousands of tickets for free to pack your stadium full on a possible playoff clinch night. I hear that there’s a great market in San Jose…

    As far as Elias (good catch on the spelling) rankings and arbitrators, things that matter more would be FIP, K/9, BB/9, WAR, and your choice of DRS or UZR. Sorry that I thought that most any advanced stat you could think of would be a much better measure than most of the traditional metrics.

    As for the wild card vs runner up, isn’t the wild card always just the best record of all the runners up?

  7. SoxSail said...

    In a two division format (which I don’t like) I think the wild cards should be just that, rather than decided by random/geographical groupings.  Otherwise, you don’t get the best teams into the playoffs.

    It’s not so easy to move.  There are hundreds of articles written about how the Rays and A’s are trying to and can’t, due to territory rights and leasing agreements.  I would support another team in NYC.

    The problems with the compensation aren’t simply in the ranking methods, it’s also that players get penalized for having good seasons.

    As long as there are CBT rules and rewards for free agents, teams are going to find loopholes and inefficiencies.  This isn’t cheating, and is, in fact, how you measure the intelligence of a front office.

    I’ll refrain from posting further on this article.

  8. Mike said...

    Chris – your arguments make zero sense.

    #1 – that is not a counterpoint to my argument.
    #2 – same as #1.  What’s your point?
    #3 – teams that are now incentivized not be the wild card adds more meaning and interest to games – that’s how its different.
    #4 – if you wouldn’t want to watch a one-game playoff, you must not be much of a baseball fan.
    #5 – watered down or not, the new system makes it much tougher for a wild card team to make it to the LCS.

  9. Chris said...

    Sox, I never said it was cheating, in fact I said it was circumventing rules, it’s a loophole, there’s a difference and I understand that.

    As for the Elias rankings, compensation makes sense, but relievers are often over valued in these rankings, especially closers. Not to mention that teams are ‘gaming’ the system. My evidence is Tampa Bay picking up Brad Hawpe on waivers, barely played him and got compensation for him. Same with Toronto and Olivo, that just shouldn’t be how it works. I should have articulated that argument before.

    Mike, if a not wanting to see a one game series determine who advances in the playoffs (we’re not talking about trying to find out who a division champ is between two tied teams, which is more entertaining) but anyone can win a won game match up, the best team doesn’t always walk away winning. If the Yankees took a wild card spot with 94 wins, and the A’s took one with 85, but they must play each other one time to determine who moves on is a ridiculous idea. The odds of the A’s beating the Yankees in one game are much better than them beating the Yankees in a best of 5.

    In the current format the Wild Card and Division Champion cannot play each other in from the same division, meaning that no matter who took the WC or the Division both teams would play other teams with inferior records, there was no advantage to getting the WC or the division. In your argument the WC plays divisional winners to move on, which is not only unfair to both teams but wouldn’t have seen the Yankees and Rays match up anyway, so in that case it wouldn’t have mattered.

    My second point was that your thought process of how the wild cards would work was off.

  10. Ryan Hoffman said...

    Here’s the thing though, the other 2 teams that get in aren’t going to be the 82-win Cardinals or what have you. It’s going to be the a team that wins 90ish games. It’s going to be the Yanks, Sox or Rays. It’s going to be one of the Braves, Rockies, Cardinals, Giants, Reds, Phillies, whoever doesnt win their division but just happen to only win 91 games instead of 92.

    The odds are in the favor that this will add a team that is better than at least 1 team already in the playoffs.

  11. Uncle Bill said...

    The odds are in the favor that this will add a team that is better than at least 1 team already in the playoffs.

    great point.

  12. Kurt Smith said...

    In his book “Fair Ball”, Bob Costas has a playoff idea that I think could work quite well.

    He suggested that the playoffs consist of division winners only, and the team with the best record in each league gets a bye in the first round of playoffs. That would give a huge advantage to teams for having the best record, and there would have to be a couple of interesting races every season.

    It seems like all too often all we care about is the wild card race late in the season, while all of the best teams have already clinched. I like Bob’s idea. Will never happen of course.

  13. SoxSail said...

    So Kurt, am I to believe that you’d rather have zero races at the end of the regular season (as opposed to just the wild card)?  Costas’ idea could also eliminate the second best team in the league, just for being in the wrong part of the country.

  14. Kurt Smith said...

    If the first place teams were trying to win the first round playoff bye, that would be a race that would matter more than the current wild card race, would it not? Teams would fight to win games all the way to the end, and any division that was close (and there would almost certainly be at least one or two) would have a real race where winner takes all.

    As the system is now, teams frequently get into the playoffs for being in the right part of the country—and sometimes go on to win the World Series, like the 2006 Cardinals, who were barely a .500 team. Any divisional playoff system is going to exclude good teams sometimes.

    So yes, I would rather see the second best team in any division not make it. Back when there were four divisions, the AL East frequently had the second and sometimes third best teams in baseball—Red Sox, Orioles, Yankees, Brewers, Tigers, take your pick—and winning a division was more of an accomplishment than it is today. There’s only five teams in most divisions today, if a team is not the best of those five over 162, they’re not the best team.

  15. Kurt Smith said...

    Let me say this though. I am for the most part okay with the current system because of what you’ve said, since the wild card team is often better than a division winner. But I would rather baseball didn’t push it. Four wild card teams is too many.

  16. roadrider said...

    It seems to me that there was a system that worked quite well from 1969 – 1993 until Seligula (yes, I am a Selig basher)came up with this idiotic three-division wild card setup.

    If I were the commissioner I would go back to two divisions per league with ONLY division winners entering the post-season. Yes, some very good teams like the 1993 Giants and 1980 Orioles missed the playoffs – that’s what made the regular season divisional races so gripping and meaningful. However, there were very few, if any, weak teams sneaking into the playoffs.

    All of that’s gone now, replaced by a phony, made-for-TV extra playoff round which extends the post-season far too late into the fall. Less is more.

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