2010: If we still had pennant races

Let’s take a gander at how good the “pennant races,” 1969-93 style, would look this year. Obviously the schedules would be slightly different, but the impact of the unbalanced schedule is generally much less than most think anyway.

The Yankees and Devil Rays would be neck and neck with no safety net. 1993 Braves-Giants or 1980 Yankees-Orioles anyone? This would be one of the classic pennant races for the ages.

We’d have the Twins, Rangers and White Sox in an excellent three-team race.

The Phillies would be pulling away. Wow, the Cardinals really have fallen apart—five games back from Philly at the start of play today (Thursday). I didn’t realize this one was turning into a clunker. Think about how the Phillies’ season would look from this perspective.

Finally, check out the NL West: 1982 all over again . . . Atlanta and Cincy tied, San Diego a game and a half back and the Giants lurking 4 1/2 back.

The tension that would have been building over this season with these races would have been phenomenal. Instead I’ve barely paid attention to the season, knowing eight of these 11 teams are going to be in the tournament anyway.

And what has the wild-card and three division set-up given us?

A safety net for the Rays/Yankees. Boston would be just as far out, and there are no additional contenders (which is the whole point of the wild card) in the AL. Texas has no pennant race; the Rangers just get to cruise. The Twins have an extra cushion as well. Again, this completely sucks the life out of the regular season.

In the NL there are no additional contenders either. This alignment has made the Phillies’ season more exciting, but really they’ve just swapped spots with the Rangers. The Phightins are a game and a half up on SF as opposed to five up on St. Louis. SF is a couple of games closer to the playoffs also, but the Giants are still a contender in either scenario.

So instead of three great month-long races, we get a week of manufactured playoffs where everyone starts even again. We also risk losing both of the two best teams in the AL from the final four, instead of guaranteeing one will be there in addition to the great final month of the season they’d provide.

I do follow the “old school” standings all season long every year. Generally in the first round, aside from the Yankees, I root for whatever the LCS would have been in that format. As a fan, I would gladly sacrifice the Yankees making the playoffs as often if it meant getting my pennant races back.

Almost every year the old pennant races would have made for a much more exciting September than the current one, and it’s amazing how generally very few “extra contenders” are created, which was the whole point of the thing: to boost September attendance around the league. The extra week of playoffs was secondary in the motivation for changing the alignment.

There is so much public clamor for those games, that they’ve landed on cable: The networks don’t even care about them. They’d rather show soap operas. Major League Baseball has devalued the regular season much like the NCAA Tournament has for college basketball (don’t get me wrong, I love the NCAA Tournament, but I don’t pay much attention to the sport before the conference tournaments). I’m obviously a serious baseball fan, but each year I find myself more and more focused on October and less and less on April-September, which is a shame.

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  1. InnocentBystander said...

    I agree with you. I grew up in the 2 division era and liked it much better…heck, I’d like to do away with the divisions all together and go back to the best 1 team from each league going directly to the WS! They play 162 games to determine the best team. 162!!! I think after that many we know who deserves to be in. 162! The regular season shouldn’t be cheapened with extra playoff teams.

  2. ribman said...

    Yes, it’s a myth that wild card had made baseball more interesting by keeping teams in it- it killed real drama of races as you so capably illustrate and it just adds the chance for the mediocre freak team to win an end of season tournament not the World Series. Haven’t even discussed the lengthening of the season and effects from that. For this 1 change alone Bud Selig should never sniff the HOF.

  3. John R. said...

    It’s true that this year, the wild-card has made things less interesting in the AL, and had a neutral effect on the NL. This isn’t a necessary result of the new format, though. It’s just a coincidence that the two best teams happen to be in the same division while the other two divisions are not especially close. In past years, things have often shaken out differently. :

    2009: The Yankees and the Angels win their divisions easily either way. With two divisions, the Twins’ awesome late-season run to pass Detroit is meaningless, as the two teams are both out of contention by September 1.

    2008: The Rays/Red Sox/Yankees race may have been more exciting with one winner instead of two, but we’d lose another tense division race and one-game playoff in the Central. In the NL, tight races in the East and West are wiped out as Chicago and Milwaukee win their divisions easily.

    2007: A Boston/Cleveland/New York race ending in a Boston-Cleveland playoff would have been pretty awesome. On the other hand, the Rockies’ brilliant late season run ends with them 1 game out, and the high point of that franchise’s history vanishes.

    Other things that vanish from baseball history include the only championships for the Angels and Marlins, and the 2004 ALCS. Sure, you could argue that we’d have other good history instead, but it’s hardly the case that division/wild-card races have been uniformly dull, or that the division series is never entertaining. The old format might have stopped some fluke teams from sneaking into the playoffs, but it also would have deprived the fans of several franchises of their best memories. Worst of all, with one less hurdle in their way the Yankees would probably win the World Series more times than they actually did.

  4. Detroit Michael said...

    Shawn Hoffman wrote on BaseballProspectus.com yesterday that during 1992-2009, attendance was up during Sept./Oct. much much more than was true for any other month during the season.  It certainly suggests that the wild card / expanded playoffs format was the right decision from a business viewpoint.

    I’d be interested in your reaction.

  5. Philip said...

    Though the Red Sox won a World Championships through aid of the Wild Card, I too would prefer if MLB went back to two divisions per league with only the division winners advancing to the post season.

    But, there is a way to both increase the importance of winning the division and even increase the amount of teams in contention in September.

    First, go back to two divisions per league and give the division winners a buy.

    Then, on the Monday after game number 162 is played the previous Sunday (or on Tuesday if make-ups for rainouts or tie-breakers are needed), the 3rd place team in each division plays a one-game play-in contest at the park of the 2nd place team in that division.

    That surely would give clubs an incentive to win the division and avoid the one-game, sudden death contest. If the 1st place team has made a runaway of it, it would also give importance to finishing 2nd to gain home field advantage for the play-in game.

    The four winners on ‘Play-In Monday’, along with the four division winners, would then advance to the Best of Five division series, as is currently in place.

  6. Cliff G. said...

    Excellent post!  I’d like to bottle it and open it up daily to remind myself there are still people who think as you do.

    I too have been have been following the pennant races each year, but I’ve taken it a step further by creating my own divisions based on regions.  No teams changed leagues.

    I also added another wrinkle, “Tiers”.  A teams schedule changes each year determined by whether they finish in the 1st or 2nd Tier in their division.  Most games are played against rivals for the same pennant. The extra games determined by the tiers, has the top teams in each division playing the top team in the other. Same with the bottom teams.

    As you point out, the advantages of having pennant races starts long before September as pennant races build throughout the season.

    I’ve heard the extra attendance argument before and all I can say is that with pennnant races there would be more people attending all season long.  The tiers would help this, too.

    More indiidual teams benenfit from the tiers rathder than wild card.  And teams like the Marlins would benefit more by owners retaining players rather than wild card competition. A “floor” on salaries would accomplish this.

    Furthermore, all fans would have the benefit of season long pennant races and a proportional playoffs that puts the emphasis back on the World Series.

  7. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    The way I see it, there haven’t been any pennant races since 1968.

    Also, the regular season is far more important than the postseason to me. Partly because I’m a Tigers fan, and they never get there, but mostly because I hate both the Yankees and the Red Sox, and they’re the only teams Fox and ESPN care about. The fact that postseason stats are largely meaningless to record-keeping makes it seem like exhibition games involving teams I either hate or am indifferent to.

  8. Cliff G. said...

    Interesting Ed, part of my idea is that the wild card and extra division has put too much emphasis on the post-season to the detriment of the 162 game regular season. 

    Furthermore, The World Series has records of their own and these have been cheapened by lumping them together with Division and League Championship Series.  This is one of the reasons I think the Division Series is a minus rather than a plus.

    While I too am an avid follower of one team (Sorry, it’s the Yankees.  But I too think they and other large market teams have gotten too big for the good of the game.), I envision Pennant Races, League Championships, and the World Series as the way to showcase “baseball at its best”.  It should be a way for fans to enjoy great baseball beyond the fortunes of their home teams; although still rooting for them—-win or lose. 

    The way MLB is set up now, they just don’t do a good job with “baseball at its best”. The league and fans lose big time as a result.

  9. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    Cliff, I still pay attention to the postseason (Tommy Lasorda says “It’s your duty, Judy!”), but I don’t get anywhere near as excited about it as I used to.

    I don’t think it’s the way MLB is set up now that keeps them from doing a good job presenting “baseball at its best”, I think it’s the way the networks divide it up. The NLCS being relegated to TBS every year, just because Fox is hoping for the Yankees or Red Sox does a huge disservice to the NL, not just to NL fans, but to the league’s public image. Fox also only seems interested in the AL Division series. When is the last time you saw an NL game in prime-time on Fox? This gives the impression that the NL is a second-class league. No other sport has this problem.

  10. Cliff G. said...

    Ed, I do think that FOX has a negative impact on MLB, but I think it goes back way before they gave the NLCS to cable.  It started when they got NFL football, then demanded baseball expand its post-season play to get more bucks, then abandoned the Division Series and half the LCS to cable.  All this is an indication of BASEBALL’s second class citizenship at FOX and their wild card induced declining post-season ratings.

    When I referred to “baseball at its best”, I was referring to season long pennant races climaxing in September, and leading to a Division Series-less October.  You won’t know if this will bring back excitement until you’ve experienced it.  If you could, I’m confident you’ll find fan interest increasing, and ratings and revenues along with it.

  11. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    When MLB decided to realign to three divisions with a wild-card, CBS still held the rights, by the time it actually happened, ABC and NBC held them. So I can’t hold Fox responsible for that. Nor do I believe the extra round alone decreased interest in the postseason. It’s definitely not what decreased my interest in it. I’d also like to point out that four playoff rounds hasn’t hurt the other sports one bit. The entire first round of the NFL playoffs is a joke, but people eat it up. The NBA and NHL sometimes have losing teams in their playoffs, making a mockery of their regular seasons.

    As for pennant races, I stand by my belief that they haven’t existed since 1968. From ‘69 to ‘93 there were several times that the best team in the regular season lost in the LCS. (The ‘73 Reds were 16.5 games better than the Mets, for instance.)

    Lastly, anyone who thinks the past few Septembers haven’t been exciting either has AL east tunnel vision or wasn’t paying attention at all. We’ve gone to game 163 in the AL central two years in a row, the Mets have had two historic collapses, and this year in the NL at least three playoff spots are still up for grabs. After all that, can you blame me for thinking the postseason is anticlimactic?

  12. Cliff G. said...

    While your recounting of the origins of the wild card, three divisions, and Division Series is accurate, there is no denying the fact that FOX is the last broadcast network standing. They were the ones who presided over the decimation of MLB’s post-season broadcast schedule.

    NBC sounded like they were leery of baseball’s new set-up in 1994, as they bowed out in 2000 saying the post-season commitment was cutting into their entertainment ratings.  FOX also makes it difficult for baseball to play weekend World Series day games. And baseball has lost a weekend of the World Series because Saturday night ratings are so abysmal.

    You can’t compare baseball to other sports because its season is twice as long as any other.  The NFL’s post-season is solid enough to have it all on broadcast TV.  Baseball unfortunately is going the inferior route of basketball and hockey with a large chunck of its post-season games on cable. And as you seemed to note, you don’t want baseball copying their regular seasons.

    You can’t complain about the negative affect divisions have had on MLB’s regular and post-season and then tell me another division and round of playoffs doesn’t make it worse.

    I agree with you that there have been no real pennant races since 1968.  This is largely because teams started to play too many regular season games against non-pennant rivals. With this in mind you cannot tell me that any recent Division Races are exciting. 

    Teams play a regular season schedule against 19-21 teams that basically leads to the top 4 teams in each league making it to the post-season.  Once you realize this, the manufactured “races” between inferior teams becomes pretty boring.  Which is something you seem to already realize.

    I think I have a better game in mind—-get back as close as possible to pre-1969 baseball.  Go back to two divisions per league, but this time have the teams play as many games as possible against rivals for the same pennant (close to 80%)  The other 20% of a teams schedule would be determined by a team’s position in the final standings. Top teams play the top teams in the other division.  Same with the bottom.

    You’re never going back to leagues with no division. That’s pretty much what we have now; and it doesn’t work.  So you’re going to have to put up with the LCS.  But why add an extra round of playoffs and make it even worse.  People were starting to complain about the World Series being anti-climatic after the LCS went to best 4 out of 7.  The Division Series is murder.  (MLB should consider going back to a 9 game World Series).

    Season long pennant races culminating in real September drama; and a return to a World Series dominated Octobers.  Wouldn’t this go a long way to give you back the kind of baseball you remember?

  13. Cliff G. said...

    Sorry for any misunderstanding coming from my end, but I need to tell you I have difficulty with your statement that the current post-season is “fine by you” when you call it anti-climatic.  The changes I am suggesting would make it less so, but you argue against them.

    I understand perfectly the concept of “pennant races”.  Bottom line, a pennant race is a competition between a group of teams that are all looking to finish at the top of the same group.  Your static definition of “pennant races” only applies to “leagues” and you fail to see how they can also apply to “divisions”, just not these divisions.

    They cannot apply to these divisions because too many games are played against teams who are not competing for the same “pennant”.  Also, with the wild card you can finish 2nd and still go on to defeat the 1st place team in the post-season.  This defeats the purpose of pennant races, where the top team goes on and all others go home.

    As far as the teams in wild card races being inferior, this is a fact.  Pennant races are more competitive than wild card; and the teams involved are higher quality.  The fact that 4 rather than 8 go on makes the competition more exciting. 

    Pennant races start on the first day of the season and there may be years when pennant races end early, but given the right conditions (# of teams per division, # of games vs. pennant rivals, and comptetive balance) you will increase the odds of pennant races lasting til the last weekend of the season.

    Between 1947-1962, there were 4 post-season playoffs to crown a pennant winner. And there were 2 “units” then rather than 4.  All any baseball fan would need is one, though there just might be more. Certainly enough to add more excitement than the current inferior competition.

    The “Tier” system I suggest is to replace the wild card for season long fan interest and because the owners would never allow a return to 8 team divisions where you play 7 teams 22 times.  However if they follow my formula it will be the closest to 1968 you’re going to get. 

    This is not European Soccer where there are “loser” divisions.  A team doesn’t change divisions, its schedule just might change from year to year. And this helps with the competitive balance factor needed for season long races.

    Finally, I found this article to be an excellent expression of a fan who sees the short comings of the current system and wants something better. I believe my plan is a way to accomplish just that.

  14. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    I guess I don’t understand at all what you mean by tiers. I’ve reread all of your comments, and all I’m getting from it is that good and bad teams would be separated into different scheduling schemes. That sounds like European soccer “loser” leagues to me. When would the separation into tiers take place? Before the season, based on last years finish? Take a look at 1992. The Braves and Twins both finished first after finishing last the year before. Would they go in the “lower” tier? How about the Athletics going from first to worst, would your scheme have placed them in the top tier? Things can change remarkably fast in baseball.

    Would the separation into tiers take place after the all-star break? Putting the first half’s good teams against each other the rest of the season? That would be a scheduling nightmare.

    Yes, I am perfectly happy with the way things are now. I’ll say it again: my main problem with the postseason is the way it’s marketed. As for why I find it anticlimactic, it’s because I think September baseball is better with the current format than it was with a two division, four team postseason, or with single division leagues where only one team goes on. I’ll say it again: if you don’t think the last few Septembers have been exciting, you either have AL east tunnel vision or simply weren’t paying attention at all.

  15. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    I meant 1991 in my comment about the Braves and Twins going from worst to first.

    I’d also like clarify what I mean by the phrase “pennant race”. A division title and a pennant are not the same thing. There are six division titles up for grabs each season, but only two pennants: NL and AL. The Marlins have no division titles, but two pennants. The 1978 Yankees-Red Sox was NOT a pennant race, it was a division race.

    John R.‘s comment above points out what would have been lost if we still had only two divisions, which is what the original article was about.

  16. Cliff G. said...

    The “Tier” set-up is actually pretty simple. Let’s say you divide the AL into an 8 team East and a 6 team West. In the NL you evenly divide the 16 teams into 8 team East and West.  At the end of a season you decide next years schedule according to how you finish. For instance, in the AL the top 4 teams in the East play the top 3 teams in the West.  Same with the bottom 4 and 3 teams.

    Nobody switches divisions.  Each year you play a majority of your games against the teams in your division.  The minority are played against the teams in the other division.  Given your example, when Atlanta and Minnesota finish last, the next season they play the bottom teams in the other division.  After that season, when they finish 1st, the NEXT season they play the top teams in the other division.  They still play 80 %, each season, against teams in their own division.

    With regard to the September question I don’t see it as a potato/potahto argument; there are objective facts here.  Take this season. Which is more exciting, having New York and Tampa Bay in the AL and San Diego, Colorado, and San Francisco in the NL competing for one or two playoff spots.  In the AL you turn a season long pennant race into a competition for home field advantage.  In the NL, instead of a 3 team pennant race, you have a shot at two going on and one going home. Boring.

    And don’t tell me about the “Division Races”. When you basically play a 14 and 16 team schedule, you’re not going to plop me down in the middle of a division and sell me “races”.  All you have is 14 and 16 teams competiting for 8 post-season berths. And any wild card competition involves lesser quality teams than pennant races. 

    Finally, I don’t understand your “marketting” problem.  The post-season is inferior because it comes after an inferior season and an inferior September. On top of that, the inferior Division Series detracts from the best post-season event in sports—-The World Series.

  17. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    “Given your example, when Atlanta and Minnesota finish last, the next season they play the bottom teams in the other division.”

    You completely missed my point. They both finished first the next year, without having to play in a second-division loser tier. Had they actually done that, they both wold have finished 30 games up. Your scheme would also place the ‘93 Athletics in the first tier (they finished first in ‘92), but they finished last in the AL west without any juggling. Had they been in a “top tier” they would have finished 30 games out of sixth. Where a team finishes one year doesn’t necessarily predict how good they’ll be the next.

    Frankly, Cliff, I think your plan is ridiculous, I’m beginning to think you’re a troll, and I see no point in continuing to discuss this with you.

  18. Cliff G. said...

    Here I am calmly trying to explain what I see are problems with baseball and how it can be made better, and I find I’m actually involved in an argument with someone who resorts to insults when he thinks he’s losing.

    O.K. by me. I need to get back to listening to the Yankee game and working on my Pennant Race League.

  19. Ed Buskirk Jr. said...

    I think you’ve misunderstood a couple of things I said.

    I think the wild card makes September more exciting, not less. I think it makes the regular season more interesting. I totally disagree with your statement about “manufactured ‘races’ between inferior teams”.

    Also, we seem to have different definitions of the phrase “pennant race”. No pennant has been decided in the regular season since 1968. What you think of as pennant races are division races. The playoffs alone decide the pennant. And for what it’s worth, there were many years when the pennant was decided in August. The 1906 Cubs, ‘27 Yankees and ‘54 Indians for example. There is no excitement in that.

    As for your idea to “get back as close as possible to pre-1969 baseball”, your plan is nothing like pre-1969 baseball, it sounds more like present-day European soccer. Schedules were set in stone before the season began then, just as they are now. Pre-expansion each team played the other 7 teams 22 times each, after expansion they played the other 9 teams 18 times each, regardless of where any team sat in the standings.

    In other words, I find the premise of the original article rediculous. Nothing is perfect, but the current playoff set-up is fine by me. It’s the way it’s marketed the turns me off.

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