Streamlined playoffs better for baseball
For the last decade or so, my brother and I have had this ongoing -- often heated -- argument over a single question:In a playoff and championship setting, does the best team always win? My brother answers in the affirmative. If you win when it matters most, he argues, you are the best team, whether you entered as the obvious underdog or not. Being the reasonable, intelligent, observant, accurate and, most of all, humble person that I am, I would definitely say no, the best team does not always win. Sometimes circumstances present themselves that favor one club over another. It could involve a key injury, the home-field advantage, a botched call or a simple matter of momentum. The larger the sample size, the more likely the "best team" will prevail, but playoff formats -- be they the single-elimination arrangements in the NFL or the NCAA's March Madness, or the extended series played in MLB, the NBA and NHL -- dwell in small, sometimes infinitesimal samples that aid unpredictability. To that point, do you know how many teams with the best regular-season record have gone on to win the World Series since 1995? Just three -- the Yankees in 1998 and 2009 and the Red Sox in '07. No sport offers a larger in-season sample size, yet this sample rarely proves to be a meaningful predictor in October. "There are a lot of different things that can contribute and make an impact on the postseason," Indians president Mark Shapiro said. "But the reality is, in a short series, the most talented team doesn't always win." That's the beauty of it, of course. If this sort of thing were completely calculable, it wouldn't be much fun. But that doesn't mean efforts should not be made to present as fair a system as possible. Which brings us to Wednesday's announcement of MLB's postseason schedule for 2011. Yes, it still features the best-of-five format in the Division Series round, followed by the best-of-sevens in the LCS and World Series. And yes, this setup -- particularly the best-of-five -- will, thankfully, allow for upsets. But a noteworthy, necessary change has taken place over the past two years, and that's the complete elimination of extra off-days throughout the postseason schedule. It should make for an October more reflective of the way the regular season is played. Thanks to this year's changes, the five Division Series games will take no more than seven days. The only off-days will be travel days. In previous years, one of the four Division Series had an extra off-day and was scheduled out over an eight-day period. That one day made a major conceptual difference, as it presented the possibility of a team bringing back its No. 1 starter on regular rest for Game 4, if necessary. So whereas a best-of-five already, by nature, removes the requirement of a deep rotation, the extended version allowed an even greater opportunity to ride a particularly hot hand. That's been eliminated, and that's a good thing. This change follows the one made last year, when an extra, non-travel off-day in the midst of the LCS round was eliminated. The Yankees and Angels had just such an off-day in the 2009 ALCS, with a built-in break between Games 4 and 5, and Angels manager Mike Scioscia had rightfully griped about it publicly. The Angels that year played just eight postseason games in a span of 20 days, which is utterly unrepresentative of baseball's usual pace. "[The new schedule] is meant to address the travel issues of the past," said Shapiro, a member of Selig's committee. Obviously, if Division Series or LCS rounds don't go the distance, there are going to be multiple days off before the next round begins. That's all part of the process and unavoidable. Still, it's encouraging that if any Division Series goes the distance this year, the winning team will have just one day off before the LCS begins. And should either LCS go seven games, the AL team would have just two and the NL team just one day off before the Fall Classic. This might not sound like a significant step, but it is. Under last year's schedule, the Rangers had two days off after their Division Series against the Rays went the distance, and a minimum three-day break was built into the schedule before the World Series, even if the LCS rounds went the full seven games. Having these breaks, along with non-travel off-days, in order to satisfy the broadcast schedule or to allow for rain was not conducive to presenting us with, you know, the best baseball. And the best baseball possible, under the circumstances, should be the ultimate goal. This streamlined schedule helps give us that. Theoretically (and that's a key word here, because any number of scenarios can play out), it could/should provide a sterner test to teams like the Yankees or Tigers, who would be looking to ride CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander as long and as often as they can, should they advance, while rewarding those with more rotation depth, like the Phillies and Giants, should they advance. Quite possibly, it could affect the way managers use their bullpens. And unquestionably, it's going to be a positive for hitters, who are slaves to routine. Is the schedule everything? Of course not. "What affects the postseason the most," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said, "is a team that clinches early vs. the team that has not clinched until the final weekend." And in theory, the more the October schedule bears a resemblance to the regular-season schedule, the more those teams that clinch their divisions quickly and get a chance to rest up and align their rotations beforehand will be rewarded. Down the road, more dramatic changes to baseball's playoff format are likely in store. It is anticipated that another Wild Card entry will be added to each league and the two Wild Cards will duke it out in either a single-elimination or a best-of-three setting, thereby amplifying the importance of winning your division. In the meantime, we'll see how this schedule impacts the 2011 postseason, but it's definitely much more reflective of the regular-season grind, and that's a great start. Bonus points for finishing this thing up before November. Will the "best team" now be more likely to win? Well, that comes down to a philosophical matter and your own individual definition of who or what, exactly, the "best team" is. Some would say (incorrectly, I might add) that the "best team" has been winning all along.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.