PITTSBURGH — It’s now official. The team with the second best record in baseball will host the team with the third best record in baseball in a one game playoff to advance to the NLDS. That’s where the winner will play the team with the best record in baseball. And by the time the NLCS rolls around, only one of the three best records in baseball will remain. This is all made possible by the fact that all three teams reside in the NL Central.
“Thank goodness the Astros aren’t still in the division,” Neal Huntington joked before today’s game.
The Pirates won today, finishing the season with 98 wins. In franchise history, only two teams have won more games — the 1902 and 1909 Pirates. The Cubs finished with 97 games. But the two meet in the Wild Card game due to the Cardinals winning 100 games.
“This is a challenging division,” Huntington said. “Tip your cap to the Cardinals for what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. They’ve sustained significant injuries along the way, and they’ve had the best ‘next man up’ of anybody in baseball this year. You tip your cap to them, figure out a way to beat the Cubs, and then go figure out a way to beat the Cardinals.”
As I wrote earlier this week, this doesn’t appear to be a one-year problem. The Cardinals manage to stay on top each year, while the Cubs are a young team that’s just starting to compete. Huntington echoed some of those thoughts, while also saying that the Pirates were looking to continue their own growth.
“Hopefully there’s a little less taxing road for us in the future, but we’re going to have to continue to be really good on all fronts,” Huntington said.
This entire situation is leading to a lot of calls for a change to the current system. This is a system that punishes the three best teams in baseball. The second and third teams only get one game to decide whether they can advance. The first place team then gets the toughest first round opponent in baseball.
From the Wild Card aspect, there have been some suggestions involving a three game series, including some with a double-header to kick off the series. Huntington mentioned that he doesn’t like the double-header idea, and also is unsure of an extended layoff for non-Wild Card teams if the Wild Card series goes to three games.
“I honestly see the arguments for both points,” Huntington said. “And there’s a lot of really smart, really creative people out there right now figuring out how you do that. The idea behind the Wild Card was you give the division winner the advantage. And I’m not sure sitting through five days to play your first playoff round is really an advantage. I’m also not a fan of the double-header to decide a three game series.”
Huntington noted that there are a lot of considerations at play, including implications for travel and rain that would make a schedule difficult.
“There’s a lot to it,” Huntington said. “In a vacuum, absolutely we’d love to see the Wild Card series be a three game series.”
As for re-seeding after each round, Huntington said that this would be a no brainer with a balanced schedule, but that it’s not so simple with an unbalanced schedule. Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are changes discussed this off-season, although nothing is guaranteed.
“Who knows if there could be changes coming? Is it a three game series where you re-seed? I know if I were the Cardinals, I wouldn’t be all that excited that the first round opponent is the second or third best record in baseball,” Huntington said.
I definitely believe that changes are needed. The problem is that changes aren’t going to be easy, and will need to wipe out several other aspects of the game. You would almost certainly have to realign the divisions, or get rid of divisions entirely. You’d have to figure out how to fit an extra series in the schedule, without pushing the World Series into mid-November, or the start of the regular season into mid-March.
If I’m going the “commissioner for a day” route, I’d capitalize on baseball’s re-growing popularity and revenues and expand to 32 teams. There would be an American League and a National League, with 16 teams in each league. The top six teams would make the post-season under the following format:
**The top two teams would get a first round bye, with the top team getting home field advantage.
**The number three seed would take on the number six seed, and the number four seed would take on the number five seed in a best of three series, with all games played at the higher seed’s stadium. This avoids the headaches of the extra travel, and the unpredictable weather this time of year. It also gives an advantage to those teams that finished higher in the standings.
**The lowest seed that advances would go on to play the top team, while the remaining team would take on the number two seed. This definitely makes things difficult for travel. But the reality is that this is already in effect under the current system. Tonight, just three days before the Wild Card game, we found out where the game will be played. Right after the NLDS is when we’ll find out where the NLCS will be played. The same goes with the World Series. Every year, media outlets — this one included — plan contingencies and create pandemonium on Southwest’s free cancellation system, not knowing where they’re going next. If we can do it, MLB will have no problem with this approach.
**As for the regular season schedule, I would either get rid of interleague play entirely, or expand it. I don’t have a preference, but the goal would be a system where each team has a similar regular season schedule. You could also take a page out of the NFL’s book and adjust the schedule each year based on how the team did the year before, meaning the best AL and NL teams would be matched up for interleague each year (and maybe a fun idea would be opening the new season with a rematch of the previous year’s World Series).
**If this system was in effect this year (assuming the extra team didn’t factor in the playoff mix), then you’d have a short bye for the Cardinals and Pirates. The Cubs would take on the Giants in a best of three series at Wrigley, while the Dodgers would host the Mets in a best of three series in Los Angeles. The Cardinals would face the lowest seed that advances, while the Pirates would get the higher seed, and the playoffs would be normal from there.
**This approach wouldn’t require much extra time. Right now the Wild Card games are played on separate days. You could play each series on Tuesday-Thursday, take a break, and start the LDS on Saturday. By comparison, the ALDS starts on Thursday this year, and the NLDS starts on Friday. So you’re adding 1-2 days to the season, which is nothing.
These are a lot of big changes (expansion teams, getting rid of divisions, reworking schedules), which makes it unlikely that this plan would happen. But the reality of this situation is that you’re going to need big changes to get a fix, as there isn’t a great small fix for this issue that would prevent the best teams from having the most difficult playoff schedules. I’d say that would make it unlikely that this problem gets resolved over the off-season.
**Pirates Prepare For Another PNC Blackout After Today’s Victory. The Pirates won when they needed to, thanks to a great effort from J.A. Happ. Check the story, live from PNC Park, to get reactions on the upcoming Wild Card game, and tonight’s outing.
**Happ Has Been a Great Story, But How Long Will That Story Continue? Taking a look at whether Happ will pitch for the Pirates again, either in the playoffs or as a free agent signing.
**Pirates Announce Gerrit Cole as Starter For Wild Card Game. An announcement wasn’t really necessary, other than to make it official.
**Here’s Why You Don’t Run on Starling Marte or Gregory Polanco. I really liked how this article came out, looking at how Polanco and Marte prep for their strong throws from the outfield.