Thursday, October 7, 2010

Wild Card Spells Death of the Great Pennant Races

The Giants and Padres (and Rockies!) just had a great pennant race.  The NL West wasn't decided until the last day of the season, and the two teams in the race were playing each other in the final of a three game series.  As great as the race was, it was diminished a bit by some bad ball played by both teams.  The two teams weren't the greatest.  There is, however, another kind of pennant race that is much better.

That kind of race is between two super-teams.  Teams that win a lot of games.  Upper 90's or 100+ win teams.  I was part of one of the greatest pennant races in history.  The 1993 race between the Giants and Braves, where each team was tied at 103 wins going into the last game of the season.  The Braves completed a season sweep of the Rockies, while the Giants lost to their arch rival Dodgers 12-1, who relished the spoiler role as one of the two greatest rivalries in baseball.  They knocked the Giants out of the race.  My 400 mile drive home from LA that evening was the longest of my life.  I-5 was a trail of thousands of Giants fans that made the trek.

This year had one such hypothetical pennant race.  The Yankees and Rays came out of the chute on fire, playing .700-.750 ball in the early part of the season.  They were clearly the best two teams in baseball the first half of the season.  They were neck and neck all the way down the stretch drive.  Going into the last day of the season, they had the same record, just like the Giants and Braves did in '93.  The Yankees even played their arch rivals, the Red Sox, on the last weekend of the season, in the other of the two greatest rivalries in baseball, just like the Giants/Braves race.  It went down to the last game of the season, just like the Giants/Braves, and the Red Sox beat them to knock the Yankees out of first place, just like the Giants/Braves.  It had all the marks of one of the great pennant races in recent memory.  Except it wasn't a pennant race.  Not even close.  Nobody even cared about it.  All season long.

The reason is that the race was so great that both teams were going to make the playoffs in the end.  There was no race.  There's not much difference at all in winning the division and winning the wild card.  Maybe a couple of home games in the playoffs.  Maybe.  It wasn't the exciting Olympic 100 meter finals.  It was a meaningless qualifying heat where everybody who is anybody makes it to the finals.  In fact, if you look at it from a probability standpoint, the better the record of the two teams, the more likely it is that the second place team will be the wild card.  So, the wild card has given an inversely proportional relationship between the greatness of the race and the excitement it creates.  It shouldn't have to be this way.

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