Admittedly, the inactivity of the hot stove has led a lot of us to get lost in our own minds about why it might be. And there might not be a more dangerous gaggle of people to get lost in their own heads than baseball writers and analysts, at least in the sports world. This might not make any sense at all, but this is where we are.
The suggestions for reasons for our “Baseball Slowdown” (I saw them open for Angel Olsen, I’m fairly sure) have been numerous. Collusion, luxury tax, the class of 2018, the sale of MLBAM, the money in the game overall, and we could go on. Generally, when it’s this wide of a spectrum of speculation, I tend to think it’s a combination thereof.
I have another. It’s the wild card system as it is currently today. And how baseball is laid out divisionally.
Right now, five of the six divisions have clear favorites, and ones that have either been there for a while, are poised to be there for a while, or both. The Nationals are entrenched at the top of the NL East, at least for one more season. The Cubs in the Central. The Dodgers in the West. The AL sees the Yankees and Red Sox to renew their Cold War in the East for the next little while. The AL West has the defending champions. Only the AL Central seems somewhat open, and that’s really only a discussion between Cleveland and Minnesota in the short term.
So if you’re not one of these teams, you have to calibrate what it takes to overtake them. And in the case of most of them, you’re looking at 95 wins or so. Yes, it would have only taken 93 to overtake the Cubs last year, but three of them would’ve taken 100 wins or more, and to beat the Nats it would take 98. And that’s generally the consensus now.
Baseball thinks, or thought, it was counteracting that by opening up the wild card to one more team in each league. But does it really? Because if you’re the GM in Philly or Atlanta or Tampa or a couple others, do you really want to put everything into getting 88 or 89 wins and then have it all be over in nine innings? All you’re getting is a 163rd game in reality, and that doesn’t seem to be much of an incentive to develop a second tier of hard-charging teams.
Back when the wild card got a full round, you could tell yourself that anything can happen in a five-game series and it usually did. You could see tangible reward for an investment merely to finish around 90 wins, including one or two playoff games (which I’m sure mattered to a lot of teams too). An additional game to get to that doesn’t sound like much, but then around these parts we’ve never been on the donkey end of losing a play-in game. I don’t think seeing your work evaporate in the course of three hours is a terribly motivating force.
I’d hate to use the Pirates as an example, because I don’t think they’re rebounding so much as their owner is just pocketing his revenue sharing money. But in a vacuum, Neal Huntington could have looked at last year’s 75-win team where just about everything went wrong that could have, and seen a path to make it an 85-87 win team. But in the Central, thanks to the Cubs’ standard, that’s not going to be enough. The Pirates have already bitten it in two wild card games, and a third probably didn’t seem appetizing. So do you aim for that or do you find a new path to 95 wins consistently? Same goes for Tampa and their resources.
Sure, the Angels seem to be trying to chase that, but Artie Moreno is kind of an oddball. The Phillies and Braves seem more poised to ascend after Bryce Harper leaves DC instead of going all out to get one more game. Winning the chance at a coin flip just isn’t enough.
You’ve probably seen the rumored realignment should baseball ever expand to 32 teams. While I would hope for eight divisions of four and just take the division champs, it’s likely it’ll be the top two of each of the four, eight-team divisions. Or the top three, with four play-in games.
But with eight four-team divisions that only take the champ, everyone is guaranteed to get a playoff series. It’s also hard to see one team getting away from the others, or at least it’ll be more spread out. Maybe that’s an answer down the road if this sort of thing continues.
Or maybe it would be easier if the wild card was actually two out of three. But I won’t sit on a hot stove waiting for that.
Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vazquez—USA Today Sports