Everybody loves the underdog – the scrappy team that overcomes the high-priced juggernaut when it matters most. The Kansas City Royals fit the bill spectacularly. Casual fans would be hard pressed to name the majority of the Royals’ lineup, and the team’s electric wild card play-in game against the Oakland Athletics showcased a team fighting back again and again in the face of adversity. That this was the Royals’ first playoff game since the ‘80s only adds to the Cinderella outlook of the club.
Major League Baseball and the big businesses that partner with them may have been salivating for a World Series featuring two Los Angeles-area teams, with the best hitter in the game, Mike Trout, going against the best pitcher in the game, Clayton Kershaw. For fans of the game, the playoffs are all about the stories with charm, not with superior talent.
When the Royals took their heroics to Los Angeles, and flew back home with two extra-inning wins against the best team in baseball during the regular season, one could be forgiven for ignoring the unfortunate and fickle nature of the postseason, and just enjoying the ride of the underdog.
The reality is that the Angels’ three-game sweep at the hands of the Royals does not tell us much about who is the better team, it only tells us who was the better team this week. In a sport with more consistency, this might not be a problem, but baseball is a game with such parity, with such randomness in the short run, that to leave the burden of superiority to a one-game playoff or a five-game series rather than looking at the aggregate production over 162 games is unsatisfactory.
This is not football, where you have 13-3 teams and 1-15 teams. Even the best and worst teams are separated only by roughly 20% in terms of winning percentage after 162 games. This is a sport where greatness and superiority can only be accurately measured in the long run, and yet the powers that be in the MLB are actively trending in the other direction when it comes to deciding who advances in the playoffs.
The one-game Wild Card playoff is a laughable affront to logic and statistics. In what universe does one game tell us more about two teams than the previous 162 games do? The best-of-five divisional rounds only make a little more sense. The arbitrary decision to have shorter series in the divisional rounds than in the championship series makes for a skewed and nonsensical standard of deciding a winner.
Why are three victories sufficient to decide a victor in the divisional series, but not mere days later when the victor is playing in the next round? The 2004 Red Sox would have been swept by the Yankees if their matchup had been a round earlier, and yet, with that one extra game, they went on to win eight straight and capture the World Series. What prevented the sweep was not any action on the part of either team, but it was arbitrary and illogical rulings on the part of the MLB regarding their playoff structure.
The fact remains that in a game with so much parity, and with such a comprehensive list of opportunities for randomness and chance, every team is going to go through peaks and slumps. The current system of arbitrary and short playoff series does not do a good job of rewarding the best teams because of the nature of the sport. Instead the MLB should be reducing teams and creating longer series.
The old system of two pennants and a World Series was a much more just way of rewarding consistently superior play. Granted, returning to this system is not feasible given the profit-driven nature of sports in the business world of today. But we can do away with the Wild Card play-in game, which makes a mockery of the grueling slog that is the regular season — even if it does occasionally create excitement on the level of the epic Royals vs. A’s affair this week.
More importantly, there is no reason why the divisional rounds of the playoffs cannot be expanded to a best-of-seven series. If the NBA and the NHL can do four full rounds of best-of-seven, there is no reason for the MLB to skimp on the ALDS and NLDS.
Darius Majd is a senior in the College. THE SPORTING LIFE appears every Tuesday.