The other day, I made mention of something that I would guess is pretty obvious to long-time baseball fans: The regular season has never meant less. As of this moment, teams that finished with the best records in the American and National Leagues are out. Only two division champions are still in, along with teams that finished with the seventh and eighth best records in baseball.
Here is actually what I Tweeted: “Don’t get me wrong, I love all baseball. But why even play a regular season?"
I got a lot of responses to that, many of them answering the rhetorical question (money, revenue, to qualify for postseason, etc.) and many others making the salient point that ALL American professional sports have the two seasons, the regular season and playoffs, which makes the question stupid.
The question certainly might be stupid … but I would argue that baseball has always been different from football, basketball, hockey. It is different, for one thing, because the season is ONE HUNDRED SIXTY TWO games in baseball, twice as long as the NBA or NHL season and with ten times as many games as an NFL season. You can make a pretty compelling argument that if you’re only trying to find the Top 10 teams, you probably don’t need to play more or less every day for six months.
But there’s also a different history in baseball. For the first sixty-five or so years, there were no playoffs at all. The American League team (the Angels this year), and the National League team (the Nationals this year) would simply go right to the World Series. For the next quarter century or so — after baseball finished expanding from sixteen to twenty-four teams — they added one more playoff round, meaning four teams went to the postseason.
This was different from other sports. Take the 1985 season:
NBA: 16 of 23 teams in playoffs.
NHL: 16 of 21 teams in playoffs.
NFL: 10 of 28 teams in playoffs.
MLB: 4 of 26 teams in playoffs.
This seemed the natural order of things — why in the world would you play THAT long a season unless you were honestly trying to identify the very best teams? There was this overriding theme in baseball that said you could not separate good teams from great ones in a short series. You needed to see a team perform in the rain of April, the July sun and the September dog days in order to find its true quality. Other sports were happy to choose their champions in tournaments and March Madnesses, that was fine for them, but baseball was different.
Now let me be clear: I’m not some dewy-eyed romantic who wishes everything would go back to the days when that Merlin toy was the very cutting edge of technology*. Well, maybe I’ve got a little dewy (defeats Truman) romance in me, but I get why baseball has the wildcards and interleague play and all that, and I fully appreciate that most people like these things and, anyway, there’s way too much money involved. I’m not saying it should (or even could) ever go back. I actually have a whole other point to make.
*Where Merlin now/He’s not there/He’s out with Billy/Playing magic square!
Let’s go back for a moment to the Nationals-Giants game and revisit the pitching choice of one Matt Williams. You might have read Dave Cameron’s destruction of Williams, a piece I agree with more or less across the board, but let’s put it this way:
You have five pitchers available.
1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Tyler Clippard
3. Matt Thornton
4. Aaron Barrett
5. Rafael Soriano
Now, in order, how would you rank the pitchers on the “Who I trust most not to give up a run and end our whole season” scale? For convenience sake, I numbered them in that order. You could fool around with the choices somewhat, but generally speaking that’s probably how you would rank them. In the seventh inning, with the Nats season on the line, Matt Williams did not pitch either of the top two pitchers but did pitch the bottom three — even more than that, in all three cases, he pitched them against hitters with huge platoon and tendency advantages.
It was a pretty illogical performance, and then came the even more illogical explanation — I am adding the word “Yostify” to JoeWords:
Yostify (yo-stah-fy), verb: give an explanation that is more irrational than the irrational decision.
Matt Williams yostified that he didn’t use Clippard because it was the seventh inning, which is not Clippard’s inning — this is bizarre yostimony that Ned Yost himself has used.
The reason he didn’t use Strasburg, it seems, had something to do with his plan to not use Strasburg except in case of an emergency. This wonderful reasoning reminds me of a scene from "The Sure Thing," one of my favorite movies. John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga are stuck in the middle of nowhere, in a rainstorm, with no way of getting home or back to college or anywhere else. Suddenly a soaking wet Zuniga reaches in her purse and realizes that she has a credit card.
Zuniga: I have a credit card!
Cusack: You have a credit card!
Zuniga: Oh no. My Dad told me specifically that I can only use it in case of an emergency.
Cusack: Well, maybe one will come up.
I would make a slightly different point — I would guess that Matt Williams was just coming up with reasons off the top of his head. It seems to me he did not use his best pitchers because he still sees baseball the way people of our generation see it. That is to say: He still thinks that baseball is a long season game, where you keep your closers for the ninth inning and don’t use a great starter on short rest.
It’s hard to get that baseball isn’t a long-season game now. Baseball isn’t about 162. You can turn the cliche around — baseball, now, is a sprint, not a marathon.
Matt Williams used Thornton and Barrett and Soriano because he simply could not shift into football mode. And that’s what is needed now. Football teams play to win every week (unless they’ve clinched their spot). There’s no long-term strategy. There’s no “let me rest you so we have a better shot later in the season.” There’s no, “Hey, this guy has been a loyal guy all year so I’m going to put him in with this playoff game on the line." It’s win this game, now, win, celebrate until midnight, watch the film to learn for next week.
Baseball hasn’t been like that. Thing is: Baseball IS like that now. One-third of all teams make the playoffs. Four of those teams play in winner-take-all, one-game crapshoots. Then it’s three-out-of-five, which is nothing — the NFL equivalent might be having wildcard games where the teams only play a half.
Then it’s one seven-game series and the seven-game World Series.
That’s the season that matters in baseball now. The only season that matters. Are there a substantial number of Angels fans or Nationals fans who see 2014 as a wild success? I can tell you there sure are a substantial number of Royals and Giants fans who do.
So, you have to manage baseball games to win today. I get that players like their roles, I get that you can create chaos by trying to change things up after a successful season, I get that Ned Yost just won a series by NOT pitching his closer in key earlier innings and had it work out splendidly. I get all that.
But it’s playoff time, and it’s all hands on deck, and this is what baseball has become. When Baltimore’s Buck Showalter first started in this game, people thought he could never last with his insane preparation for every game, his detailed plans for every moment, his football coaching mentality in a long baseball season.
Well, ol’ Buck has been around long enough that the game has tilted toward him — if Showalter won’t come to baseball, baseball must come to Showalter. These days, he’s EXACTLY the guy you want managing your team, the one who gameplans each game like it is World Series Game 7.
Well, hey, just about every game that matters IS World Series Game 7 now. The regular season is fantastic for getting us fans through a hot summer, and it will spark many memories, and it will eliminate the Rockies and Cubs and Astros. But the real season is about winning today, whatever it takes. The emergency, Matt, has come up. It comes up every October.