The Worst Idea in Sports

This is not a post about Joe Buck and Tim McCarver announcing every important baseball game. It’s not about those games being played after most of the nation’s kids have gone to bed. It’s not about one league letting pitchers bat while the other has the designated hitter, and then having them play against each other. It’s not about “moving the chains” or giving NFL and NBA officials more influence over the outcomes of games than the players have. Most people are familiar with these bad ideas, and you can hear complaints about them on myriad sports radio shows and newspaper columns and blogs.

The worst idea in sports might just be one about which no one seems to complain. It’s one the NBA has taken small steps to rectify, one the NFL has staunchly supported for decades, and one MLB seems intent on making worse. It’s the insistence on preferable treatment in postseason play for teams that win their divisions.

As a somewhat casual observer, I believe that the two best teams in the AFC this season (don’t worry, this isn’t another football post) are the Ravens and Steelers, in some order. Both stand 8-3 with five games to play, sharing the best record in the conference with New England and Houston, while playing in a tougher division. There’s a good chance that one of these teams will finish 13-3 and earn home field advantage throughout the playoffs, as they should. The other team, whether they win out or lose a fourth or fifth game (both teams play 7-4 Cincinnati again), will not be the number two seed in the playoffs, even if they have the second best record in the conference.

They won’t be seeded third or fourth either, but fifth. In the first round, they’ll probably play the AFC West champ (likely Oakland or Denver), a team that will only make the playoffs because they played six games within their own sorry division. The NFL will penalize the North Division’s second place team by sending them on the road. If they win despite this disadvantage, rather than playing another lesser team (maybe New England or Houston) in the second round, they’ll likely be forced to play the top-seeded North Division winner, while Houston and New England play each other and dodge the strongest teams for two rounds even if they lose five or six games.

In any sport with Wild Card teams, or teams that make the playoffs without winning their division, there are essentially two ways to make the playoffs. One is to be among the best teams in your conference and compile one of the conference’s best records. The other is to take advantage of playing in a weak division, where not only does it take fewer wins to finish first, but those wins are easier to come by thanks to the unbalanced schedules that MLB and the NFL insist upon retaining.

The 2011 Detroit Tigers won the AL Central by playing 76 games against the Indians, White Sox, Royals, and Twins, all of whom lost more games than they won. The 2011 San Francisco 49ers will win the NFC West by playing six games against the Seahawks, Rams, and Cardinals, who are a combined 13-23 despite several opportunities to beat up on each other. These are hardly extreme cases (both the Tigers and 49ers played well outside their divisions), but they demonstrate that a team that may have missed the playoffs playing in another division will very often sneak into the postseason. That in itself is not a problem; giving those teams special treatment in the postseason, though, is absurd.

The NBA seemed to realize this was a problem when the Atlantic Division kept sending .500 teams to the playoffs and giving them home games against better teams, so they added a rule allowing one non-division winner to jump a division winner for the number three seed. The NFL lets this become a problem every year, as the number five seed in both conferences is almost always better than the number four seed. Last season, the defending champion Saints went 11-5 and had to travel to Seattle to play a 7-9 Seahawks team with one of the league’s best home field advantages (crowd noise at Qwest Field is legendarily hard for a road team to play through). The Saints were promptly eliminated from the playoffs, their reward for compiling the conference’s second best record against the league’s best division being a kick in the pants from the league.

In baseball, this problem has not been so pronounced, partly due to the rule stipulating that teams from the same division can’t play each other in the Division Series. For most of the past decade, the two best teams in the American League have played in the AL East (the same was true of the AL West at the turn of the millenium). The second place team in the AL East gets the Wild Card and the number four seed, and cedes home field advantage to what is sometimes a lesser team in the first round. In baseball, home field advantage doesn’t mean much, and the second best division winner, as with Texas the last two years, has been a strong team. In 2011, in fact, the six best records in the league came from teams in six different divisions (though unbalanced scheduling may have played a role in that).

Why am I complaining, then, if this isn’t a problem in baseball? Because MLB is trying to make it one. Starting in 2013, a second Wild Card team will be added to each league’s playoffs. This is great news for a team like the Blue Jays, who can now get into the playoffs without having to finish ahead of Boston or New York. The Jays may have been the third best team in the whole sport in 2007, but finished 11 games out of the Wild Card, and were just as good in ’06 and ’08 without even sniffing the playoffs. Now they have a modicum of hope, but if the Jays do sneak one of the two Wild Cards in an upcoming season, they’ll have to play a single game against the other Wild Card team just for the right to hit the road to play against what may be a lesser team that rode 76 games against division opponents to a division title.

I understand why sports have divisions. Rivalries bring paying customers to the park. Unbalanced schedules save travel dollars, jet lagged players, and the ozone layet. When the American and National Leagues each split into two divisions and sent the division winners to the newly minted Championship Series, they recognized that the playoff teams might not always be the best teams in the league, but they created compelling races and more meaningful games late in the season. The addition of a Wild Card was intended to reward additional teams that may have deserved to make the playoffs, but were kept out in the past because they were unfortunate to play in the same division with a better team. Why, then, do we insist on penalizing these teams for making the playoffs in this new way? When will sports leagues start to reward teams for winning more games against better competition, rather than for taking advantage of a weak division?

And while we’re fixing sports, let’s retire McCarver and Buck.

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