On the Expansion Era Ballot

Earlier this month, the Baseball Hall of Fame released its Expansion Era ballot, a collection of six players, four managers and two executives who made their mark in baseball from 1973 to the present. The stars of the show, in case you haven’t heard, are the managers. Their names are as follows:

  • Tony La Russa
  • Bobby Cox
  • Joe Torre
  • Billy Martin

The first three on that list are absolute no-brainers. La Russa is third on the all-time wins list and has multiple World Series rings. Cox only has the one championship, but he skippered the Braves to 15 straight division titles and won over 2,500 games. Joe Torre has the fewest wins under his belt of the three, but his Yankees won four world titles. Even if you don’t think he should be in for his managing alone, he’s arguably Hall-worthy as a player, and combining the two careers makes him a slam-dunk choice.

The fourth manager is Martin, a fascinating candidate in his own right, though not one I’m terribly qualified to discuss. The executives are longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller, both of whom also have strong support.


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On Redemption in Boston

As I write this, the Red Sox are two games into the World Series, which is awesome. What’s even more awesome is that this comes on the heels of one of the worst seasons in franchise history. It’s almost as though 2012 never happened.

While it seems so distant given the disaster that was last year, it wasn’t at all long ago that the Red Sox were really, really good. Between 2002 and 2011, they won 90 or more games eight times, went to the postseason six times and (of course) won it all in ’04 and ’07. For that matter, they were pretty good for several before that stretch; the last time the Sox had had a losing season was all the way back in 1997. Even given how badly 2011 ended, that was still a 90-win season.

Their 69-win campaign in 2012 was a collapse of epic proportions.

It was so epic, in fact, that I’m given to wonder how other teams in similar situations have done. As best I can tell, there were 15 teams in the last 25 seasons that suffered implosions at least somewhat comparable to Boston’s last year. How did they happen, and what happened afterward?

Let’s take a look.

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On the Second Wild Card, Part Three

Right off the bat, I’ll acknowledge that I don’t mind what the second wild card has given us in the AL. Just one win separated three different teams. The team with the most wins gets a significant advantage, the other two play a tie-breaker. If the Rays win tonight and make it to the ALDS, no one will be able to say they didn’t earn it.

The NL is a whole different story.

This past Friday, the Pirates led the Reds by one game going into the final weekend of the season. Now, one game isn’t a huge lead, but it’s a lead nevertheless. The Pirates and Reds played in the same division, which means they faced almost exactly the same opposition. In head-to-head play, they were 8-8. That’s about as close as two teams can get without actually being tied, but the fact remains that the Pirates were just a little bit better.

In that final series, the Pirates won all three games. It didn’t matter, of course. Even though they were playing the same team that they were going to face in the Wild Card playoff, the Pirates could do no more than secure home-field advantage in that one game. In particular, the last game of the series was completely, totally, utterly meaningless.*

*Yes, I realize that many teams play a meaningless game 162 every year. What bothers me is that the Pirates played a meaningless game 162 against the same exact team that they’d play in a very very meaningful Wild Card game two days later.

They finished the season at 94-68, well ahead of the Reds at 90-72. In fact, the Pirates had a better record than the NL West champion Dodgers, at 92-70.

Nevertheless, the Reds have a shot to knock the Pirates off with a single win in the Wild Card game. According to MLB, victory in that one game trumps a four-game advantage over the entire regular season.

It makes for exciting baseball, sure. Still, if the Pirates’ run this year comes to an end because they lose one game to a clearly inferior (by record) Reds team, a team that they just swept in Cincinnati, I won’t be happy.

Get rid of the second Wild Card already.

On the Second Wild Card, Redux

The Nationals made things interesting for a while, but we now know for certain which five NL teams are going to the postseason. Atlanta, LA, St. Louis, Pittsburgh (yay!) and Cincinnati are in. The other 10 will be playing golf in a week.
Moreover, the division winners are all but decided. With tonight’s win and the Reds’ and Pirates’ losses, the Cardinals trimmed their magic number to win the Central to one. The Cardinals need only win one of their last three games to punch their ticket to the NLDS.
Home-field advantage, though, is still at stake, and that leads to an especially interesting (if unlikely) scenario.

The Reds are four games back in the Central with three to play; in other words, they’re out of contention. They’re going to be in the one-game Wild Card playoff no matter what happens; the only question is whether it will be at home or on the road. The Reds are also playing the Pirates, who still have a theoretical shot at winning the division, in their final three-game series of the season.

In football, we often say that certain teams “control their own playoff destiny.” Right now, the Reds control their own destiny, in a manner of speaking. What they do in the next few days will determine their home-field advantage.
The obvious course of action for the Reds is to try to take at least two from the Pirates, thereby securing the first Wild Card and getting home-field advantage in the one-game playoff.* The Reds have a pretty serious home/road split this year with a .645 winning percentage in Cincinnati and .500 elsewhere, so that’s not insignificant. You can bet that that’s what manager Dusty Baker will try to accomplish in this series
*If the Reds were to win exactly two games, both teams would have identical 92-70 records, but the tiebreaker would favor Cincinnati.
I wonder, though, if the Reds could pull off something even better by losing all three games.
Remember, the Pirates are still theoretically in contention for the NL Central. If they win all three of their remaining games and the Cardinals suffer a sweep at the hands of the Cubs, Pittsburgh and St. Louis will end up in a tie for the division. They’ll then have to play a one-game playoff, with the winner advancing to the NLDS and the loser facing the Reds in the Wild Card game.
In other words, if the Reds mail it in for the next three games, rest their starters and re-set their rotation, they could theoretically take an extra day off while the Cardinals and Pirates play (burning their best available starters in the process) that playoff game. The one downside is that Cincinnati would have to play the actual Wild Card game on the road, but I’d still give them better than even odds to win given the circumstances.
Now, this is an admittedly unlikely gambit. It would take something resembling a miracle for the Cubs to sweep the Cardinals in St. Louis, and even if the Reds tryto lose all three games, they could very well screw up and win one. The Reds have a deep rotation with no true ace, so it’s not as though they can benefit disproportionately from throwing their best pitcher out there in a one-game playoff. Odds are good that trying to beat the Pirates and secure that home-field advantage is the right move.
The fact that this scenario is even on the table, though, is proof positive that the second wild card needs to go.

Addendum: The more likely issue that bothers me about this situation is that, unless the Pirates and Reds split the first two games of the series, the final game will be meaningless. If either Cincinnati or Pittsburgh takes the first two, Game 162 will be absolutely pointless. The Wild Card spots will be set and neither team will be particularly trying to win; instead, they’ll both be resting up for the winner-take all rematch in game 163.

What’s the point of that?

On Great Teams

Baseball teams just don’t win like they used to.

Well, that’s not entirely true. In the aggregate, teams are winning exactly as many games as they always have, since every game has to have a winner and a loser. Some teams win more than others, of course, and some win or lose a lotmore than others. In the last eight years, what we’ve seen is a serious decline in the teams at the upper extreme. Winning 100 games is much harder now than it was a decade ago.

I find myself thinking about 100 wins today because the Red Sox just lost their 63rdgame of the season. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not likely to mean much; the Sox still have the best record in the league. However, it means that for the second straight year, no team will win 100 games.

Does this matter? Objectively, no, but baseball fans love round numbers. On some level, we know that the difference between a guy who hits 39 homers and a guy who hits 41 is almost nothing, yet we celebrate the 41-homer guy much more because he crossed an arbitrary threshold. For pitchers; the difference between 18 wins and 20 is tiny, yet there’s a mystique attached to the 20-game winner that the 18-game winner doesn’t have. Likewise, there’s very little difference between a 98-win team and a 100-win team, but that three-digit number carries some special significance in our minds.

What happened to the 100-win team?

Let’s go back to the beginning of the Wild Card era. In 1995, the Cleveland Indians* were the only team to win 100 games. That’s a bit misleading, as the 1995 season was only 144 games long; still, no other team in either league was on pace to win 100 in a full-length season.

*That Cleveland team was absolutely stacked. The lineup was deep enough to bat Jim Thome sixth and Manny Ramirez seventh. Albert Belle hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles – speaking of round numbers – and somehow lost the MVP to Boston’s Mo Vaughn. I guess the voters figured Belle’s team was good enough to make the playoffs with or without him, and they may have had a point; the Indians won their division by 30 games.

In 1996, no team won 100 games, though the Indians came about as close as possible with a 99-62 record (one game was rained out). In 1997, the Braves won 101. A year later, threedifferent teams won more than 100 games, led by the Yankees with an incredible 114. The others were the Braves (106) and the Astros (102).

What happened? The main culprit, it seems, is the 1997 expansion, which lowered the overall quality of competition by adding two new teams to the league. It also helped that the defending* world champion Marlins blew up their entire roster; they were the worst team in the big leagues, behind even the expansion teams, with 108 losses.

*There needs to be a better term than “defending world champions” for the 1998 Marlins, since they quite clearly did nothing of the sort. The most common antonym for “defending” is “attacking,” but considering the Marlins traded away their four best offensive players, that doesn’t seem terribly appropriate either. I think I’ll refer to them as the “retreating world champions” from here on out.

In 1999, two teams won 100 or more. Amazingly, the Diamondbacks did it in only their second season in the league, finishing at 100-62. The Braves did it again with 103 wins.

2000 was a bit of an anomaly by the standards of the time with no 100-win teams and no 100-loss teams. The next year, though, the Mariners set a Major League record with 116 wins, and the Oakland Athletics somehow managed to win 102 in the same division. The A’s remain the only team in the Wild Card era to win 100 games and not win their division (the 1993 Giants and 1980 Orioles did it in the pre-Wild Card era).

Then, in 2002, things went insane. Three different teams, the Braves, Yankees and Athletics, won 100 or more. The same thing happened a year later as the 2003 Yankees, Braves and Giants all hit triple digits. In 2004, the Cardinals and Yankees did it.

In all, we saw ten 100-win teams in just four years and fifteen in the span of seven. The game had changed, or so it seemed..

Then in 2005, the Cardinals won exactly 100, which seemed almost mundane after the previous four seasons. For the next two years, no team won 100 games. The Angels won 100 in 2008, the Yankees broke through with 103 in 2009, and the Phillies won 102 two years later. That’s it.

Put another way, in the eight seasons from 1997 to 2004 (yay, arbitrary endpoints!), there were sixteen 100-win teams. The complete list:

1997: ATL (101-61)
1998: NYY (114-48), ATL (106-56), HOU (102-60)
1999: ATL (103-59), ARI (100-62)
2000: None!
2001: SEA (116-46), OAK (102-60)
2002: ATL (101-59), NYY (103-58), OAK (103-59)
2003: NYY (101-61), ATL (101-61), SFG (100-61)
2004: STL (105-57) NYY (101-61)

In the eight seasons from 2005 to 2012, there were four.

When I started working on this piece, I assumed that the 100-win teams owed their success to the really badteams that they had the opportunity to play against. Certainly there’s some truth to that. The Yankees, for instance, benefited greatly from having the Devil Rays as punching bags throughout their run. The NL teams all had plenty of games against the hapless Pirates. The Tigers rather famously lost 119 games in 2003, a performance so bad that another perennial cellar-dweller, Kansas City, actually managed to post a winning season by beating up* on Detroit.

*That’s not entirely fair to the Royals, as they also posted winning marks against Cleveland (13-6), Minnesota (11-8) and Texas (7-2). Still, their 14-5 record against the Tigers played a big role in their 83-79 finish.

That’s all well and good, but we’ve seen plenty of terrible teams from 2005 on as well. The Devil Rays were still awful in ’05, ’06 and ’07. The Nationals were a laughingstock for several years. The Royals went back to being bad and stayed that way until this season. The Mariners had some horrendous seasons. The Pirates, of course, didn’t stop being terrible until this year. The Astros and Marlins have lost 100 already, and the season isn’t even quite over.

In the past eight years, we’ve only seen four 100-win teams, but we’ve seen eleven 100-loss teams, plus two more this year. Would-be dynasties have had their share of opportunities to rack up cheap victories.

Another possibility is the high-flying offensive environment of the late ’90s and early aughts. When everybody’s scoring and allowing more runs, the differences between the good teams and bad teams get bigger. That’s very likely a factor, but it’s not the only factor.

A bigger culprit, I think, is the way teams have handled free agents.

Free agency in baseball has been around since 1972, but I’d argue that it reached its peak two decades later. That was when the greatest pitcher on the planet and the greatest position player on the planet hit the market at the same time.

In 1992, Barry Bonds was the National League MVP for the second time in his career. He led the league in OPS for the third straight season, took home his third Gold Glove and third Silver Slugger, scored 109 runs, belted 34 homers and stole 39 bases. His dominant performance led the Pirates to their third straight NL East title. He was 27 years old.

That same year, then-Cub Greg Maddux made the leap from very good young pitcher to dominant ace. He led the league with 20 wins and 268 innings pitched, posted a sparkling 2.18 ERA and took home his first Cy Young Award; for good measure, he also collected his third Gold Glove. He was 26.

The baseball world had never seen anything like it. Two superstars, both just entering their prime years, were available to the highest bidder. For nothing more than money, all 26 teams had a shot at a player to build around.

Bonds signed with the Giants for six years and $43.75 million, which seems almost laughable today but was a record then. Maddux went to the Braves for five years and $28 million, which again was a very large contract at the time.

Six years later, the game’s most dominant left-hander was set to hit the market for the first time. Randy Johnson’s path to stardom was a little rockier; for several years he was an average- to above-average pitcher who struck out a ton of batters but also gave up far too many walks. As he got older, though, he learned to find the strike zone with more consistency, and in 1993 he broke through with a league-leading 308 Ks. Two years later, he became the first Mariner to take home a Cy Young Award. Two years after that, he won 20 games for the first time in his career.

In 1998, with free agency coming, the Mariners traded him to Houston, where he proceeded to spend two months mowing down the entire National League. He started 11 games, won 10 of them, posted a 1.28 ERA and helped the Astros put the finishing touches on their 102-win season. Between Seattle and Houston, he led the Majors with an incredible 329 strikeouts.

In the off-season, he signed a four-year contract worth over $52 million with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

While the Mariners watched one of the greatest left-handers in the history of the game develop, they also witnessed the rise of a Hall of Fame-caliber infielder. After short stints in Seattle as a teenager, Alex Rodriguez burst onto the scene by winning a batting title as a 20-year-old in 1996. For the next four years he was one of the game’s top players, flashing Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop while hitting like a first baseman.

In 2000, Rodriguez was set to hit free agency at the ripe old age of 24. He ended up in Texas on a 10-year contract worth $252 million; at the time, that was far and away the richest contract in sports history.

Of course, the Rangers found themselves unable to pay Rodriguez a few years later, and so they sent him to the Yankees by trade in the 2003-04 off-season.

In 2001, Jason Giambi was arguably the most feared hitter in the American League. After winning the MVP the year before, he followed up by blasting 38 home runs, leading the league in walks and OBP for a second straight season and making his second straight All-Star squad. He was also just 30 years old, still at his offensive peak.

The small-market A’s couldn’t afford to keep him, of course. He signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the Yankees.

In the span of less than a decade, five legitimate superstars, including four inner-circle Hall of Famers, had changed teams at the peaks of their respective careers. What happened?

The 1997 Braves won 101 games. Greg Maddux was worth 7.8 wins above replacement (WAR).

The 1998 Braves won 106 games. Maddux: 6.6 WAR.

The 1998 Astros won 102 games. Randy Johnson: 4.3 WAR.*

The 1999 Diamondbacks won 100 games. Johnson: 9.2 WAR.

The 2002 Braves won 101 games. Maddux: 4.4 WAR.

The 2002 Yankees won 103 games. Jason Giambi: 7.1 WAR.

The 2003 Giants won 100 games. Barry Bonds: 9.2 WAR.

The 2003 Yankees won 101 games. Giambi: 4.8 WAR.

The 2004 Yankees won 101 games. Alex Rodriguez: 7.6 WAR.**

*That’s Johnson’s WAR in his 11 games as an Astro. Including his pitching for the Mariners earlier in the year, he posted a 5.8 mark on the season.

**Giambi was on this team as well, of course, but he was injured and contributed essentially nothing. On the year, he posted -0.1 WAR.

With the possible exception of the ’98 Braves, those nine teams, statistically, would not have reached 100 wins without their superstar free agents. Between them, these five players were responsible for more than half of the 100-win teams in that historic stretch from 1997 to 2004.

Now, acquiring a superstar domestic free agent certainly isn’t the only way to build a 100-win team. The Athletics and Cardinals both did it with homegrown players and trade acquisitions. The ’98 Yankees and ’01 Mariners were historically great because they started with outstanding homegrown cores and added big-time free agents (in New York’s case) or an incredible Japanese import (in Seattle’s case) to make that final push.

It’s possible to build a 100-win team that way, but everything has to break right. The Athletics, for instance, had six outstanding players (Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and the aforementioned Giambi) hit their stride all at the same time; that required tremendous skill on the part of GM Billy Beane and also some pretty incredible luck. The Cardinals likewise enjoyed the peaks of Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and struck gold with a historic run of dominance from Albert Pujols.

It’s much, much easier to build a competitive core and then acquire a free-agent (or free agent-to-be, or recent free agent on a huge contract) superstar to push it over the top, as the Astros did with Johnson and the Yankees did with Giambi and Rodriguez. Alternatively, you can sign a superstar free agent and find the pieces to fill in around him, as the Braves did with Maddux.* The Giants essentially mixed the two approaches; they became a 100-win team immediately after signing Bonds, took a step back, then built around their superstar to become a dominant force in the early ’00s.

A final option is to do what the Diamondbacks did: build a fantastic team entirely out of free agents and salary-dump trade acquisitions. It’s really incredible how quickly they assembled that ’99 squad, though of course they hadn’t been around long enough to build it any other way.

The trouble with all these approaches is that they only work if superstars are hitting free agency. Today, they aren’t.

In the past 12 seasons, 17 different players have won MVP awards. Of those, only seven have changed teams at all since winning their awards. Only four of those changed teams through free agency: Miguel Tejada, Vladimir Guerrerro, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Only one, Tejada, made the jump while still at his peak.

Former Cy Young winners have moved around quite a bit more, but again they’ve typically hit free agency in the twilight of their careers. Pedro Martinez had one good year left when he signed with the Mets. Randy Johnson was 41 and rapidly losing effectiveness when he became a Yankee. Barry Zito crashed and burned as a big-ticket free-agent signing in San Francisco.

In the past 10 years, only two pitchers have won Cy Young awards with teams they joined as free agents, and they were Roger Clemens and Bartolo Colon way back in ’04 and ’05. Likewise, only one free agent signed* in the last decade years has won an MVP with his new club: Vladimir Guerrerro in ’04.

*Here I’m excluding players who reached free agency but ended up returning to their previous teams

A few high-caliber players are still switching teams via free agency, but they’re almost exclusively pitchers. CC Sabathia’s story was remarkably similar to Randy Johnson’s; he won a Cy Young with his original club (the Indians) was traded midseason to a National League team (the Brewers), dominated for two months and signed a lucrative free-agent deal with a different squad (the Yankees). Sabathia’s former teammate, Cliff Lee, also changed teams as a free agent a few years after winning his Cy Young. Both have been effective since (though CC just wrapped up the worst season of his career), but they’re exceptions, not the rule.

Of course, players like Maddux and Bonds were exceptions in their day, but today they’d be impossibilities. Look at the young and youngish players who’ve taken home hardware in the last five years:

Buster Posey: Signed through 2021
Ryan Braun: Signed through 2019
Joey Votto: Signed through 2023
Justin Verlander: Signed through 2019
Felix Hernandez: Signed through 2019
Joe Mauer: Signed through 2018
Dustin Pedroia: Signed through 2021

That’s six MVPs and two Cy Young winners (Verlander won both awards) locked up through their primes and beyond. Another, Clayton Kershaw, is almost certain to get a long-term extension from his team before he hits free agency, and we haven’t even looked at Evan Longoria and Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutchen (who may well win an MVP this year) and a half-dozen other young stars on very long-term contracts.

If Greg Maddux, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds came up today, it’s certain that they’d either sign long-term extensions with their original teams or get traded to teams that could afford to extend them. There’s no way to get a player of that caliber on the open market now.

Free agency isn’t dead, of course. In the American League in particular, a half-dozen free agent acquisitions (Shane Victorino, Adrian Beltre, Hisashi Iwakuma, Hiroki Kuroda, Bartolo Colon and David Ortiz) are playing at All-Star levels. In the NL, the Pirates and Nationals are benefiting greatly from the Russell Martin and Jayson Werth signings, to say nothing of the dozens of former free agents who are now useful role players and regulars.
Still, there’s no longer an easy way to get a superstar. That may not have killed 100-win teams, but they’re back to being a rare breed, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

On New Stats

I love baseball, and I love math.* It’s only natural, then, that I love baseball statistics. One of the amazing things about baseball is the way it lends itself to analysis; it’s a series of discrete events, most of which are one-on-one battles between a pitcher and a batter, and those battles are much easier to break down than the team-on-team clashes involved in, say, basketball or football.

*Generally. I make exceptions for complex analysis and differential equations, both of which were banes of my existence.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about my views on some traditional statistics, and I touched several times on the philosophies behind those stats. Most critics of newer stats, as far as I’ve seen, argue that things like WAR and FIP are not rooted in the realities of playing and observing baseball in the same way traditional stats like ERA and BA are. However, if you take a closer look at some of those newfangled stats, you’d find a lot in common with the ways that players, coaches and fans have been talking about the game for generations.

Let’s take that closer look.

Quality Starts (QS): I tend to call less familiar statistics new rather than advancedbecause some of them aren’t terribly advanced. Quality starts aren’t advanced at all. In fact, they’re significantly simpler than the stat they’re designed to replace: pitcher wins.

A starting pitcher is awarded a Quality Start if he pitches six or more innings and gives up three or fewer earned runs.

That’s it. Start the game, pitch six innings, allow no more than three runs and you have a quality start. Anyone with a basic understanding of baseball can get that in about 30 seconds.

When people inside the game talk about great pitchers, they won’t often talk about winning a lot of games; after all, a pitcher may pitch well and lose or pitch poorly and win. Rather, they’ll say that a great pitcher always stays in the game and gives his team a (good) chance to win.

If a pitcher gives his team a quality start, his team has a good chance to win.

The most common criticism I’ve heard of quality starts goes like so: If a pitcher pitches exactly 6 innings and gives up exactly 3 earned runs, his ERA for the game is 4.5. Granted, that’s not especially good, but:
  • That’s the bare minimum for a quality start. The average across all quality starts is less than half that.
  • A 4.5 ERA isn’t good, but it’s not terrible either. The league ERA for all starting pitchers is about 4.2, so we’re talking about a difference of three tenths of a run per nine innings.
  • Put another way, a hypothetical pitcher who pitched exactly six innings and gave up exactly three earned runs every time out would end up with 192 innings pitched (in 32 starts) and a 4.50 ERA. Most teams would take that from a fourth or fifth starter.
  • In fact, our Mr. (Just Barely) Quality Start would have outperformed at least one starter on eight of the last 10 World Series champions.
Quality starts are far from perfect, and there’s a reasonable case to be made that the bar should be raised to exclude the bare-minimum performance. Even as defined today, though, they’re a quick way to see whether a pitcher consistently keeps his team in the game. Isn’t that exactly what teams are looking for?

Defensive Runs Saved (DRS): For many years, the only fielding stats anyone cared about were errors and fielding percentage. I’ve talked a bit about the definition of an error before, but let’s briefly revisit it now: A fielder is charged with an error when he misplays a ball that he should have turned into an out with ordinary effort.

As written, this definition makes some sense. If a fielder doesn’t make a play he should have been able to make, we charge him with an error. Fine. The problem is that the rules don’t really define what constitutes ordinary effort, leading to some very strange scoring decisions. For instance:
  • If an outfielder loses a ball in the lights and it falls out of his reach, that’s a hit.
  • If an outfielder loses a ball in the lights, catches sight of it at the last moment, reaches out to make a catch and has the ball bounce out of his glove, that’s an error.
  • If a shortstop fields a ground ball cleanly but hesitates before throwing, allowing the batter to reach safely, that’s a hit.
  • If a shortstop fields a ground ball cleanly but makes a high throw that pulls the first baseman off the bag, allowing the batter to reach safely, that’s an error.
  • If a third baseman reaches out to catch a ball that slips under his glove, that’s a hit.
  • If a third baseman reaches out to catch a ball and then bobbles it on the transfer to his throwing hand, that’s an error.
You get the idea. The problem with errors isn’t that the official scorers are making bad judgment calls, although that doesn’t help. The real problem is that the stat requires a judgment call in the first place. If we had a clear, objective definition of ordinary effort, errors would work just fine.

Now, let’s talk about Baseball Info Solutions. BIS uses video scouting to figure out exactly what the league-average (in other words, ordinary) defender does on every possible batted ball. They categorize every ball hit in play during the year based on its direction, distance, speed, and type (i.e. ground ball, fly ball, line drive, bunt and ‘fliner’ – somewhere between a fly ball and line drive). Based on this data, BIS determines the probability that a given fielder will make a play on each ball and assigns a plus/minus value.

For instance, the BIS data may indicate that the average shortstop makes a play on a hard-hit ground ball that’s heading right for the normal shortstop position about 90 percent of the time; in other words, it’s basically a sure thing. If Stephen Drew misplays a ground ball that fits that description, he’s docked .9 points in the plus/minus system.

The great thing about this methodology is that it gives credit for good plays along with bad plays. The data may say, for instance, that a shortstop only makes a play on a soft ground ball three feet to his left 20 percent of the time. If Drew fields a ball that’s hit there and gets the out, that’s an excellent play, and he’s credited with .8 points in the plus/minus system.

Under these rules, it doesn’t matter whether Drew makes a spectacular diving catch to stop that ball or gets a good jump and makes it look easy. It doesn’t matter whether he charges and barehands the ball or throws with his feet planted. The only thing that matters is the only thing that should matter: making the out.

Now, this plus/minus system is in terms of plays made, not runs saved. It doesn’t quite get to the point of defense: run prevention. There’s a lot of math that goes into turning Plus/Minus into Defensive Runs Saved, including adjustments for extra-base hits, runs saved on bunts, double plays, outfield assists and more. Advanced defensive stats have come a long way, but they still have a long way to go, and right now we need three years’ worth of data to really understand how good (or not) a player is in the field.

My point, though, is that the core of the system is objective, thorough observation of actual plays. Coaches and managers say all the time that “you have to see him play” to understand his defense. Well, the folks behind DRS haveseen him play.

Base-Out Runs Added (RE24): Okay, one reasonable strike against this stat: Its full name is pretty unwieldy. Fortunately, the abbreviation RE24 is much easier.

Anyway, let’s talk about base-out states. There are eight possible base states:
  • Bases empty
  • Runner on first
  • Runner on second
  • Runner on third
  • Runners on first and second
  • Runners on first and third
  • Runners on second and third
  • Bases loaded
Likewise, there are three out states: nobody out, one out and two out. Combine the two and we have the 24 base-out states: nobody on/nobody out, nobody on/one out, nobody on/two out, runner on first/nobody out, runner on first/one out and so on.

As baseball fans, we intuitively know that each base/out state has a certain run expectancy, even if we can’t attach a number to it. With nobody on and two out, we don’t expect our team to score at all; it could happen, but it’s unlikely. With the bases loaded and nobody out, we expect a big inning, and it’s actually pretty disappointing if only one run scores. The only difference between RE24 and these casual observations is that RE24 uses thousands of games’ worth of data to actually quantify those expectations.

Every time the base/out state changes, the batter gets (or loses) credit for the change. Suppose Dustin Pedroia comes up to bat leading off an inning; with nobody on and nobody out, the run expectancy is about half a run. If Pedroia belts a double, the run expectancy goes up to about 1.1, and he gets credit for the difference, .6 runs. If he makes an out, the run expectancy drops by about .25 runs, and he’s debited the difference.

When an actual run scores, the batter is awarded a full run in addition to the change in base-out states. For instance, if David Ortiz comes up and drives in Pedroia with a single, the run expectancy changes from about 1.2 (runner on second, nobody out) to about 0.9 (runner on first, nobody out). Ortiz is awarded .7 runs on the play, which is 1 for the run that scored minus .3 for the change in base-out states.

All sort of things that baseball people love are incorporated into RE24. If a player consistently makes productive outs, that shows up in his RE24; if he executes on a hit-and-run, that shows up in his RE24; if he hits the ball behind the runner to get an extra base, that shows up in his RE24. When a walk is as good as a hit (e.g. with the bases empty), it’s as good as a hit in RE24. When a walk is not as good as a hit (e.g. with a runner on third), RE24 reflects that reality, too.

If DRS is a better fielding percentage, RE24 is a better RBI. It’s rather like measuring three feet with a yardstick instead of estimating using your arm: The intent is the same, but the result is much more useful.

If you want to know how much a hitter contributes to scoring actual runs, look no further.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR):Right now, WAR is probably getting more attention than any other advanced stat, and that attention is only going to increase once the season ends and the Cy Young/MVP debates begin. Many fans dislike WAR, I think, because its calculations seem so obscure: Some math nerd just throws a bunch of stats together and gives you a single number that sums up a player’s entire value.

Let’s look at WAR from the most fundamental perspective. Baseball, like most sports, consists of offense and defense. Offense can be further broken down into hitting and baserunning, while defense consists of pitching and fielding.

One of the fundamental assumptions of advanced baseball analysis is that a run scored on offense is equivalent to a run saved on defense.* Like most things analytic, this isn’t a crazy assumption. Considering great pitchers and great hitters get comparable contracts, I think it’s fair to say that baseball teams hold pitching and hitting in roughly equal esteem. As far as fielding is concerned, how many times have you heard a coach or manager say that “even when he’s not hitting, he’s saving runs in the field” or the hyperbolic “he saves 100 runs a year** with his glove?” Incidentally, 100 runs is about the amount you’d expect a good hitter to score or drive in.

*This actually isn’t quitetrue – runs saved are very slightly more valuable than runs scored. That’s because runs saved hit an absolute lower bound: If you give up 0 runs, you’re guaranteed to win (or at least to not lose). Conversely, a great offense can’t completely ensure victory; it’s possible to score 20 runs and still lose.

**Taken extremely literally, this is true. If, say, Stephen Drew went out to play shortstop without a glove, the Red Sox would almost certainly give up 100 more runs over the course of the year.

WAR just takes all of a player’s contributions on offense and defense and puts them together. When Miguel Cabrera produces runs with his bat, they go into his WAR bucket; when he gives runs away in the field, they come out of the bucket. When Andrelton Simmons saves runs with his glove, they go into his bucket. When Michael Bourn produces runs with his legs, they go into his bucket. There’s also a positional adjustment: A first baseman who hits 30 home runs is good, but a shortstop who can do that is much, much better.

One of my favorite things about WAR is that it makes it easy to compare players with wildly disparate skill sets. According to Baseball Reference, Dave Parker and Dave Concepcion are perfectly tied at 40.0 WAR. Apart from their shared first name, those guys had almost nothing in common: Parker was a slugging outfielder who won two batting titles and belted over 500 doubles; Concepcion was a slick-fielding shortstop who hit .267 for his career. They produced their value in completely different ways, but when you add it all up, they were worth the same number of wins to their teams.

Now, WAR is not perfect by any means. The defensive component is especially suspect, at least in small samples, because it uses one year’s worth of data; as I mentioned above, we really need three years’ worth of information to accurately assess defensive value. WAR doesn’t account for clutch* performance the way RE24 does, and there’s reason to believe it significantly underrates catcher defense. As with all advanced stats, WAR has a margin of error; the difference between a 6.7 WAR player and a 7.1 WAR player is small enough that we can’t conclusively say which is the better player. Certainly, nobody in the analytic community is arguing that we should just blindly give the MVP award to the player with the highest WAR.

*Much has been made of the idea that people who like advanced stats think “clutch” doesn’t exist. The actual issue with clutch is that it’s not an especially repeatable skill; many hitters have great clutch performances one year and poor performances the next year. WAR ignores clutch performance by design because it’s intended to help us understand a player’s true talent level; it ignores things that are likely to fluctuate and focuses on things that the player can directly control.

Nevertheless, WAR is the best stat available to tell us, in the aggregate, how good (or not) a player is. It’s a stat that invites further conversation: Once you know that Mike Trout is worth 9 wins to his team, you’re likely going to wonder how he does that. How much of that is from his hitting? How much comes from his baserunning? How much is defense? How much is his positional adjustment?

There’s a lot more to understanding a player than his WAR (or, for that matter, any other statistic), but every one of these tools makes our picture a little more complete.

On Realignment

Yesterday, I suggested realigning both leagues into two divisions each as a means of making the playoffs fair. I went back through the last 12 seasons to see what would have happened if they were aligned that way.

Since we’re looking at a time before the Astros moved to the AL, the alignment I used is a little different than the one I suggested in yesterday’s post. Here’s the breakdown:





*I put the Cubs in the West mainly to have both Chicago teams in the same region, and also to preserve the long-standing Cubs-Cardinals rivalry. It would make just as much sense, geographically, to switch them with the Brewers.

Obviously this is an imperfect exercise because realignment would have changed every team’s strength of schedule. Still, I think it gives us an idea of what to expect.

AL East: NYY (95-67) and BAL (93-69)
AL West: OAK (94-68) and TEX (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, OAK and DET (88-74), plus a one-game playoff between TEX and BAL

Well, that’s about as fair as it gets. The four best teams in the league would have been the four teams in the playoffs. The 88-win Tigers would have missed the postseason entirely in favor of superior teams.

NL East: WSN (98-64) and CIN (97-65)

NL West: SFG (94-68) and STL (88-74)
Actual playoffs: WSN, CIN and CIN, plus a one-game playoff between STL and ATL (94-68)

Okay, that one didn’t go as well. The 94-win Braves would have finished third in the East and out of the playoffs.


AL East: NYY (97-65) and DET (95-67)
AL West: TEX (96-66) and LAA (86-76)
Actual playoffs: NYY, DET, TEX and TBR (91-71)

Under this scenario, the Rays and Red Sox would have missed the playoffs despite having better records than the Angels. It’s certainly not egregious, but it’s less than ideal.

NL East: PHI (102-60) and MIL (96-66)

NL West: ARI (94-68) and STL (90-72)
Actual playoffs: PHI, MIL, ARI and STL

On the other hand, the NL gives us a playoff featuring the four best records in the league. This is the first case in which the realigned playoff teams would be the same as the actual playoff teams.


AL East: TBR (96-66) and NYY (95-67)
AL West: MIN (94-68) and TEX (90-72)
Actual playoffs: TBR, NYY, MIN and TEX

Those four teams had the four best records in the league. That’s exactly what I’m looking for, and it’s what the old system gave us as well.

NL East: PHI (97-65) and either CIN (91-71) or ATL (91-71)

NL West: SFG (92-70) and SDP (90-72)
Actual playoffs: PHI, CIN, ATL, SFG

We have our first (or last, since I’m going in reverse order) one-game playoff under the proposed system, as the Reds would have faced the Braves in a fight for second place in the East. Again, the five postseason teams would have been the five best teams in the league.


AL East: NYY (103-59) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: LAA (97-65) and TEX (87-75)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, LAA and MIN (87-76)

We would have seen an exciting race for that last playoff spot, as Seattle, Detroit and Minnesota all finished within two games of the Rangers.

NL East: PHI (93-69) and FLA (87-75)

NL West: LAD (95-67) and COL (92-70)
Actual playoffs: PHI, LAD, COL and STL (91-71)

This realignment would have left out both the Cardinals and the Giants even though they had better records than the Marlins. Again, that’s bad but not egregious.


AL East: TBR (97-65) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: LAA (100-62) and CHW (89-74)
Actual playoffs: TBR, BOS, LAA and CHW

In real life, the White Sox beat out the Twins in a one-game playoff for the AL Central. In this scenario, they would have played for second place in the AL West. The Yankees would have missed the playoffs with a better record than either team (as they did in reality), but only by a margin of one game.

NL East: PHI (92-70) and MIL (90-72)

NL West: CHC (97-64) and either HOU (86-75) or STL (86-76)
Actual playoffs: PHI, CHC, MIL and LAD (84-78)

This is a weird one. The NL West was pretty terrible in 2008, as the Dodgers won the division with that meager 84-78 record. My proposed realignment would give the division three superior teams in the Cubs, Astros and Cardinals.

Now, the actual 2008 Astros only played 161 games because of Hurricane Ike. Since they finished the season in third place and out of the Wild Card race, they didn’t bother making the odd game up. Under my proposed realignment, though, they would have finished just half a game ahead of the Cardinals for second place in the reimagined NL West.

The Astros would have had to make up that last game. With a win, they’d be in the playoffs with an 87-75 record. With a loss, they’d end up tied with St. Louis, and they’d play a one-game playoff for that final spot in the Division Series.

Either way, realignment would have kept the 84-win Dodgers far, far away from the postseason. So much for Mannywood.


AL East: BOS (96-66) and CLE (96-66)
AL West: LAA (94-68) and SEA (88-74)
Actual playoffs: BOS, CLE, LAA and NYY (94-68)

Realignment would have left the 94-win Yankees out of the playoffs while letting in the 88-win Mariners. As a Red Sox fan, I’m good with this. Objectively, I’ll admit that it isn’t terribly fair.

NL East: PHI (89-73) and NYM (88-74)

NL West: ARI (90-72) and COL (90-73)
Actual playoffs: PHI, ARI, COL and CHC (85-77)

In this realigned NL, we still would have had that thrilling Game 163 between the Rockies and the Padres; it just would have been for second place in the West rather than the Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the 85-win Cubs would have been pushed aside, and the 88-win Mets would have been in. It’s a small improvement, but an improvement nonetheless.


AL East: NYY (97-65) and DET (95-67)
AL West: MIN (96-66) and OAK (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, DET, MIN and OAK

Other than differences in first-round matchups, the AL playoffs would have been exactly the same in a realigned league as they were in a three-division league.

NL East: NYM (97-65) and PHI (85-77)

NL West: SDP (88-74) and LAD (88-74)
Actual playoffs: NYM, SDP, LAD and STL (83-79)

The 83-win Cardinals infamously won their division and went on to win the World Series. In a realigned NL, they would have finished third in the West and out of the playoffs.


AL East: NYY (95-67) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: CHW (99-63) and LAA (95-67)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, CHW and LAA

As with the 2006 AL, these are the four teams that actually made the playoffs in the old three-division system. Even the first-round matchups would have been unchanged in this case.

NL East: ATL (90-72) and PHI (88-74)

NL West: STL (100-62) and HOU (89-73)
Actual playoffs: ATL, STL, HOU and SDP (82-80)

If the ’06 Cardinals were the worst world champions in recent memory, the ’05 Padres were the worst playoff team in recent memory. Realignment pushes them out in favor of the 88-win Phillies.


AL East: NYY (101-61) and BOS (98-64)
AL West: MIN (92-70) and ANA (92-70)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, MIN and ANA

Every now and again, I’ll still hear someone say that the ’04 Red Sox weren’t legitimate world champions because they didn’t win their division. To this, I’ll always point out that the Sox won 98 games that year, giving them the second-best overall record in the league by a wide margin. It’s not their fault that the one team with a better record happened to be in the same division.

At any rate, the playoff teams in the realigned AL match the playoff teams in the actual AL for the third straight year.

NL East: ATL (96-66) and PHI (86-76)

NL West: STL (105-57) and LAD (93-69)
Actual playoffs: ATL, STL, LAD and HOU (92-70)

Adding the Reds, Pirates and Brewers to the East in a year that all three teams were terrible certainly doesn’t look like a great move in hindsight. Four teams (HOU, SFG, CHC and SDP) would have missed the playoffs despite better records than the Phillies.


AL East: NYY (101-61) and BOS (95-67)
AL West: OAK (96-66) and SEA (93-69)
Actual playoffs: NYY, BOS, OAK and MIN (90-72)

Here, realignment essentially swaps out the 90-win Twins for the 93-win Mariners. That seems like a good move.

NL East: ATL (101-61) and FLA (91-71)

NL West: SFG (100-61) and CHC (88-74)
Actual playoffs: ATL, FLA, SFG, CHC

The best four teams made the playoffs under the old rules. The best four teams would still have made the playoffs with the proposed change.


AL East: NYY (103-58) and BOS (93-69)
AL West: OAK (103-59) and ANA (99-63)
Actual playoffs: NYY, OAK, ANA and MIN (94-67)

In this case, realignment exchanges a 94-win team for a 93-win team. That’s not good, but it’s fairly minor, especially given that the Twins played in an awful division that year.

NL East: ATL (101-59) and MON (83-79)

NL West: ARI (98-64) and STL (97-65)
Actual playoffs: ATL, ARI, STL and SFG (95-66)

Okay, this is the biggest strike against realignment we’ve seen. The change replaces the 95-win Giants with the 83-win Expos. (On the plus side, the poor Expos could use the break.) Two other non-playoff teams had better records than Montreal.


AL East: NYY (95-65) and CLE (91-71)
AL West: SEA (116-46) and OAK (102-60)
Actual playoffs: NYY, CLE, SEA, OAK

Even the first-round matchups would have been exactly the same. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

NL East: ATL (88-74) and PHI (86-76)

NL West: HOU (93-69) and STL (93-69)
Actual playoffs: ATL, HOU, STL and ARI (92-70)

Man, the NL East was terrible back in the early aughts.

In this analysis of 24 league-seasons, we’ve seen the following:

Realignment would have made the postseason pool stronger in the 2012 AL, 2009 AL (just barely), 2008 NL, 2007 NL, 2006 NL, 2005 NL, 2003 AL

On the other hand, realignment would have made the postseason pool weaker in the 2012 NL, 2011 AL, 2009 NL, 2007 AL, 2004 NL, 2002 AL (just barely), 2002 NL and 2001 NL.

The postseason pool would have stayed the same in the 2011 NL, 2010 AL, 2010 NL (mostly), 2008 AL, 2006 AL, 2005 AL, 2004 AL, 2003 NL and 2001 AL.

In all, we have seven league-seasons in which realignment would have made a stronger postseason pool and eight in which it would have made a weaker postseason pool. The remaining nine league-seasons would have seen no difference other than the addition of a one-game playoff in the 2010 NL.

You’d get slightly different results by realigning the league in different ways, but the point is that the two-division system is more or less a wash with the old three-division system. I still prefer the two-division setup, though, because it eliminates all of the most unqualified playoff teams of the last 12 years: the ’05 Padres, the ’06 Cardinals, the ’07 Cubs and the ’08 Dodgers. The worst team to make the postseason in my reimagined league: the ’02 Expos in an insane down year for the non-Braves members of the NL East. The second-worst: the ’06 Phillies, who replace the aforementioned Cardinals.

Compared to the issues introduced by the second wild card, though, this realigned setup looks pretty excellent.

As far as this year is concerned, we’d have the following standings:




Really, the only race worth watching in a realigned league would be the fight for the NL East. The Reds would trail the second-place Pirates by just one game, and both would have a legitimate shot at the first-place Braves. Out West, the Dodgers and Cardinals might flip-flop at the top, but both would go to the postseason; the same could be said for the A’s and Rangers in the AL. As far as the realigned AL East is concerned, the Tigers could make a run at the first-place Red Sox, but even that is a long shot, and both teams would make the playoffs either way. It would take a pretty impressive run for the third-place Rays to get in.

Such a league wouldn’t be terribly exciting in September, but we’d be guaranteed to see the best eight teams in the playoffs, which makes for excellent October baseball.

Look, there’s only one perfectly fair playoff system. Eliminate divisions entirely, have every team in each league play all of the other teams the same number of times and pick the best X teams to go to the postseason. Since baseball is never going to use such a system again,* we have to find a way to work with divisions and keep things mostly equitable.

*I say again because this was exactly the system used in the pre-expansion era. There were two leagues, and the best team in each league went to the World Series. I like that the current playoffs include more than two teams, but I think the intent there was good.

In realigned leagues with two divisions each, we’d create a more balanced schedule while keeping the big geographic and historic rivalries (Yankees/Red Sox, Cardinals/Cubs, etc.). Interleague play would be easy to manage as well, either throughout the year as it is now or as a short stretch in the middle of the season as it was previously. Finally, it would require expansion, which means more baseball. Who doesn’t want more baseball?

Of course, we could also just go back to the old rules. Just please get rid of the second Wild Card.

On the Second Wild Card

So, we’re a week into September, and there’s not a ton of drama left in the 2013 season. I’ll acknowledge right off the bat that what little drama we do have comes largely from the second wild card.

First, let’s define exactly how the second Wild Card works. Right now, the playoffs in each league include three division winners, all of which go straight to the best-of-five Division Series (ALDS or NLDS). Before that kicks off, the two best non-division winners in each league play each other in a one-game playoff, the Wild Card game, with the winner joining the division winners in the Division Series. Under the old rules, there was just one Wild Card team that advanced straight to the LDS; the one-game playoff was only used to break ties.

Because there are now two Wild Card spots, quite a few American League teams are still in contention. If there were just the one spot, as we had before the 2012 season, only the Rangers, A’s and Rays would really still be in the race (the Tigers and Red Sox have more or less won their races), and even the A’s would be more or less assured of a playoff spot by division title or Wild Card. Sure, the second Wild Card has made things more interesting.

In the National League, we’d still have the Cardinals, Pirates and Reds slugging it out, but it would be a fight for two guaranteed spots instead of one guaranteed spot and two spots in a play-in game. I suppose one could argue that the current format makes that race marginally more interesting than it would be with just the one Wild Card.

The thing is, I’m not sure we should pick our playoff system in terms of what provides the most drama. I’d rather see the best teams in the postseason, and the second Wild Card does nothing to make that a reality.

Here, as I see it, are the three main issues with the second Wild Card as currently constructed.

A) Lopsided matchups. If the two Wild Card teams have wildly different records (say 95 wins versus 85 wins), it seems unfair that the weaker team has a chance to knock off the stronger team in a one-game playoff. I’m aware that the Division Series often features lopsided matchups as well, but at least it’s a series. In one game, anything can happen. Martin Perez can out-pitch Felix Hernandez. Josh Reddick can belt three home runs (he has just 10 on the year). In a best-of-five, anything can happen, but the more talented team is more likely to rise to the top.

B) Intradivisional matchups. Okay, it’s not exactly fair to compare records across divisions. A team that wins 87 games in the stacked AL East may well be better than a team that wins 90 in the weak AL Central. When both Wild Card teams come from the same division, though, we can unequivocally see which team played better all season long. Why should we have a winner-take-all game when one team has clearly beaten the other already? It’s a bit like that kid who yells “next shot wins!” when he’s down 30-20 in a pickup basketball game.

C) Unfair advantages. The whole purpose of seeding in the playoffs is to give stronger teams a better shot at the title; after all, they’ve earned it! The team with the better record, for instance, usually has home-field advantage. In theory, the second Wild Card helps the stronger teams because, as division winners, they don’t have to play in the one-game playoff. In some scenarios, though, the Wild Card game can actually give a team with a lesser record some significant advantage.

That’s theory, though. In practice, how do these issues shake out?

Let’s take a look at the only season we’ve got in which the second Wild Card was actually used, then retroactively apply it to every other 21st-century pennant race, 2001-2011, and see what would have happened. I’ll note here that we obviously can’t KNOW what would have happened because certain aspects of each season (especially deadline trades) could have gone down quite differently if more teams were in contention. Still, I think it’s a useful exercise.

2012 NL

Division Winners: WSN (98-64), CIN (97-65), SFG (94-68)
Wild Cards: ATL (94-68) and STL (88-74)
Issues: A (Lopsided)

Right off the bat, we see a case in which one Wild Card team had a substantially better record than the other. Despite being outplayed by six games during the regular season, the Cardinals had a shot to knock the Braves out of the playoffs with a single win. That, of course, is exactly what they did.

2012 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-67), DET (88-74) and OAK (94-68)
Wild Cards: BAL (93-69) and TEX (93-69)
Issues: None

On the other hand, the American League gave us a perfectly fair matchup; the two Wild Card teams finished with identical records. The second WC didn’t make a whit of difference here, as Baltimore and Texas would have played a one-game playoff under the old rules, too. The real travesty is that the Tigers had one of three guaranteed spots in the ALDS even though they were, by record, the seventh-best team in the league.

2011 NL

Division Winners: PHI (102-60), MIL (96-66), ARI (94-68)
Wild Cards: STL (90-72), ATL (89-73)
Issues: None

It’s funny that the year before the second wild card was implemented, the NL looked like the Platonic ideal of a season under the new rules. The three best teams in the league would have gone to the NLDS, and the play-in game would have featured two teams with almost identical records from different divisions. So far, the second wild card doesn’t look so bad, but it won’t stay that way for long.

2011 AL

Division Winners: NYY (97-65), DET (95-67), TEX (96-66)
Wild Cards: TBR (91-71), BOS (90-72)
Issues: B (Intradivisional)

I’ll grant that the two Wild Cards in this matchup were only separated by one game, but it still seems a little silly to have a one-game playoff between teams that finished with different records in the same division. Much as it pains me to say it, the Rays beat the Sox out fair and square during the regular season. Why should they have had to beat them one more time in the Wild Card game?

2010 NL

Division Winners: PHI (97-65), CIN (91-71), SFG (92-70)
Wild Cards: ATL (91-71), SDP (90-72)
Issues: None

The 2010 NL looked remarkably similar to the 2011 NL. I’d point out, though, that the Reds would have made the playoffs outright while the Braves, with an identical record in a stronger division, would have been stuck in a one-game playoff.

2010 AL

Division Winners: TBR (96-66), MIN (94-68), TEX (90-72)
Wild Cards: NYY (95-67), BOS (89-73)
Issues: A, B

Well, the current rules would have made a royal mess of things. The Yankees had the second-best overall record in the league. They missed winning their division by a single game. The second WC would have given the Red Sox, who finished well behind New York in the same division, a chance to knock those Yankees off in a one-game playoff.

I hate the Yankees, but even I have to point out that this scenario would have been completely unfair.

2009 NL

Division Winners: PHI (93-69), STL (91-71), LAD (95-67)
Wild Cards: COL (92-70), FLA (87-75)
Issues: A

This isn’t the worst matchup we’ll see, but it’s bad. The Rockies actually had a better record than one of the division winners, yet they would have had to face a clearly inferior Marlins team in a one-game playoff.

2009 AL

Division Winners: NYY (103-59), MIN (87-76), LAA (97-65)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), TEX (87-75)
Issues: A

Here we have our first dual one-game playoff scenario. The Twins and Tigers played an actual one-game playoff to decide the Central, and Boston and Texas would have played a one-game Wild Card playoff. This would have been even more lopsided than the NL matchup; the Red Sox finished eight games ahead of the Rangers.

2008 NL

Division Winners: PHI (92-70), CHC (97-64), LAD (84-78)
Wild Cards: MIL (90-72), NYM (89-73)
Issues: None

Well, this Wild Card game would have been pretty fair. I would be (and was) far more upset about the Dodgers’ sneaking into the postseason with 84 wins.

2008 AL

Division Winners: TBR (97-65), CHW (89-74), LAA (100-62)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67), NYY (89-73)
Issues: A, B

This certainly would’ve been a wild one, as the White Sox and Twins played an actual one-game playoff to go with the hypothetical one-game playoff the Sox and Yankees would have played. Again, one of the Wild Cards beat out the other by a substantial margin, yet the Yankees would have had a chance to knock off a clearly superior regular-season team by winning one game.

2007 NL

Division Winners: PHI (89-73), CHC (85-77), ARI (90-72)
Wild Cards: COL (89-73) and SDP (89-73)
Issues: None

Like last year’s AL, the 2007 NL would have proceeded exactly the same way under the new rules as it actually did under the old rules. The Rockies and Padres tied for the single Wild Card and faced each other in a play-in game for a spot in the NLDS. Under today’s rules, one team would have been the “first” Wild Card, the other the “second,” and they would have played a one-game playoff for a spot in the NLDS.

2007 AL

Division Winners: BOS (96-66), CLE (96-66), LAA (94-68)
Wild Cards: NYY (94-68) and either DET (88-74) or SEA (88-74)
Issues: A

With identical records, the Tigers and Mariners would have played a one-game playoff for the second wild card, with the winner facing the Yankees in the actual Wild Card playoff game. Of course, the Yankees were clearly superior to both teams.

2006 NL

Division Winners: NYM (97-65), STL (83-78) and either SDP (88-74) or LAD (88-74)
Wild Cards: Either SDP or LAD and PHI (85-77)
Issues: C (Advantage to Lesser Team)

’06 wasn’t exactly a banner year in the National League, as only one team won more than 90 games. The second wild card, however, would have made things decidedly more interesting.

Under the old rules, the Padres were awarded the division title and the Dodgers the Wild Card based on head-to-head records. It didn’t especially matter, since the Wild Card team went to the NLDS anyway. Under the new rules, though, the Padres and Dodgers would have had to face each other in a one-game playoff, with the winner taking the division and the loser hosting the Phillies in the Wild Card game.

Here’s my biggest issue with the second Wild Card: In a scenario like this, a team with an inferior record gets the upper hand. The Phillies, with their second Wild Card spot already sewn up at the end of September, would have had the opportunity to rest their starters and re-set their rotation in the last few regular-season games. Then they would have had an additional day off while the Padres and Dodgers faced each other, likely burning their best pitchers in the process. The Wild Card game would’ve featured the well-rested Phillies and their ace against a fatigued Dodgers or Padres squad.

Even though the Phillies would have played that last game on the road, it’s easy to see a scenario in which they’d knock off a better team in a single game.

2006 AL

Division Winners: NYY (97-65), MIN (96-66), OAK (93-69)
Wild Cards: DET (95-67) and CHW (90-72)
Issues: A, B

In yet another season, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the actual division winners would have had to face a challenger with a clearly inferior record from the same division.

2005 NL

Division Winners: ATL (90-72), STL (100-62) and SDP (82-80)
Wild Cards: HOU (89-73) and PHI (88-74)
Issues: None

Okay, this Wild Card matchup would have been pretty fair, though both Houston and Philadelphia were much better teams than division-winning San Diego.

2005 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-67) or BOS (95-67), CHW (99-63) and LAA (95-67)
Wild Cards: NYY or BOS and CLE (93-69)
Issues: C

Here we have essentially the same scenario as the 2006 NL. The Yankees and Red Sox would have faced each other in a one-game playoff (with admittedly awesome ratings) for the AL East, with the loser taking on the Indians in a second one-game playoff. The same advantages enjoyed by the Phillies above would have gone to Cleveland here.

2004 NL

Division Winners: ATL (96-66), STL (105-67) and LAD (93-69)
Wild Cards: HOU (92-70) and SFG (91-71)
Issues: None

The NL gives us nothing to be upset about under the new rules. Two strong teams with comparable records from different divisions would have played in the Wild Card game. That’s fair enough.

2004 AL

Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN (92-70) and ANA (92-70)
Wild Cards: BOS (98-64) and OAK (91-71)
Issues: A

On the other hand, this is the sort of Wild Card matchup that I really don’t want to see. The Red Sox were an elite team that year. They had the second-most wins in the entire league, well ahead of the Central and West division winners. The 91-win Athletics were very good, sure, but it’s dumb that they would have had a chance to knock off the Sox in a one-game playoff.

Just in terms of the strength of the two Wild Card teams, I think this is the second-most egregious matchup. It’s a distant second, though, to one that’s coming.

2003 NL

Division Winners: ATL (101-61), CHC (88-74) and SFG (100-64)
Wild Cards: FLA (91-71) and HOU (87-75)
Issues: A

In what’s becoming a familiar refrain by now, a strong Wild Card team with a better record than one of the division winners would have had to play a team with a lesser record from a weak division.

2003 AL

Division Winners: NYY (101-61), MIN 90-72) and OAK (96-66)
Wild Cards: BOS (95-67) and SEA (93-69)
Issues: None

The eighth AL season we’ve retroactively examined is the first in which the Wild Card matchup would have been especially fair. Both teams were likely superior to the AL Central champion Twins.

2002 NL

Division Winners: ATL (101-61), STL (97-65) and ARI (98-64)
Wild Cards: SFG (95-66) and LAD (92-70)
Issues: B

This is another intra-divisional Wild Card matchup, and those are always fraught with issues. The Dodgers were a good team, but the Giants were three and a half games better over a full season. Why should Los Angeles have had a chance to erase that by winning one game?

2002 AL

Division Winners: NYY (103-58), MIN (94-67) and OAK (103-59)
Wild Cards: ANA (99-63) and either BOS (93-69) or SEA (93-69)
Issues: A

Like the 2007 AL, this season would have seen a one-game playoff for the right to participate in a one-game playoff. Both second Wild Card teams were quite a bit worse than the 99-win Angels.

2001 NL

Division Winners: ATL (88-74), HOU (93-69) or STL (93-69), and ARI (92-70)
Wild Card: HOU or STL and SFG (90-72)
Issues: C

The whole point of the second Wild Card is to make winning one’s division meaningful. The downside, as we see here, emerges when we have a tie for the division lead. Despite having tied for the best record in the whole league, Houston and St. Louis would have had to play a one-game playoff. The loser would then have had to play a strong but inferior Giants club in a second one-game playoff.

2001 AL

Division Winners: NYY (95-65), CLE (91-71) and SEA (116-46)
Wild Cards: OAK (102-60) and MIN (85-77)
Issues: A

The 2001 Athletics were a fantastic team. They won 102 games, which easily gave them the second-best record in the league (the Yankees were third with 95 wins); it just so happened that an incredible 116-win Seattle squad played in the same division. If anything, the A’s were even more impressive because they won all those games despite facing Seattle 19 times. The Mariners beat the living daylights out of every other team in the American League that year, but they went “only” 10-9 against the Athletics.

Under the rules at the time, Oakland went to the playoffs as the one and only Wild Card. Under current rules, Oakland would have faced 85-win Minnesota in the Wild Card game. The second-best team in the Majors would have faced the 14th-best in a single elimination contest while teams with much weaker records went straight to the Division Series.

That should not be possible in any sport that makes sense.

Over 24 league-seasons, we have:

11 cases of issue A – the Wild Card game would have been an especially lopsided matchup because the first team was at least four wins better than the second. This includes the absurd case of the 2001 AL.

5 cases of issue B – the Wild Card game would have included two teams with different records in the same division.

3 cases of issue C – the Wild Card matchup would have given an advantage to a team with a lesser record.

8 cases in which the Wild Card game introduced none of those issues.

The problems I’ve identified with the second Wild Card, then, aren’t just hypothetical scenarios. They seem to come up more often in the AL than the NL, but they’re common to both leagues. Every single season in the past 12 would have seen at least one of these issues in at least one league.

Moreover, even in the seasons with no issues introduced specifically by the second wild card, there were issues with the playoff system in general. Teams like the ’06 Cardinals, the ’05 Padres and the ’12 Tigers really had no business being in the postseason at all, let alone getting a free pass to the Division Series. An 85-win team in a weak division is not more playoff-worthy than a 95-win team that happens to share a division with an even stronger team.

How can we fix these issues?

My first proposed solution requires no real changes to the current structure. Keep the three divisions in each league, the three division winners and the two Wild Card teams. Put all five of those teams into one bucket and seed them in order of overall record.

The #1, #2 and #3 teams go straight to the Division Series. The #4 and #5 teams face off in a one-game playoff to get the final spot in the divisional round.

If there’s a tie for the #5 spot, play a one-game playoff see who is in and who is out. If there’s a tie at any other point in the seeding, use the following tiebreakers:

  1. Division winner over Wild Card
  2. League record
  3. Head-to-head record

Under these rules, last year’s NL playoffs would have been the same, with the Braves facing the Cardinals in a one-game playoff. The AL, however, would have pitted the Tigers against the Rangers in that one-game playoff, as Baltimore outplayed Texas against other AL teams.

A more extreme version of this same system would be to ignore division winners entirely (except for tiebreakers) and just take the five best records in the league. Under this system, the Tigers would have missed the playoffs entirely, with the Rays taking their place in the play-in game. I actually prefer this option because it eliminates clearly unqualified teams like the ’05 Padres, but I understand that baseball wants to see every division represented. Either option is better than what we have now.

My second proposed solution is more involved, but I think it makes the playoff system almost completely fair. Realign both leagues into two divisions like so:





Of course, the divisions are unequal sizes in this setup, so the league would need to expand* to include two more teams. Right now the open slots are in the East, but it would make geographic sense for the Brewers, Cubs or White Sox to switch to the East and open up slots in the West instead if necessary. (Either way, we’d have more baseball!)

*The alternative, I suppose, would be to contract two teams. I don’t think too many fans would miss the Marlins, but I can’t really see a good contraction candidate in the AL right now.

The new playoffs would just feature the top two teams in each eight-team division. In the first round, we’d have the first-place team in the West play the second-place team in the East and vice versa. With such large divisions, strength of schedule wouldn’t vary as much, so actual records would be more representative of team strength. Sure, it would mean fewer Red Sox-Yankees matchups, but the league would more than make up for its loss by adding 162 games to the season for the two extra teams. (Again, who doesn’t want more baseball?)

This isn’t a system built to produce drama, but that’s OK. MLB is not the NFL, where “any given Sunday” is king. In baseball, there are more than enough games to separate the great squads from the also-rans. Giving lesser teams a chance to sneak into the playoffs anyway undermines the whole purpose of playing the games.

Let’s turn October baseball back into what it’s meant to be: a showcase for the best of the best.

On Scoring Eight Runs

Last night, the Red Sox beat the Detroit Tigers 20-4. That’s the sort of baseball score that could be a football score, although it’s admittedly difficult to score exactly 4 points in football. Scoring 20 runs pretty much requires a big inning, and in last night’s game, that big inning was the sixth. The Sox batted around and put eight on the board en route to their rout of the Tigers.
Baseball is a funny sport in that pretty much anything is possible, but some things are very, very rare. The eight-run inning is certainly a rare thing, and it’s always fun to break down something unusual and try to figure out what happened. Here’s the play-by-play.

Daniel Nava walks on seven pitches.
My first question: What was Rick Porcello still doing in the game? He’d given up five runs in five innings to this point. He’d served up three big flies. Manager Jim Leyland had to know that if his relievers could keep the Sox contained, his team could still pull off a comeback; heck, the Tigers have the second-best offense in baseball, and they were only down one run. Granted, the Tigers don’t have an especially good bullpen, but just about anyone would have been better than last night’s version of Porcello.
Nevertheless, Leyland let his starter pitch to Nava, who promptly worked a walk. Porcello, to his credit, made him earn it… sort of. After getting ahead in the count 1-2, he missed with three straight to put the lead runner on.
Also, Nava has now reached base safely in 39 straight starts. That’s the second longest such streak in team history.
Mike Napoli doubles on the first pitch. Nava to 3rd.
Well, that went from bad to worse in a hurry. Napoli bashed his 33rd double of the year, which is a personal high by quite a lot.
Stephen Drew is intentionally walked.
For the record, I despise the intentional walk. I think it’s one of the worst strategic moves in any sport. Look, even the best hitters make an out more than half the time. Giving one of those outs away is a terrible idea, and it’s one that backfires more often than not.
Having said that, in this case I can sort of understand the logic. Stephen Drew isn’t an especially great hitter, but he’s having a very good offensive season. Moreover, he’s done pretty much all of his damage against right-handed pitchers (.864 OPS versus just .613 against lefties), and that split has been pretty consistent throughout his career. Porcello, a right-hander, was still in the game (again, why?) and Drew had already taken him deep once. Light-hitting backup catcher David Ross was on deck. First base was open.
So, okay, I can see why it made sense to put Drew on. I probably would have gone to the bullpen for a lefty instead of just giving the Sox a free baserunner, but in that situation the intentional walk wasn’t a horrible move.
It may have even worked, except that as a backup catcher, Ross is an ideal candidate to be pinch-hit for with the bases loaded. John Farrell went to the bench, which led to…
Mike Carp walks on five pitches. Nava scores.
What, were you expecting a grand slam? Porcello threw nothing but fastballs and still couldn’t find the strike zone. This finally, mercifully, meant the end of his night, as Leyland put right-hander Al Alburquerque in the game.
Will Middlebrooks hits a grand slam.
Oh. Maybe going to the bullpen wasn’t such a great idea after all.
It’s been a rough year for Middlebrooks, but he’s been on fire since being called up in August. In 22 games, his line stands at .343/.413/.529. That won’t last – he’s batting an unsustainable .412 on balls in play – but it’s good to see him hit the ball hard.
Jacoby Ellsbury strikes out swinging.
One out. It looked like, perhaps, the Tigers could limit the damage to “just” the five runs. A 10-4 deficit is pretty bad, of course, but no lead is safe at Fenway Park. Just get out of the inning, and maybe Detroit still has a chance.
Shane Victorino is hit by a pitch.
Victorino was immediately pulled for pinch-runner Quintin Berry. As far as I can tell, that was just a precaution.
Dustin Pedroia called out on strikes.
Two out. The Tigers were just one play away from ending the inning without putting the game completely out of reach.
David Ortiz doubles. Berry scores.
Or not. The double was Papi’s 2,000th career hit. That was also one full turn through the lineup, bringing Nava up to bat for the second time in the inning.
Daniel Nava homers to right field.
Runs seven and eight were on the board. Apparently, Leyland had seen enough of Al Alburquerque, who’d given up two home runs, a double and a hit batter in just two thirds of an inning. Right-hander Jeremy Bonderman came in for Detroit.
Mike Napoli strikes out swinging.
Tigers pitchers struck out the side. Well done.

On Reaching .500

The Pittsburgh Pirates just won their 81st game of the season, which means their historic streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons is finally, mercifully, over. Odds are good that in the next few days, maybe as soon as tonight, they’ll get number 82 and have their first winning season in two decades officially in the books. They’re in first place in the NL Central and a near-lock to at least capture a Wild Card berth, if not a division title, which means we’ll see them in October for the first time in a generation.

A few quick facts about the Pirates’ last postseason appearance in 1992:
  • The last pitcher to record a playoff win for the Pirates is Tim Wakefield. Now, that doesn’t seem like a big deal given that Wakefield was still active just two years ago, but in 1992 he was a 25-year-old phenom wrapping up a season that put him third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He hasn’t pitched for Pittsburgh since 1993.
  • Taking the loss for the Braves in that game was left-hander Tom Glavine. He’ll be eligible for the Hall of Fame next year.
  • The 1992 Pirates’ best pitcher was Doug Drabek, who was then 29 years old. Today, his son Kyle is in his fourth major league season with the Blue Jays.
  • Their best position player, of course, was NL MVP Barry Bonds.
  • Bonds led the team with 34 home runs. No one else had more than 14, and only two other players even cracked double digits. The Pirates’ 106 home runs would tie them with the Cardinals for 13th place in the National League today – and that’s 162 games’ worth of home runs for the Pirates against the Cardinals’ total through 137. They finished fourth in the league in 1992.
  • Put another way, the Pirates’ .381 slugging percentage would tie them with the Padres for 12th in the NL today. In 1992, that mark was good for fourth place.
It’s been a while.

In 1992, the American and National Leagues still weren’t completely merged. Each league had its own president, and interleague play (except for the World Series and All-Star Game) did not exist. There were only two divisions in each league and just two rounds of playoffs; no Wild Card, no Division Series.

The New York Yankees had their fourth straight losing season, and owner George Steinbrenner was still banned from baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays won their first of two straight World Series

The Montreal Expos not only existed, but were actually pretty good in 1992. They won 87 games and finished second in the NL East – behind, of course, the Pirates.

The AL MVP was Dennis Eckersley, who remains the last relief pitcher to take home that award. The NL Cy Young went to Greg Maddux, who was still a Cub.

Sammy Sosa was a 23-year-old outfielder who had yet to post even average offensive numbers at the Major League level. Mark McGwire was a 28-year-old former Rookie of the Year who’d flashed occasionally dominant but inconsistent offense.

Jamie Moyer was out of the big leagues and looked completely washed up at age 29.

Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett were still active players.

It’s fair to say that was a different time.

Plenty has happened in baseball since 1992, as you’d expect in any 20-year stretch. 

Since the Pirates were last in October, we’ve seen Chipper Jones’ entire Hall of Fame career and the rise and fall of Manny Being Manny Ramirez.

We’ve seen four new teams join the league in the Rockies, Marlins, Diamondbacks and Rays. All have been to the Fall Classic, two have won, and the Marlins have won twice.

Speaking of the Marlins, they’ve had three fire sales since 1992. Build it up, burn it down.

Ten different players have joined the 500-homer club since the Pirates’ last winning season. Four pitchers have joined the 300-win club. The all-time home run record has fallen; the single-season record has fallen twice.

Three different pitchers (Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera) have broken the all-time saves record. Hoffman racked up every single one of his 601 saves after the Pirates’ last postseason appearance.

Since 1992, we’ve seen the entire trailblazing career of Hideo Nomo and the subsequent wave of Japanese players. Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, Yu Darvish… none of them would have had a shot at the big leagues when the Pirates last finished over .500.

The Angels have changed geographic affiliations three times (from California to Anaheim to Los Angeles of Anaheim) without ever leaving their home city.

Baseball has changed tremendously in the last two decades. Every other franchise, even the Yankees, has had good years and bad years since 1992. We’ve seen historically great offensive seasons and historic runs of pitching dominance. We’ve seen the rise and fall of great players, great teams, great dynasties. For young fans, myself included, who have only been conscious of baseball for 20 years or less, it can be tough to keep up.

Through it all, though, the Pirates have been the constant. Whether the top sluggers are blasting 60 homers or barely reaching 40, whether the best pitcher in the game is Johnson or Martinez or Verlander or Kershaw, whether the Yankees or Marlins or Red Sox or Giants are world champions, baseball fans know one thing for certain: The Pittsburgh Pirates are always, always, always losers.

Until 2013.

I’m happy for Pittsburgh fans, because after so many years of futility, they deserve a winner. I’ll be cheering for the Pirates all the way through the playoffs (well, at least until they meet my Red Sox in the Fall Classic). I’m a little sad, though, because one more constant in my life as a fan is gone.

At least the Cubs haven’t won the World Series yet. I’m pretty sure the world would end.