First Pitch: This Isn’t a One Year Problem With the NL Central and the Wild Card

About a month ago I wrote about how MLB needs to change their playoff format. The NL playoffs are all but wrapped up, and will feature two of the top three teams in the league in the Wild Card game. The winner will go on to play the best team in the league, which means that MLB currently has a system that guarantees two of the best three teams will be eliminated from the NL playoffs before the NLCS. Meanwhile, the Mets and Dodgers will enter the post-season just needing to win three games against the fourth or fifth best team in the league, all because the teams they play aren’t as good as the teams in the NL Central.

This is a weird, outdated concept, and it doesn’t make sense that MLB goes with this system. Right now there are no real playoff races, unless you consider the small chance of the Pirates overtaking the Cardinals for the NL Central, or the Cubs overtaking the Pirates for home field in the NL Wild Card game.

Without divisions, there would actually be some playoff races. You’d still have the Pirates with an outside shot at home field advantage. You’d still have the Cubs trying to overtake the Pirates. But more importantly, you’d have the Cubs trying to hold off the Mets and the Dodgers, and trying to maintain their spot in the NLDS, while avoiding the play-in game.

That’s the problem with the Wild Card game. It’s something that should be avoided, as no team wants to put a 162 game season all on one game. But the problem is that some teams currently are having an easier time avoiding the Wild Card game than others. Los Angeles and New York are avoiding the Wild Card game simply because the rest of their division is weak. St. Louis is avoiding the Wild Card game because they’ve had a fantastic season. But the Pirates and Cubs are stuck in that game due to that fantastic season the Cardinals are having, despite the fact that Pittsburgh and Chicago are also having great seasons.

One big argument against changing the playoff format is that this is just a one year thing, and that it hasn’t happened before. I’ve pointed out that the system is too new for us to reach this problem yet. The only other NL Wild Card team that could have won a different division was in 2013 with the Pirates. But now we have two Wild Card teams who could have won either the East or the West divisions.

The problem is that this doesn’t look to be going away. The Cubs have a very young and talented team, with a lot of money to spend. The Pirates have a very young and talented team, and several prospects in the upper levels who will only add to that talent in the next year. The Cardinals also don’t look to be going anywhere, and based on the league prospect rankings by Baseball America, they’re restocking the lower levels of their farm system.

All three of these teams project to be strong teams going forward, with no foreseeable drop off in the near future. In fact, they all might have a shot of improving, which increases the odds that we could be in this same situation next year. And if this keeps happening, then baseball will have one really good NL division, two weak divisions, and will guarantee that their best teams will never meet in the NLCS. That’s not how the playoffs should work, and it’s not how a league should be structured.

If this truly was a one-time deal in a system that has been around for ages, then making changes wouldn’t make sense. But this is the first time a flaw has been detected in a new system, and it’s a flaw that projects to impact this system going forward. That gives every reason for MLB to make a change next year, and fix the problem that the fairly new one game Wild Card created.

**Pirates Look Like They Have One of the Best NL Playoff Rotations. Looking beyond Jake Arrieta and the Wild Card game, Pete Ellis breaks down how the Pirates have one of the best NL playoff rotations. On that note, I wrote about Arrieta a lot this weekend, mostly because they were playing the Cubs and that gave a preview of what he can do. If you’ll notice, I’ve never once said the Pirates can’t beat him in the Wild Card game. I’ve said it will be very difficult to beat him, and anyone who says otherwise isn’t being honest about how good a pitcher he has been. But I’ve also written a few articles pointing out keys to beating him, such as countering with Gerrit Cole, running up the pitch count, and Gregory Polanco’s limited success against him. Don’t mistake the talk about Arrieta being good with the idea that the Pirates have no shot.

**Pirates Place Three Among Top 20 Prospects in FSL. They had a very strong team in the FSL this year, with a lot of good prospects beyond Meadows, Ramirez, and McGuire.

**LOTS OF HEAT! From Monday, I found the Oliver Perez “Lots of Heat” commercial. Enjoy!

**Hurdle, Hughes, and Broxton Discuss What It’s Like to be a September Callup. Also from Monday, I really liked the input of this article, taking a look at the feeling of being a September callup from two people who went through it, and one person currently in the process. There’s not much prospect analysis available right now, as winter leagues and the AFL don’t start for a few weeks. Therefore, this is the time of year to get these types of looks into areas that we don’t talk about when games are being played and performances can be evaluated.

First Pitch

  • Or we could just eliminate the one-game playoff, which from the onset was one of the most nonsensical ideas in sports given the ENTIRE SEASON is played in series. There are 162 games on the schedule for a reason.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 30, 2015 8:19 pm

    Another great performance by Morton tonight….great decision to keep him and Locke in the rotation. In fact let’s bring them both back next year and do it again, while Glasnow and others sit in Indy.

    • Stop with the calls for Glasnow. He’s proved in Indy that he’s not going to do any better right now. So why would you want him up now, gaining service time and running the risk of him getting shell shocked?

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 30, 2015 5:37 pm

    Today’s win was great, but probably too little too late – down 3 games with 4 to go – sound familiar? Yesterday’s loss really hurt – big missed opportunity with the Cards playing short-handed.

    To not win the division this year is a big disappointment to me. Obviously, if the Pirates can somehow beat Arrieta and go deep into the playoffs, that disappointment will be largely forgotten.

    But, we SHOULD have won the division – the Pirates are better than the Cardinals. All those ridiculous losses to the Brewers and Reds were obviously killers, the numerous blown and give away games in St. Louis, the terrible defense – especially in the infield, and yes – not doing anything to improve the starting rotation’s #4 and #5 spots, when AJ was out. Morton and Locke were both mediocre at best – and often were just bad – especially Locke. Iif we could have just one a couple of those starts with a young, talented, but still raw Glasnow, that could have been the difference. That would have required a very bold, and thinking “out of the box” kind of decision that the Pirates were not willing to make – so, we lived with the consequences.

    Beating Arrieta will be a very tall order – but he is due, no over due, for a sub-par performance. Lets hope it happens next Wednesday night!

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    September 30, 2015 5:29 pm

    If they are going to continue to have the wild card game, it needs to be expanded to best of 3 – so, you each team gets at least one home game as a reward for their fans. Also, you don’t play 162 games and get eliminated in one night.

  • If we were sitting in the Cardinals position, would we be writing any articles about how unfair the system is? I don’t have a problem with it. The goal is to be the best team. The Cardinals have been better than us. If we want to avoid the Wild Card game, then we should be the best team and win our division.

    • It’s an unfair system to the Cards too. They have to play either the Pirates or Cubs in the NLDS.

      • Agreed. I understand why the Pirates are where they are, but I’m a little annoyed with the Mets who did not beat the Pirates AND Cubs all year. But the four letter network has all but crowned them on some telecasts. Please…

      • Agree with this. They’re probably going to win 100+ games, and are guaranteed to play one of the two best teams in baseball. Meanwhile, Los Angeles and New York finish with worse records, and get a much easier path to the NLCS.

      • If the Cardinals are the best team it shouldn’t matter who they play. Plus I think at this point all the playoff teams are really good regardless of record. You really think it would be an easier path to face Grienke/Kershsw in a 5 game series? Or Cespedes and the Mets young rotation of aces? I’m not sure there’s a substantial difference there. Just because the system didn’t line up in our favor this time doesn’t mean its totally broken. We should have won our division. If your the best, then beat the best. Why does it matter if it’s in the wild card, divisional round, or NLCS? If I had to make a change, I would make the Wild Card a 3 game series. That’s it.

  • I agree with the premise, but is it worth looking at taking it further?

    If the season ended today, two of the top three teams in the NL will never make it to the NLCS. As well, two of the top three teams in all of MLB have no chance at the World Series. The best-case scenario is first and fourth best teams in the sport playing for the title.

    I’m not sure how I feel about that one way or the other…

  • Hey where are the season ending summaries? Did I miss them? I saw the DR, GCL, and Bristol so far

    • Still working on the others. We finished the top 10 rankings last week. There was a bit of a delay with me being on the road. I couldn’t do a quality write up for Morgantown, WV, and Bradenton while focusing on Chicago. Morgantown will be next, and involves getting a lot of info off my recorder from the games I covered in August.

  • Baseball is licking it’s chops right now. They potentially have a subway series on the horizon or a yankee-dodger series. Everything is good in their eyes!!

    • Don’t see the Yankees making it past Toronto. But then again it is the Yankees. And anything is possible in the NL right now.

  • According to Tom Ricketts, Cub’s principal owner, they have a budget to stay within and it is not unlimited. He thinks it is not how much they spend, but how wisely they spend it.

    • With 4-5 offensive players early in their rookie deals, even that statement doesnt give me great happiness. They’ve got the big Lester deal to deal with, but they could bring in another #2 type arm this offseason and likely not break the bank. They’d have a very solid 1-3 (Arrieta heading into arb years but thats manageable) and a young offense. They have few needs (catcher being one) outside of 1 SP and making sure the bullpen doesnt suck.

      • Solid?!?

        Yeah, and that Bryant guy a *decent* rookie campaign. 😉

        • Im still skeptical of some of that offense being elite. Lotta K’s and i dont think Schwarber is all that effective overall. Lotta HRs but he’s failed to adjust after the league adjust to him. Russell also doesnt strike me as being a dangerous hitter next year.

          But it’ll be an offense with 3-4 good hitters and 2-3 average types that bring other big time skills (Russell on defense). Good offense with a great staff for sure. Cubs will be interesting to watch as the young guys develop into whatever they become.

          • Point I was trying to make regarded somewhat marginalizing Cubs pitching. Everyone talks about the offense and young players, but they’ve done a far, far better job with the pitching staff. Most valuable rotation, and bullpen, in the entire league.

            Adding another big free agent to a staff already headlined by Arrietta/Lester and supported by Hendricks/Hammel would easily give them the odds on favorite for best in the Division and quite possibly in all of baseball.

            • The consensus among baseball writers seems to be that the Cubs are gonna go after Price this offseason too. Although, I wouldn’t sleep on the Pirates potential rotation being Cole, Frank, FA, Taillon, and Glasnow by the end of next year. I think the Cubs and Pirates pass the Cards next year. By 2017, Liriano could very well be the Pirates 4th or 5th starter. Funny thing is, Frank doesn’t have a lot of mileage for his age, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks around with the Bucs for a few more years after 2017.

              • Absolutely. I don’t get all butthurt trying to downplay what the Cubs have done or what the Cards always seem to do simply because there’s far too much variability in this game to predict doom for the Pirates. They’re pretty good, too after all.

                The Cubs will have an incredible rotation next year, and the Pirates will have a ton of upside as well.

            • I dont share that level of praise for CHC. It’ll be one of the best rotation in baseball, but that really doesnt make me think they are anything more than WSH to begin the year.

              Lotta potential, young enough to only win 85-90 games even with superb pitching. Much as PGH was successful due to trades, that vaunted CHC pitching staff came about from money and timely career breakouts from nowhere via Arrieta. They stayed very healthy and got very good rookie contributions without much downfall, im skeptical they wont deal with any issues going forward that stops them from dominating baseball.

              Very young, very good, very much something to worry about. But i dont see them as best in baseball next year.

              • I think you’re projecting, Luke.

                • Could be. I absolutely see CHC as talented and fully able to win the division, i just dont think it’ll be clear they are the class of baseball. They have issues like many talented teams. Signing Price helps, but i see that as dumb for them long term when they need to pay a few young good players more in 3-4 years. They might not mind that and will just worry about it later, but i assume their FO isnt that dumb.

                  I think a Price level mega deal actually hurts the Cubs longterm and wont happen.

                  • I certainly don’t think they’re clearly the class of baseball either, Luke. Nobody has said that but you, buddy. Buccos will be fine.

  • It’s likely that MLB will change nothing as they are slow to implement anything, and when they do implement anything it’s usually as bad or worse than the original issue.
    The bottom line is that the Bucs will have to learn to win the division, period. Whatever that takes, the team and players will have to win series they should win – like not getting their asses kicked by the central this year. Then they wouldn’t be in this situation.
    I see this as a very possible scenario as long as the management team successfully transitions from a developmental organization to one that is competing for that top spot. Can the leadership do that?
    What would that look like if they did?
    It will be interesting to see if the commitment to winning is there now that the culture, the fans, the attendance, the support is there. What they asked for from the fans has been received, so we’ll see if they find a way to finish the job they started.

    • This logic implies that the Mets and Dodgers inherently did something more or better than the Pirates on their way to “learning” to win their division, which of course is completely silly.

      • They learned to play in divisions with ATL, PHI, SD, and ARI of course. Why didnt we think of that.

        • I know some people will just never be comfortable accepting the randomness inherent in baseball, but I just can’t for the life of me understand this logic. Brian is far, far from alone so it’s not that I’m attacking him personally, but the very questions he himself poses are unanswerable.

          • Without a doubt its not just one or two fans running with that idea, its rather common with many fans.

            To each their own, but it does just make me shake my head at the logic. You win 95 games and it clearly shows a team able to win a division, while actually winning the division can come down to random variance. The idea that the team needs to up its leadership or skill is silly.

          • What is “randomness” anyway? Is it that Mark Reynolds belts an inside fastball out of the park when most likely he and everyone in the Pirates rooting area was thinking he should be looking for a low outside cutter? And Arrieta makes multiple mistakes but the Pirates hitters don’t take advantage of any of them?

            I ask this in all seriousness. Because as much as some like to think stats are predictive, the reality is that baseball is a game of mistakes and the guys and teams who are prepared to take the most advantage of those mistakes while making the fewest themselves tend to win more.

            Additionally, fundamentals aren’t random, IMO. No team is perfect, but simply improving baserunning, throwing to right base, being aggressive without being stupid… well, that’s probably a couple wins right there. To suggest that the 2015 Bucs couldn’t be better than the current 95 wins is also a losing argument in my book.

            • Except nobody suggested the 2015 Bucs couldn’t be better than the current 95 win team. Of course they could. You just also have to say the same thing about every other club in baseball.

              Randomness in it’s most obvious form is the inability to explain every single thing that happens. The Cards posting the highest batting average with runners in scoring position in the modern era two years ago, and the Cards posting the highest left on base percentage in the modern era this year is randomness. The Cards obviously weren’t *actually* that good all by themselves in 2013 as they plummeted back down to earth last year in that category, and they’re obviously not as good at stranding runners as they’ve shown this season.

              No amount of “fundamentals” can explain those extremes. *That* is randomness.

              They didn’t “learn how to win the Division”. They built very good teams that happened into good circumstances. Without the RISP luck in 2013, the Pirates would’ve been Division champs. Without the LOB luck this year, the Pirates would probably be Division champs. It sucks when you’re on this side of it, but that’s baseball.

              • The Pirates lead the league in errors. That fact is not “randomness” and has directly impacted the number of losses. Fundamental base running mistakes and the failure of a charging outfielder to get in front of the baseball are all too common. These are mistakes that should be rare at the major league level……as pointed out all season by the former major league players who now serve on the Pirate broadcast team. As good as this team has been record wise….the number of mental and physical mistakes that lost ball games may cause an early end to the season.

                • Which has absolutely nothing to do with this conversation.

                  The Pirates are certainly a flawed team, but one that *still* has more wins than all but one team in baseball. That team just so happens to be in their same division.

                  If the Pirates exchanged divisions with the Mets or Dodgers – while remaining the same exact team – not only would we not be having these silly conversations about “learning to win the division”, but those clubs would not even be in the playoffs.

                  *Every* baseball team is flawed in some way. Blaming the Pirates losing the division on their one weakness is essentially saying “if your team is perfect, you win the division”. Of course you will! But that has nothing at all to do with “learning to win the division”.

                  • As usual, when challenged you go through contortions while misrepresenting the statements of others. Your last paragraph is classic NMR preaching…..flawed and nauseating, with the usual dose of arrogance.

  • I completely understand this setup and why MLB chose it. IMO, it’s basically the BCS, but with the caveat that more teams “feel” they’re in the race. The BCS was designed to do one thing and one thing only: create a championship game with the two best teams based on season-long performance. And for as much criticism as has been levied against the BCS, it achieved exactly that. MLB hasn’t yet, as evidenced by three of the eight teams reaching the WS in the current format were WCs.

    Sucks for us that the Cards are having an even better season, but in looking at how they’ve achieved that – primarily with exceptional depth and an uncanny ability to seize opportunities when presented – the thing to ask is “How can the Pirates learn from this?”

    The thing about “competitive windows” is that despite all assertions to the contrary, they do exist relative to the competition. The Cards are the Cards. The Cubs have a solid MLB team coupled with a solid minors system/excellent Caribbean presence/unlimited money. The Mets have pitching and should be back on solid financial footing shortly. The Dodgers are an ATM. Other teams, like Miami or AZ, have ingredients to be able to put together a 1-2 year run with one or two acquisitions.

    The Pirates are in good competitive shape for awhile. But do they have enough to win it all at any time in the next five years? More urgently, how do the Bucs position themselves to win the NLC in 2016 while integrating Bell/Taillon/Glasnow/Hanson into the mix – none of whom should be expected to be major contributors/difference makers in 2016.

    • The Bucs can win the NL Central next year while integrating rookies into lineup by having them learn how to win from seasoned vets.

      They need to be put into a position to succeed by being asked to contribute as role players/back of rotation SP’s. The established vets and proven All-Stars will lead this team to a championship. If the guys you mentioned are forced by injury or poor performance to be thrust into being major contributors/difference makers, than no they most likely won’t win. But there’s no reason to think today that this will be the case.

      • You want to see how to win with a young team? Take a look at the Cubs.

        • Or the 2013 Pirates, but hey narratives are more fun.

          Acting like the Cubs are doing something PGH isnt able to do is assuming they are destined for a long playoff run. They fail to make the NLCS, they arent all that different from PGH 2 years ago. Over 90 wins, a WC team, and very talented and young.

          If anything, much of CHC isnt all that young. Young offense, veteran led rotation and bench.

          • Same could be said for the 2013 Pirates though. Yes, the Cubs have all veteran pitchers. But apart from Locke and Cole (who wasn’t there for the full 2013 season) that rotation is led by two veterans in AJ and Liriano.
            My point wasn’t even that the Cubs are doing something that the Pirates aren’t. I was just simply stating that the Cubs are young and good. However, it’s not very often you see that many guys come up and have an immediate impact like they’ve seen this year.
            Going back to 2013 though, all you have to is look at the wild card game lineup. I would consider Marte young, Pedro and Cutch were in their 4th and 5th seasons, respectively. I’ll give you Mercer then as well. Other than that, your wild card lineup is Byrd, Morneau, Walker, Barmes, and Martin.

          • The one big difference is that there wasn’t any speculation about the Pirates signing a free agent like David Price once their breakout year ended.

            • PGH has been fine without it, and id argue another ace level contract would actually hurt CHC long term. They’d have a window in the next 2-4 years, but they’d at some point be on the hook for 2 major contracts and need to pay 2-4 not players and still field a full team.

              They’ll be way better off signing a very good but not elite arm to a smaller deal and still being scary good in the short term but less strapped long term.

  • Tim…I like your thinking…but it’ll never happen. jmo.

  • I don’t think we need to get rid of divisions, but just make changes to the seeding. Division winners get a playoff berth, but seeding is based on records instead.

    • Division winners did what they had to to win their division. IMO, you can’t relegate a division winner to a play-in game, and I’m not sure if that’s what you’re saying here.

      However, after the WC game winner is determined, then yes, I agree with reseeding. The current format as applied to this year is patently unfair to the Cardinals, especially if the Bucs win the WC game. The best record in MLB should not have to play the 2nd best record in MLB in a divisional series in any format.

      • “Division winners did what they had to to win their division. IMO, you can’t relegate a division winner to a play-in game”

        If you know the rules going into the season, I think it’s perfectly fair to, say, guarantee division winners a playoff spot regardless of record (the guarantee being the reason for keeping division play around), but reseed the league by record to determine WC. If you are in a weaker division, and you have a worse record than a 2nd place team in another, harder division, you really can’t complain. The other side of that coin, of course, is that the Pirates can’t complain if the NL East champ clean up in a weak division and end up seeded ahead of a superior team. I’d say that’s an improvement though, and a hybrid of the current system vs. strict league seeding is probably best.

  • It won’t change until the Yankees lose to the Orioles in the wild card game when both teams would have won either of the other two divisions in the AL. This, and the draft, are where I think hockey actually has a superior product. At least superior implementation.

  • It is a pretty big jump from the Pirates, Cardinals, and Cubs, project to be good (how is that working Nationals?), to these teams will be continually shafted under the current playoff structure, because they will be the three best in baseball.

    A think this situation is pretty unique, in the Wild Card era the 2001 Astros (tied with 93 wins with the Cardinals) could have won the other two divisions, and it has happen several times in the AL East, with the Yankees and another team, 97, 98, 04, 10. Not any situations that mirror the current NL standings, (though I could have missed an instance).

    Getting rid of divisions, and having a balanced scheduled, would be more equitable and ideal, but the amount of travel would be a real concern and probably a non-starter. Two divisions would be an improvement, and you could argue for other changes to make it more fair. But playoffs aren’t about being fair or equitable, they are entertainment.

    • Andrew…I’m with you 100%. Heck, in 2013 we got into the NLDS and lost.

      Teams are so evenly matched, that luck and hot players usually decide playoff victories.

      Just last year, the two WC teams went to the WS and Kershaw stunk it up.

    • Very, very much agree.

      The Cards-Pirates-Cubs situation this year has been exacerbated just as much, if not more by half the NL shaking out to be pretty terrible baseball clubs. Regardless of how well-positioned the three big NL Central teams are moving forward, the league itself won’t have five or six teams rebuilding forever.

  • Don’t count on MLB changing their love of geography more than wins. Believe me when I say there are many people inside MLB offices who are excited as can be a team from either LA or NY is guaranteed to be in NLCS. They care more about TV ratings and keeping sponsors happy than providing a system where there’s even a chance the best two teams meet in NLCS.

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