The Magazine

If Darwin Ran Baseball

A modest proposal for ensuring that the best teams play in the World Series.

Oct 12, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 04 • By WILLY STERN
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The modern World Series began in 1903 with the Boston Americans beating the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three in a grueling 13 days. (Boston's rubber-armed Bill Dinneen pitched four complete games, winning three with two shutouts.) For much of their storied histories, the National and American Leagues simply sent their best team to the World Series. The quirky best-of-nine format was used again from 1919-21, but the rest of the years, the first squad to win four games was crowned the champs and went home to a parade and bragging rights. Clean and easy.

We purists miss those days. But a simple seven-game series was terrible for maximizing television revenues and ticket sales. And, like it or not, the almighty chase for income drives sporting decisions. Today, Major League Baseball has an eight-team playoff format with a potential for 41 playoff games. This churns out money and allows a few more teams a shot at playing meaningful games deep into autumn. But it also means that the best team no longer necessarily wins, or even makes it to, the World Series. This is silly, and fixable.

The first round of the playoffs is fraught with danger for a quality team, as the winner must take three out of five games. A mediocre team with two dominant starting pitchers can easily defeat a balanced club of quality starters built to win 100 games over a season. Why? Because these two hurlers may well pitch four of the five games. Take this year's American League. Had the Detroit Tigers not lost a one-game playoff with the Minnesota Twins, they would likely have been the most dangerous team in the postseason despite having the worst record among American League teams. Why? Because the Tigers boast an indomitable starting pitcher in Justin Verlander and a very talented number two in Edwin Jackson.

Baseball is also the sport where it is least likely that the best team will win any given contest. Consider the winning percentages of the eight best teams in the other major sports in their latest regular season: NBA (71 percent), NFL (73 percent), and NHL (68 percent, excluding ties). By contrast, as of this writing, the best eight teams in Major League baseball have only won 59 percent of their games. Even in baseball's final two playoff rounds, where four victories are needed, the better team isn't as likely to advance as in the other major professional sports.

Then there's the cockamamie way the playoff teams are selected. The winner of each league's three divisions marches on. The coveted fourth and final spot goes to the second-place team with the best record: the "wildcard" entry.

The problem, of course, is that a weak division can send a run-of-the-mill team to the playoffs, whilst a superior club in a strong division goes home. Consider the 2005 San Diego Padres, which "won" the National League West with a pedestrian 82-80 record. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of 88 games in the more accomplished East Division, did not make it to the postseason. Consider, too, that the Florida Marlins have taken home two World Series trophies but have never won a division title.

Craig Robinson, proprietor of flipflopflyball.com, has made a study of the correlation of regular-season baseball records to World Series success, since the wild card was introduced. His findings:

* The team with the best record in baseball has only won the World Series once (1998 Yankees). The 2007 Red Sox tied with the Cleveland Indians for the best record and also won the series.

* The playoff team with the worst record has won two World Series (2000 Yanks and 2006 Cardinals).

* Only in 1995 did the teams with the best record even meet in the World Series (Indians and Braves).

* In only three seasons did the best eight teams go on to the playoffs (1996, 2002, and 2004).

These don't exactly inspire a vote of confidence in the current system.
To be fair, baseball is not alone in this divisional foolishness. The NFL's New England Patriots were famously denied a playoff spot last year after finishing 11-5, while the 8-8 San Diego Chargers played on. The Golden State Warriors of the NBA's powerful Western Conference posted a nifty 48-34 record in the 2007-08 season, yet missed the playoffs while the hapless Atlanta Hawks, 37-45 in the lowly Eastern Conference, made them. Ridiculous, of course, but it's baseball we're here to mend.

Here's a modest proposal to make the protracted regular-season schedule meaningful again and reward the best Major League baseball clubs:

Stay with an eight-team playoff format, four per league. Neither the owners nor the players' union--both quite reasonably driven by money--will squabble as those all-important TV revenues keep flowing.

Do away with the divisions. Send the four best teams in each league to the playoffs. Don't fret, Red Sox and Yankee fans: To satisfy regional rivalries, Major League Baseball's schedulers can still arrange more games against traditional rivals.

Give the better team a leg up. In the first round of the playoffs, the team with the best record in each league would square off versus the club with the fourth-best record, while the second and third seeds would pair off. In each round, the winner is the first team to attain four victories. But here's the kicker: In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the team with the better record is automatically awarded a victory before the games start. The better team over a 162-game season must, then, win just three of six, whilst the lesser team must prevail in four out of six. This new format could further favor the better regular-season squad by giving that side a decided home field advantage. Of the potential six games played in each series, the first two could be at the better team's home park, followed by two away, then two back home.

The World Series would remain a four-of-seven affair. I don't much like the midsummer All-Star game's determining home-field advantage for the series. Whichever team has the better record during the regular season should have that plum for the World Series. (The All-Star game outcome would only matter in the unlikely event that both leagues sent teams to the World Series with identical regular-season records.)

I'll save the bean-counters the trouble of doing the math on possible lost TV revenues: There aren't any. In fact, there's a potential for two additional playoff games--if every series were to go the distance. And many more regular-season games would suddenly matter. Maybe even matter a lot. No more could a well-heeled team get away with clinching its division with three weeks to go and trotting out Triple-A players while resting its regulars down the homestretch. Who'd want to risk forgoing an automatic playoff victory or two? And think of the fan interest, both in terms of gate receipts and television viewers, as the 162-game marathon wound to a tense close.

And speaking of that 162-game season, I'd also like to advocate for chopping the schedule back to the old 154 games. Sure, a shorter season would be a tricky sell with players and owners alike. But playing a warm-weather sport with ski gloves in 37-degree temps makes a mockery of the World Series.

Voilà. Regular season performance would once again seriously matter. The best club would have a better chance of being crowned World Series champs. Survival of the fittest? Not exactly. But this format would at least aid in the ultimate survival of the team with the superior pitching, hitting, and fielding. Charles Darwin would approve. So would Casey Stengel. How 'bout it, Bud?

Willy Stern taught a short course on "Baseball, Ethics, and American Society" at Carleton College last year.