Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | October 23, 2009

I Don’t Enjoy The MLB Playoffs Like I Used To

EDIT: 

I wrote this piece prior to the existance of this blog. In order to maintain continuity of my writing and to get as much of it into one place as possible, I added this post at a later date and time stamped it to the date and approximate time that I originally wrote it. This is the reason why it appears before the “introduction” blog entry. It is because this piece actually predates the blog. What follows below is the original entry as written whenever I wrote it.

I’ve been procrastinating seriously on writing this. I meant to tackle it a week and a half ago. Fatigue and work have delayed it until this time. I have, sadly, reached a point in my life that I never thought that I would reach, and that I’m not particularly happy about reaching: I don’t care nearly as much about the Major League Baseball playoffs as I used to, unless the Tigers are involved. Not even close. In fact, to say that I barely care would be accurate. It’s not that I don’t care at all, but to me its hardly must-see television. The only reason I even know as much about whats going on as I do, is because I still read the usual baseball websites that I go to (Fangraphs, The Hardball Times, Beyond the Box Score, and Joeposnanski.com……..which is not really a baseball site, because he is a senior writer for SI and because its his personal blog, but he writes PRIMARILY about baseball) and in amongst the articles that interest me MORE (player personnel and season review articles at this time), are several analyses of the post-season that keep me generally informed of what’s going on. I also have taken to listening to MLB Radio periodically over the last week or so and they talk about it on there quite a bit, as one might imagine.

Still, as recently as two or three days ago, I was aghast to discover that the Phillies led the Dodgers three games to one in the NLCS. I had not been aware the series started, and here it was about to end. It was not until Game 4 of the ALCS the other night — The first playoff game that I actually physically watched in this season on television — That I realized that series was in a fourth game. I vaguely knew that it had started, but was keeping no track of the series whatsoever.

I cannot fully explain this phenomenon. I still love baseball, as much as I ever have. In fact, I may love it MORE than I ever have. I’ve really gotten deeper into understanding the game, both at the business level and on-the-field, and I’m thankful for the ever-increasing number of tools available to the casual fan to enhance this enjoyment (pitchFx, Cots, etc.). I think I’ve learned more about baseball in 2009 than I have in any single year since 2004 (I learned alot that year), and I look at the game far more differently — And deeper — Now than I did one year ago. And I looked at it pretty deeply a year ago. I follow the minor leagues…..not closely, but probably dramatically more closely than the average fan, as I generally check up on them on a weekly basis. And these check-ups tend to be much more than simple cursory glances. As I stated above, even though I’ve paid almost no attention to the playoffs, I’m still reading about the game on either a daily or bi-daily basis in some form or fashion. Yet for some reason, the playoffs with each passing year, grab me less and less than the previous year — 2006 being the one exception because the Tigers made it. While I can’t completely understand it, I definitely have some ideas as to why this may be. And so I will outline them.

Presentation

I remember when Dennis Eckersley faced Kirk Gibson in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. This matchup ended in one of the most famous scenes in baseball history. I’ve now seen it seventy bajillion times. Most people who have made it this far in reading this have probably seen it at least half as many times too. It’s on every highlight montage, and I’d wager most NON-baseball fans, even if they are not sports fans at all, have probably seen it a few times…….even if they don’t recognize it or recognize what it is they’re watching. I watched it live, and I remember it very vividly. That game, in its three hours and four minutes of glory, featured top notch commentary to go along with the event. As Gibson walked up to the plate, the venerable Vin Scully noted that when “You talk about a roll of the dice…this is it.” A description of the gall it took to send the limping, injured Gibson to the plate. Just moments later, Scully was telling us “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened!”, referring to Gibson’s dramatic walk-off home run, as only he could. I watched it with the regular camera shots used during the games of the week, and I watched the game. You know, sports provides its own drama…….it doesn’t need any faux-drama. Gibson showed us that. Scully showed us that.

Today, I watched my second post-season game of the 2009 season. Game 5 of the ALCS. I didn’t watch the whole game. In fact, I’ve still yet to see a WHOLE game in this year. I watched the bottom of the first as I ate dinner, and I watched the bottom of the 8th and top of the 9th (ironically, after watching an hour-and-a-half long documentary on the 1991 World Series). Tuning in to the game, I hear Joe Buck. The same man who has been on record as saying he doesn’t like baseball all THAT much — And sounds like it. Alot of people complain about Tim McCarver, and while I would agree that he adds little to the broadcast, he doesn’t really irritate me either. It’s Joe Buck who is just terrible. How he remains Fox’s lead announcer is beyond me, other than being an example of extreme nepotism (He is the son of Hall-of-Fame announcer Jack Buck). Already, compared to the sounds that I was accustomed to growing up, this is an extreme downgrade.

Then I notice how the game is being directed, and its debatably MORE abominable. The last at-bat which pitted Nick Swisher against Brian Fuentes with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Yankees down by a run was a six-pitch at-bat. Within the span of six pitches, I believe I saw no fewer than 30 cuts to the eyes of either Fuentes or Swisher. Apparently, the director wants us to see the “steely-eyed look of a competitor” or to “read the fear in his eyes”, or some other such scripted faux-drama nonsense. The only thing they DIDN’T do (and I fully expect to see this in 2010) was a split-screen with BOTH sets of their eyes simultaneously on the screen so that we could compare for grittiness and steely-eyed toughness.

Interviewing managers during the game by asking questions that are usually bad and even when good, cannot possibly carry the expectation of being answered truthfully or cogently considering that there is still a game going on, adds little to nothing. Creating angles that do not exist, adds little to nothing. In all, it feels more like a production of Fox (or TBS, who admittedly did well with the Tigers/Twins game, which was their only post 162-game presentation that I saw this year) than the game that I’ve come to watch on Fox Sports Detroit or any other local network during the year. Or ESPN. Or MLB Network. It doesn’t even resemble the Fox regular season telecast (which I have disdain for as well, but less than their playoff telecasts).

It has happened gradually, but finally, the presentation of these games is very difficult to sit through. They’ve done all they can to make a dramatic and great sport as grating as possible.

Generally Reduced Interest In Watching Other Teams Play

Simply put, I just don’t care about watching other teams than the Tigers or their affiliates play games as much as I used to. Especially if I’m not there in person. I’ll still tune in for minor league games, random MLB games, WBC, Winter league games periodically if the mood strikes me, especially in Spring Training and during the Winter when I begin to miss the sport the most. But overall, unless I’m there in person, I don’t really like watching games that have no bearing on the Tigers very much anymore. It’s not that I don’t care about other teams at all. Just the other day I was reading an article about the Padres mop-up man, Luis Perdomo, a Rule V pick. A lengthy article too. I read about other teams all the time, and try my best to generally keep up a working knowledge of other teams, even if that “working knowledge” isn’t enough to make me the authority or expert that I claim to be on Tigers issues. It is true that the closer a team is to the Tigers, the more I know about them. I’m very well versed on all the teams in the AL Central to an extent greater than ANY National League team, for example. However, aside from Colorado and Arizona, I do maintain some working knowledge of most teams. I just don’t need to see them play unless I’m actually there.

As a result, if the Tigers are not in the playoffs, I don’t particularly feel inclined to invest my time that much anymore. This phenomenon is not limited to baseball. I don’t care about the NBA Playoffs beyond the Pistons. I only really care about the final two rounds of the NFL Playoffs. Last year I was really on top of the NHL Playoffs, but prior to that, I only paid attention in so far as it affected the Red Wings pretty much every year after 1998, which is the last year I can remember paying attention to the entire playoff field in hockey.

The only sport where I regularly watch teams other than my own is college football, although I watched less games last year than I had in ten years, and I’ve watched less games per week this year than I did last year. I’ve only seen two Michigan State games and zero games featuring other teams this year.

So baseball isn’t alone here, it’s just one of the last sports to the party. As I’ve grown older, my interest has shrunk to be more centered on my own team.

Time of Game

This could’ve gone under the same category as “Presentation”, but I opted to make it a separate and distinct category.

I suspect that many people who are both sports fans AND non-baseball fans, derive most of their complaints about the games from the playoffs.

I suspect this, because as I went on about in the “presentation” category, I believe that the playoffs, which are meant to feature the best of the best teams in the highest of the highest pressure packed scenarios and thereby being the most fun — Feature the worst the sport has to offer.

Virtually all of the worst things about baseball come out in the playoffs, and among them is the time of game. As a general belief, I find it completely incredulous that ANYONE could think baseball is boring. Especially if the same said person is a football fan. There is just so much going on all the time, little things, that I don’t see how anyone could possibly refer to it as “boring”. And yet, playoff games usually are just that. Even I find alot of them boring. In fact, even though one of the major caveats of this piece is that my interest in the playoffs has waned “unless the Tigers are involved”, it was the Tigers involvement in 2006 that really drew my attention to how bad it was to watch these games on TV.

I was HEAVILY personally invested in those games, and even I had a hard time concentrating on them on TV. Fortunately I personally attended five of their thirteen post-season games that year, and in the 8 games I did not attend, one of them occurred while I was playing a softball game and I missed half of it, one of them occurred while I was at work and I missed it, one of them occurred while I was in the field at work so I got to listen to alot of it on the radio when I had nothing better to do but be in the truck, and one of them occurred while I was driving home from the game I went to in St. Louis, so I got to listen to alot of that on the radio too when I had nothing better to do but be in the car. Also, in both radio cases I got to listen to my home announcer instead of the national broadcast, and I’ve written many many times about how I’ve heard Dan Dickerson and Jim Price call so many games that listening to them call games now is like watching the game with two friends, to me.

And why are these games boring besides the poor presentation? Because they are soooooo long. It seems like playoff games feature a million pitching changes. It seems like the pitchers take extra time between each pitch. It seems like they try more pickoffs. Commercials are extra long. Why does it all take so long? Every pitcher pitches like the bastard child of Fernando Rodney and Rafael Betancourt in the playoffs. Before I set to writing this, I wanted to check to make sure that I wasn’t just making this up……..that maybe I was making up something about these games to cover in my own head for my own shame in not being interested in the playoffs as much as I used to be. But I looked it up, and it seems like I’m very much on to something.

The amount of data necessary to make a concrete case was more than I was willing to parse for the purposes of writing this article, but I just took a quick and dirty look at the 23 playoff games played this post-season. Of these 23 games, the longest was Game 2 of the ALCS, which lasted five hours and ten minutes. The shortest was Game 1 of the Phillies/Rockies series, which lasted two hours and forty-eight minutes. Between these 23 games, the average time of game was 3:38. Hoping to take outliers out of the equation, I trashed both the longest and shortest games, and that brought the average time of game down to 3:36. I then did it again by trashing the TWO longest games AND the two shortest games, and it stayed at 3:36, so I think 3:36 is a good number to use as the average time of a playoff game this post-season thus far.

This season, the Detroit Tigers played 163 games, and only five of them lasted 3 hours and thirty-six minutes or longer. Of those five, every single one of them went extra innings. The Tigers did not play one standard nine inning game that lasted that long all season. One of them was exactly 3 hours and 36 minutes.

Clearly, watching these playoff games is more than I’m used to as a Tigers fan.

However, I didn’t want to just leave it there. Perhaps there was something in the Tigers play that lent itself to short games. They were a good pitching team with poor offense. It would figure that their games would be shorter than the average team’s (I have no idea if this is true, but its the thought that passed through my head). So I looked at the games for all 8 of the teams in this year’s playoffs to see just how often they played in games that lasted 3:36 or longer. I also then looked at how often they did it against other teams that made the post-season this year:

* – The New York Yankees played 29 games that long (17.9% of their total games) and 12 against other playoff teams (31.6% of their games against playoff teams).

* – Boston played in 27 (16.7%) and 13 (36.1%)

* – The Dodgers played in 17 (10.5%) and 7 (18.4%)

* – Philadelphia played in 11 (6.8%) and 3 (12.5%)

* – Colorado played in 9 (5.6%) and 4 (11.8%)

* – Minnesota played in 9 (5.5%) and 2 (7.7%)

* – The Angels played in 8 (4.9%) and 6 (15.8%)

* – St. Louis played in 5 (3.1%) and 1 (4.5%)

So essentially, every one of these teams played in games that long less than 20% of the time, or one-fifth of their games. While the frequency bumped up against other playoff (read: good) teams for every one of them, it still was solidly under 50%, and for all teams other than New York and Boston, solidly under 20%. I’ll note here that 9 of the 18 games between the Yankees and Red Sox met or exceeded the 3:36 threshold. The only other matchups that came close were Boston vs. Philadelphia (2 out of 3) and the Dodgers vs. Colorado (4 out of 18). Basically, Red Sox/Yankees comprised a significant chunk of these lengthy games.

It isn’t my imagination. These games are very, very long. Approximately 80% of the time these teams played in the regular season, they were playing in games shorter than what has been the AVERAGE post-season game this season. That is just insane. As a final exclamation point to this stream of consciousness, you’ll recall that I noted the shortest game in this post-season was two hours and forty-eight minutes. The 2009 Tigers played in 81 games that were shorter than that, and an additional three games that were exactly 2:48. That’s more than half of their games where they played games that were faster than or equal to the fastest playoff game this year.

I’m one of the leaders in being critical of society for an impossibly short attention span and for a general societal ADD that keeps people from focusing on anything or being patient for anything. However, even I cannot defend these lengthy playoff games. And I love baseball.

It is no wonder that the average uninformed fan (or non-fan), who may only know of baseball in so far as it pre-empts their regular programming on October evenings, thinks that it is so boring. Playoff baseball very frequently IS long, drawn-out, poorly presented, and………sad to say…….boring. Especially on TV. And when you have no rooting interest.

The Format

I saved this one for last because it’s sure to be the most controversial one, and I learned from writing about benching Curtis Granderson against lefties earlier this year that if you’re going to write something controversial, put it at the end so that people who are motivated to read lengthy things will get to it last. Otherwise, you’ll end up getting in arguments that make you contemplate violence later, as people will focus on the controversial part of what you write and ignore the several paragraphs either qualifying it, or building a case that would stand up on its own without the controversial addendum. In the aforementioned example, I had people telling me that I was crazy because I advocated “benching Curtis Granderson for Clete Thomas”, as if I was essentially proclaiming that Granderson should be released and Thomas installed as the full-time Center Fielder at all times, which is about as far from what I actually wrote as one can get. However, because I titled it “Should Clete Thomas Be A Full-Time Starter?” — Putting the controversial part first — Apparently very few people read much further than that and I got into arguments with people based on terribly silly assumptions. On their part.

Learning my lesson, my final problem with the playoffs is the format. My format issue is two-fold, and I’ll deal with the less controversial one first (even within the header, I’m trying to keep to the standard).

First, playoff baseball hardly resembles regular season baseball. To be fair, it has pretty much always been this way, but as I’ve grown older and come to realize it more, it has sapped alot of my enjoyment of the playoff experience.

I happen to believe the baseball regular season is the greatest thing sport. Period. It is closely rivaled by the NHL Playoffs. It is also closely rivaled by the college football regular season. And college football championship. However, for me, the regular season is the standard bearer. For five-and-a-half to six months (depending on the season), teams play almost every day. They play by far the longest regular season in the major sports, 162 games (163 if you can’t decide it in 162). Within this 162 game season, the sample of games is such that you can legitimately say that whatever your team’s record is, there is no lucking into it. Oh certainly, bad luck like injuries can play a role. Dave Dombrowski made a great point that I hadn’t thought of before, essentially suggesting that an injury to Justin Morneau ended the Tigers season. That’s a really bad break. However, teams generally are who their record says they are. 162 games is a significant sample to prove it. Within these lengthy, daily played seasons, every week tells its own story. Every week provides a new twist or turn. Every week is its own fun. Sometimes every day is its own fun, depending on the tenor of your season. And after the teams that slug it out through 162 games of daily play, beating each up, and pushing themselves to the limit, giving it all they and their supplements (both legal and illegal) can provide, the top teams advance to the playoffs……..

………To engage in a format and landscape vastly different than the one that enabled them to reach the playoffs in the first place. The regular season rewards consistency, being the best over a long season. The post-season rewards hot streaks. The regular season rewards powerful teams. The post-season rewards top high-end performances. The fourth and fifth starters are generally irrelevant or of low-relevance in the playoffs. As is the back end of the bullpen. Why are there so many off days? What do they need travel days for? They don’t get travel days during the regular season for the most part (the closest they get is afternoon games before moving on, and they don’t always get that), so why do they need them in the post-season? Of course, I know the answer to this (hint: It rhymes with “P.V.”), but it disturbs my enjoyment of the games. Football is played every 7 days (sometimes 6 or 8, depending on scheduling). And thats how it goes in the playoffs (save for bye weeks, and the years where there is a Super Bowl bye week, which I’m also adamently against). They usually get one or two nights off in hockey and basketball (though they play back-to-backs more often than I remember growing up in both sports), and such is the case in the playoffs. Yet baseball dramatically alters its regular season routine for its playoff format, and it disturbs my ability to enjoy the competition.

As far as I’m concerned, barring rainouts, every five-game series should be played in a maximum of six days and every seven-game series should be played in a maximum of eight days. In the case of the former, the first four games should be consecutive with an off-day before Game 5 if necessary. In the case of the latter, the first six games should be consecutive with an off-day before Game 7 if necessary. And the next series should start two days from the point when both teams who have finished their respective series are ready to go (essentially giving one off day to the final team that finishes its series and however many to the first team to finish their series).

The way the playoffs currently are formatted, it’s advantageous for teams like the Tigers, who had insane problems both in the back of their bullpen and rotation but had they made the playoffs would’ve seen those problems disappear literally overnight. It is frustrating to follow.

Finally, we’re fourteen years down the path of the Wild Card and I’m one of the last people still holding on to the old days, angrily grousing about it.

Yes, I understand that at 8 teams, the MLB still allows less teams in the playoffs than every other league.

Yes, I acknowledge that the 8 team pool is still significantly small enough that it hasn’t completely destroyed the marvel that is the regular season.

However, I’m of the opinion that ALL leagues (except college football) have too many teams in their playoff pools. I would be perfectly fine with the pre-1969 way of doing things, which was to have the American League pennant winner and National League pennant winner meet in the World Series. I do however acknowledge that in many years there are two qualified playoff teams in any given league, and would therefore not be averse to reverting to the four division days of 1969-1993 that I grew up on, or (my favorite option) ditching the divisions entirely, ditching interleague play, bringing back a balanced schedule, and taking the top 2 teams from the AL and the top 2 teams from the NL. ALCS, NLCS, World Series and done.

I’ll start by saying that I acknowledge that this will never EVER happen. I acknowledge that it is more likely that they will add teams to the playoff pool before removing any.

I also realize that in terms of drawing fans to the park and operating a business, this would be a bad move. Under the current format, many teams have at minimum a prayer of making the playoffs by September 1st, even if its only a prayer. Under the format that would make me most comfortable, there would be a ton of teams that are completely out of it by the All-Star break.

However, I’m not talking about operating the business, I’m talking about my personal vision for what I would consider to be a perfect league in terms of operation. And frankly, it irks me considerably that so often the best teams don’t reach the World Series. Bud Selig calls this “the system working”. I call it “competitive ruin”.

In large part due to my reverence for the regular season, it’s my opinion that as many advantages as possible should be given to teams with top regular season records. After 162 games, it is pretty much known who the best teams are. The concept of playoffs is agreeable because it is fair when teams are separated by one or two games to have them “play off” to distinguish dominance over the narrow gap between their performances, but when you consistently have teams with low 90s (or less) win totals either in the World Series or LCS, I don’t consider that a good thing. The playoffs are supposed to be about the best of the best. Not the “kinda best that got hot at the right time”. The nature of the sport — Where the gap between the worst teams and best teams is dramatically smaller than in any other sport — In concert with the short-series nature of the post-season is such that a three tiered playoff system such as the one that is in operation today really creates a huge exposure for good teams to lose.

The 2009 Yankees, who finished with the best record in the league in their year, went 103-59. Yet even they lost two out of three to the worst team in the league, the Washington Nationals. At home. In a best of five series, all Washington would’ve had to do is win one more time at their own home park.

Although the Yankees won in the matchup this year, do you really want to put the ’09 Twins or Tigers into a mix like that, with a possiblility that they may win a championship? Neither of those teams was good enough to even be in the mix, yet they were.

Even in the four division days, there would periodically be a team that didn’t belong there that snuck in (the ’73 Mets and ’87 Twins come to mind, the latter going on to win the World Series), but it was far less frequent. There have been more <90 win teams in the post-season in the Wild Card era than in the 93 years before it combined. I don’t like that.

This year is the first year in the Wild Card era that the four teams in the LCS are the same teams that would’ve been in it under the 69-93 format. Only twice in the Wild Card era has the World Series mirrored what it would’ve been in the 01-68 format — 1995, when Cleveland met Altanta, and 1999, when the Yankees met Atlanta.

The current format has devalued the championship to me. Don’t get me wrong. I still want desperately for the Tigers to win a championship. I wanted them to win one this year, knowing full well they didn’t deserve it. However, the greater overall accomplishment is being the best regular season team, and I recognize this. In fact, winning a division, even in the current six division format, is a greater overall accomplishment. That recognition has devalued my opinion of the World championship and by association, the playoffs. It is hard for me to get jazzed up about a system that was able to crown the 2000 Yankees or 2006 Cardinals as champions. Those are teams with pennants on their stadiums and trophies in their cases that simply do not belong. Those teams were absolutely not good enough to be champions, to the extent that it devalues the term “champion” by associating it with those two teams. That’s not a dig against either organization. I’m neutral to mildly positive about the Cardinals, and while I highly dislike the Yankees, I have no reason to dig at them needlessly. In fact, the system has screwed the Yankees out of the chance to have a dynasty similar to the one they had in the late 40s into the 50s, and it has screwed the Cardinals out of several shots at a championship in this decade. But those two specific teams absolutely do not belong.

Closing

And so those are the four reasons that I’ve primarily come up with why the playoffs don’t mean as much to me as they used to. Maybe I’ve missed on all four and its really just that I’m changing as a person. That’s also fully possible. Those four reasons are the big ones that I can identify though as to why things are becoming the way they are.

Don’t misconstrue. I’ve watched parts of two games in this post-season, and as it gets deeper and closer to the World Series, my interest is growing. While I don’t plan on it, especially if it ends up being Phillies/Yankees, its fully possible I could watch every World Series game. I still love this game and this sport and if for nothing else but to relive my childhood, there’s always a chance that I will be watching that World Series and hanging on every pitch.

But I do know that I literally did not see one pitch of last year’s World Series or NLCS. And I only heard two ALCS games on the radio. And I wasn’t particularly broken up about it. Its as possible this year could be the same as it is that I can watch the whole thing.

It just seems like these days my drive to do so has waned, and the results that I can think of are multi-fold, as I outlined above, without the involvement of the Tigers. I still remember watching the 1992 NLCS between the (Jim Leyland-led) Pirates and the Braves. I remember waking up my angry Dad while sitting on my bed willing Francisco Cabrera to get that hit. And making him even more angry when I yelled when he got it, and Sid Bream slid across the plate for the winning run. I remember watching — Live — When Joe Carter crushed that pitch from Mitch Williams. I was watching in 1989 when the Earthquake hit in Northern California and ABC cut from coverage of the game to show an episode of Roseanne. I was watching — And recording — In 2004 when Doug Mientkiewicz caught that ball and ended the curse. I was watching in 1999 when Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones and sent the Braves to the World Series.

I remember all of these things. I remember where I was when I saw them all. In a way, it makes me a little sad that I simply don’t enjoy this one facet of a game that I in general enjoy as much now as I ever have, in the way that I once did. And tonight, I needed to let it out.

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