2,600 miles may separate Oakland, California and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but that didn’t stop the same cloud of disappointment from covering both cities as Major League Baseball’s postseason came into town over the weekend. The Oakland A’s and Pittsburgh Pirates were eliminated in the MLB’s winner-takes-all Wild Card Elimination round. As the A’s lost in the 12th inning to the Kansas City Royals and the Pirates got blitzed by the San Francisco Giants, both teams saw excellent seasons go down the drain in a matter of hours, raising the question: Is it fair for the MLB to conduct a one game playoff after a 162 game season?
The commissioner of the MLB, Bud Selig, implemented the one game playoff setup in 2012, expanding baseball’s postseason to include 10 teams to add more excitement to the month of October. Twenty years earlier, the playoffs were very different; this was before Selig had even incorporated the first wild card. Now there are two wild cards, and the winners of each of baseball’s 6 divisions plus the four best runner-ups are invited to the not so exclusive postseason party. The MLB went from having the smallest, most elite playoff set up out of any major American sport to the most inclusive. Commissioner Selig is set to retire after this season and when asked what he thinks of the new system, the commissioner said, “Maybe some day along the lines, somebody will second-guess [the new setup]. But you know the good news, [then] I’ll be gone.” Selig’s words do a poor job of inspiring confidence in the infrastructure of America’s favorite pastime.
For a game like baseball that depends on long seasons, the one game playoff feels like asking the top finishers of an Iron Man run to sprint a 40 yard dash before handing out medals. The games are undeniably exciting, but making fans and players who have been invested into the season for months to put that all on the line in one game doesn’t seem like baseball’s nature.
In the middle of the season, the A’s were the best team in baseball; they were dominating their division and had outscored their opponents by 162 points. They were a lock to make it to the playoffs and, to some, were a World Series favorite.
In-between now and then, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, starting with the trade of Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for Jonny Gomes and Jon Lester. The A’s dished their most dynamic player across the country for two aging stars that never met their expectations during the season. The timing could not have been more comical and devastating as Cespedes left the Oakland Athletics days before the “Yoenis Cespedes T-shirt Night” promotion and the A’s went head first into a losing streak. Since then, the A’s picked up the pace and coasted into the post season only games above their AL West rival, the Seattle Mariners. Billy Bean’s betrayal of his famous “Money Ball” approach of growing talent based on statistics for a “win now” trade binge has many questioning his position as the A’s general manager.
The Pirates on the other hand were three games short of winning their division and earning a best of three series, adequate opportunity to justify their playoff birth. Pirate’s center fielder Andrew McCutchen played another MVP caliber season and continued to act as the spark plug behind the Pirates’ two consecutive playoff appearances. McCutchen led the league in on-base parentage and has a batting average of .319 with 77 home runs over the last 3 seasons. The season started in the opposite manner of the A’s for the Pirates as they struggled early before turning the corner and making a run at the NL Central pennant. This could be accredited to the team’s seemingly ridiculous ability to avoid injury down the toughest stretch of the season.
On top of their excellent health, the Pirates broke their 21-year-old playoff drought last season by taking Billy Bean’s statistical game to the next level. The Pirates made waves in baseball’s sabermetric-enthused world, using math to scout players and teams, and by hiring 26-year-old MIT graduate Mike Fitzgerald as a quantitative analyst for the team. Fitzgerald has been key to this year’s Pirates’ success by bringing in players, such as catcher Russell Martin, and using statistics to get a strategic jump on other teams.
The A’s and Pirates both had topsy-turvy seasons where they acted more like each other than themselves, yet both ended in the same manner: a heartless one game elimination.
The A’s were eliminated in an extra inning game that saw veteran playoff ace Jon Lester throw the worst postseason start of his career. Lester, who previously had a playoff-earned run average of 2.11, kept the A’s in it until late before finally letting 6 runs on the board. But even Lester’s lackluster start wasn’t enough to completely destroy the A’s hope as the game tied and went to extra innings. The A’s went into the bottom of the twelfth only to lose on a walk off single hit by catcher Salvador Perez.
Where the A’s were in the game till the last hit, the Pirates couldn’t even score a run against the Giants’ powerful starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner, who pitched the entire game. The Giants would plundered the Pirates 8-0 before picking up the momentum in the following series versus the Washington Nationals.
All in all the new double wildcard playoff system does more harm than good, bringing exciting seasons to a close on a single swing of the opposing team’s bats. Baseball is undeniably a slow moving game, but that is the source of its appeal, and tacking on an elimination game to a 162 game season doesn’t seem fair to the fans, players or coaches. The MLB would benefit from a more inclusive playoff format if they shortened the regular season by a week and expanded the wild card round to a more suitable best-of-five series. But, for now, we salute the seasons of the Pirates and Athletics whose teams and fans made excellent playoffs runs but inevitably became the victim of a flawed system.