Home MLB'Weekly' Hit Ground Ball ‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball 2008 – Week Twenty Six

‘Weekly’ Hit Ground Ball 2008 – Week Twenty Six

by Matt Smith

All the fun of the ‘fair’

Baseball fans have enjoyed a compelling play-off race during the final week of the regular season, one in which two postseason places are still to be decided heading into the final day (and it might not even be the final day).  But for some people it hasn’t been worth watching.  The Yankees’ Hank Steinbrenner has tried to dampen the excitement by railing against the current divisional structure.   Like a five-year old who has been told he can’t stay up late and watch TV, Steinbrenner has been jumping up and down and screaming “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair”.  

Hank has taken objection to the fact that a team in the AL East can miss out on the play-offs even when they have won more games than a team in the NL West (for example, a team led by the Yankees’ former manager).  Steinbrenner wrote: “The biggest problem is the divisional setup in Major League Baseball … I didn’t like it in the 1970s, and I hate it now. Baseball went to a multi-division setup to create more races, rivalries and excitement. But it isn’t fair”.

There’s an obvious rebuttal to this comment: no doubt Steinbrenner thought the system was fair when the Yankees were winning rings. 

Let’s go back to the year 2000: the last time the Yankees won a World Series.  The Bronx Bombers captured the AL East crown with just eighty-seven wins that year, three wins less than the total managed by the Cleveland Indians, who finished second in the Central and missed out on the wildcard by one game to the Mariners.  In the National League, the divisions were won by teams amassing ninety-five  wins (Braves and the Cardinals) and ninety-seven wins (the Giants) respectively.  The Yankees didn’t have to face any of the NL division winners in the World Series, instead they took on the Mets in an all New York Fall Classic.  The Mets qualified for the postseason via the NL wild card, but they still won seven more regular season games than the Yankees. 

So no doubt Hank wasn’t really celebrating when Mike Piazza flied out to Bernie Williams to end Game Five and to secure a 4-1 series victory.  When everyone else is proudly boasting about the Yankees’ twenty-six World Championships, Hank politely reminds them all of the unfairness of the divisional system and puts an asterisk against the year 2000 win.

Or maybe not.  If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then “fairness” is often in the eye of the backside.

Steinbrenner would probably argue that the NL teams were able to take advantage of weaker opponents (most notably the Phillies, Cubs, Expos and Pirates) to inflate their win totals.  There may be some truth in that, but if you accept the argument then you can’t simply compare teams based on the number of wins.   Yet Steinbrenner does exactly that: “What if the Yankees finish the season with more wins than the Dodgers, but the Dodgers make the playoffs? Does that make the Dodgers a better team? No”.  Make no mistake, if the Dodgers had won ninety-five games this season, Steinbrenner would have still found reason to belittle the achievement (i.e. “they were beating weaker teams than the Yankees had to face”). 

MLB uses an unbalanced schedule, which makes comparing teams from different leagues and divisions a less-than exact science.  Unless the leagues and divisions were scrapped completely, and all thirty teams played each other the same amount of times, that’s always going to be the case.   You would only have a completely “fair” result if you then didn’t go to a play-off scenario and just awarded the championship to the top team, a prospect nobody in baseball would be in favour of.

Steinbrenner’s latest comments should be put into context.  The Yankees have missed out on the postseason for the first time in thirteen years, despite having a payroll nearly five times larger than the team that has beat them to the AL East division title.  It’s eight years since they last won a World Series: a lifetime for a team that expects to win it every year.  Their former manager, who walked away from a badly-handled contract offer during the offseason, is heading to October with his new team.  Add in the fact that Hank and his brother Hal are trying to stamp their mark on a franchise dominated by their father for many years and it’s not difficult to see why he might be a bit touchy at the moment.

His comments aren’t completely without merit either: many neutrals would agree that the Yankees are a better team than the Dodgers.  The problem is, there really isn’t a perfect system out there.  Steinbrenner stated that the move to divisional play was designed “to create more races, rivalries and excitement” and in this respect the change has worked.  That’s enough reason to keep the status quo, regardless of whether it allows people to claim the system is unfair when they fail to achieve what is expected of them.

Week 26 wrap-up

When you head into the final day of the season not knowing whether it will be the final day of the season, you know it’s going to be exciting.  The Mets and the Brewers have identical records (89-72) and would need to be separated for the NL wildcard by a tie-breaker scheduled for Monday if they both get the same result today. 

The American League Central is even more complex.  The Twins have a half-game advantage heading into the final day of the regular season, but the White Sox have played one game less.  If the Twins win and the White Sox lose, the contest is over.  Any other combination of results will lead to at least one extra game (the White Sox making up their postponed game against the Tigers on Monday).

The other six spots are already settled.  The Phillies (91-70) tied up the NL East last night, joining the Cubs (97-63) and the Dodgers (84-77) in the post-season.  The Rays (96-65) clinched their first ever division title, ensuring that the Red Sox (94-66) will take on the Angels (99-62) in the ALDS.

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