Henry Hazlitt and the MLB Playoffs

Much has been made of the Colorado Rockies’ amazing run. I'm as guility as any. With my Minnesota Twins and their rivals the Chicago White Sox both failing to reach the post-season, I have no vested interest in rooting for or against any of the current contenders, and because of the Rockies' improbable success, I too have become sick with Purple Fever. Colorado won 12-of-13 at the end of the regular season to force a one-game tiebreaker with the San Diego Padres, beat the Padres, and just swept the Philadelphia Philles in the best-of-five Divisional Series. They were the last team to qualify for the post-season, and having won 16-of-17 are also the hottest team in baseball.

The Rockies’ thrilling climb to the National League Championship Series is being held up as justification of the three-division league format and wild card. Proponents point out that the wild card is providing fans with exciting pennant races that wouldn’t otherwise exist if it weren’t for the wild card. I think otherwise.

I’m reminded of Henry Hazlitt’s One Lesson. Like the proponents of redistribution and taxation that lack the imagination to visualize what private capital would produce were it not confiscated for public government use, the proponents of the wild card lack even more imagination in their inability to visualize the pennant races that are wiped out by the wild card.

Last year the Minnesota Twins, led by the emergence of once-in-a-generation rookie pitching phenom Francisco Liriano*, stormed back from a terrible first two months of the 2006 season to steal the American League Central Division crown from the Detroit Tigers on the final day of the season, and the Tigers had to get swept by the lowly Kansas City Royals in their last series of the season for it to happen. What normally would have been a pennant race for the ages is reduced to a minor footnote in the history of the 2006 season, because the Tigers, despite having blown a commanding lead in the division over the final two months of the season, won the wild card and still qualified for the post-season.

The wild card wiped out another potentially classic pennant race this season. The 2007 Yankees, like the 2006 Twins, stumbled hard out of the gate but fought back into contention and threatened the Boston Red Sox for the division at the end of the season. But like the 2006 Tigers, during the final two weeks of the regular season it was clear that if they failed to win the division they would still win the wild card berth. The Yankees came up just short of besting their heated division rivals the Red Sox, but still made the post season in anti-climactic fashion.

Unlike its proponents, I always saw the wild card as the unfortunate and predictable result of the flawed three-division system (like the secondary wave of regulation that always accompanies rent control). The 1987 season is mildly infamous because, prior to the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals and their 83 regular season wins, the 1987 Minnesota Twins had the worst regular season record of any World Series champion with just 85. There were three teams in the American League East (Blue Jays, Brewers, Yankees) that finished the 162-game season with a better record than the American League West champion Twins but were not included in the post-season. Many writers and fans of the day noted that this bordered on football-level ridiculous, where two 9-7 teams go to the playoffs and a third is left out simply for convenience. Thus, the wild card was created to give relief to teams like the 1987 Blue Jays. But it still failed to do anything about teams like the 2006 Cardinals.

A better system, acknowledging that baseball would never go for a reduction of playoff teams because of increased post-season broadcast revenues, would be to: (A) remove interleague play, (B) disband divisions, (C) reinstate balanced schedules and (D) allow the top four teams from each league to go to the post-season.

A. Interleague play doesn’t draw more fans to the park in any significant numbers. As interleague series are typically scheduled during better weekends and months of the season, when controlled for when they occur, they barely outdraw regular league play, so Major League Baseball wouldn’t take a significant financial hit in getting rid of them. And if the American League and National League never played each other during the regular season, fans wouldn’t have to worry about how playoff teams from opposite leagues compared to each other via their regular season records.

B. Disbanding divisions within each league would make sure the best teams in each league always represented the league in the post-season.

C. Without divisions, Major League Baseball's current practice of weighting schedules to favor intradivision play would no longer be necessary.

D. For the purists, there'd still be one pennant, well... playoff race per league. The best team in each league would have the advantage of a three team cushion and could rest and ready their rosters for the playoffs. Home field advantage and seeding for the post-season don't have the added complications that a wild card team cannot play a team from their own division in the first round (even when this disrupts seeding based on records) and cannot have home field advantage (even when this disrupts home field advantage based on record). 

The only other complication I can think of is that at the end of baseball’s six month marathon regular season, the sport has to complete with college and professional football for viewership. The expansion of the playoffs and creation of the wild card is credited with keeping more casual fans interested at the end of the season. Then the question is, is it the number of teams still in contention that keeps casual fans interested or is it the number of playoff races? If it’s the former, my suggestion addresses this concern as well.

* Liriano was the only pitcher to finish in the top 16 in VORP that season who didn't throw at least 200 innings. He threw only 121.

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Would you kindly remove yourself from my head? Also I agreed.