Monday, August 24, 2009

Quick Thoughts on the Playoffs

Vanguard of the blogosphere Eyebeleaf of Sports and the City posted a typically passionate piece this week, hoping for a salary cap/floor in baseball to help level the playing field. While it remains true that spending money is the best way to reach the post season, it isn't the only way. I sincerely fail to see how a salary cap benefits anyone, as though it is the key to competitive balance and renewed hope for the downtrodden.

Without getting too deeply into the vagaries of why using the NFL as a model is reckless, why dictating organizations spending habits simply doesn't help, why stupid organizations will always be stupid, I wanted to address another point attached to this debate: opening the playoffs to more teams. This idea, as it relates to baseball, makes me sad.

The playoffs, as currently constituted in the NBA & NHL, are a joke. As I said in the comments of the SATC post, they're a sop to fans too distracted to notice they're now being charged double for games that are no more meaningful that stretch drive games in September for a competitive team in baseball.

Not a playoff game, calm the fuck down fellasWhen the Rockies were charging down the stretch in 2007, how is that LESS significant than the Raptors being summarily dismissed by the Magic each and every year? When the Jays collapsed against the Tigers in 1987, are we to believe that weekend series meant less than the Cavaliers dismantling the Pistons this past spring?

Occasionally the rare instance of a Warriors/Mavericks or an Oilers run to the Cup final capture all our attention, but again I point to unlikely runs by the Marlins or Twins, reeling in the fast starting Tigers in 2006. Those ARE the playoffs, 30 games at a time, and you just don't have to pay double to see them. The baseball season is 162 games long, that should be plenty of time to separate the wheat from the chaff.

The salary-capped and playoff-free-for-all NBA can be one of the most frustrating leagues to watch due to its nebulous salary machinations combined with teams outright desire to tank or rig their playoff positioning. Teams actively putting out an inferior product night after night to avoid playing a tough 4 seed, hoping instead to catch a weak division winner propped up by the various playoff bracket restructurings.

I'm not pretending to dislike the notion of "making the playoffs" as a good thing, but you can't convince me the Leafs "making the playoffs" this season automatically makes it a successful year. Wow, they finished 8th and got dusted in the first round? Awesome. My Habs looked like legit Stanley Cup threats last year only to falter to a first round exit. Guess what? I don't care that they made the playoffs, they were supposed to be good. They weren't, we move on.

The recurring Blue Jays blogosphere meme "PLAYOFFS!" was fun for one good reason: making the playoffs in baseball means something and represents a legitimate success. Hopefully baseball doesn't make the same pathetic stab at placating entitled fans eager to buy a mouthful of shit packaged as Grade A steak.


  1. Totally agree. You could argue that if 16 teams were admitted to the playoffs every year, incredible runs like the one the Rockies had recently wouldn't have happened. It was the necessity of winning that many games that made it happen.

    However, as much as I love the MLB model, I also love the NBA's cap implications and CBA trade restrictions. It's awesome to see what a creative GM can accomplish under such rigid restrictions.

    It's also OK by me that both the NHL and NBA allow 16 teams in. A shorter season needs a longer, more comprehensive post season.

    In short, enjoy the uniqueness that is baseball for what it is.

  2. Dude, you are en fuego.

    Well said on all fronts.

  3. I think it lessens the quality of the league when more teams make the playoffs. I know this is probably a shitty example, but all but 4 teams in the OHL make the postseason - so basically you only have to be the second worst team in the division to make the postseason.

    There's something to be said about the exclusivity of having just 8 playoff spots in the MLB. Before the Wildcard days, all four division winners were always a threat to win the World Series.

    And that's why I love baseball. Great post Drew. PLAYOFFS!!!1

  4. Agreed.

    The point is, in my opinion, to figure out who is the best team in the league. By only allowing 4 teams in and playoffs and having a 162 game schedule it makes that way more likely. Personally, I roll my eyes when teams like the Oilers "get hot" and whip through the playoffs beating teams who a week before or a week later would beat them. (unless of course it's the Canucks, then I go "Yes! Way to go!")

    Sure there are teams like the Cardinals a few years ago but that doesn't happen that often and I appreciate that.

    In baseball making the playoff means something, keep it that way.

    (which also means when you win 86 games in the A.L. East people should act like you finished in 5th in the NHL's Western Confrence and not ask for the G.M. to be fired)

  5. Oh, and apologize to my boy Ricky Ruiz!!!

  6. Drew: I disagree with you on almost every front here. How many titles do you think the San Antonio Spurs would have won in the past decade without a salary cap, as opposed to the four they did win? Maybe Tim Duncan would have been willing to stay in San Antonio for much less money because that might just be the kind of guy he is. But maybe Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili wouldn't feel the same way.

    I will admit that too many teams make the playoffs in the NBA, and I would be fine with them eliminating a round so that only the top four teams from each conference make the post-season. Having said that, what's so bad about giving fans of mediocre-to-above-average teams an extra couple of weeks of basketball to watch? And when one of those shocking upsets does happen, it's magical.

    Honestly, if there's one type of baseball fan where I can't imagine why he would defend the status quo, it's a Blue Jays fan. The system is inherently rigged against your team because you're in the AL East, and you're fine with keeping it that way? Why wouldn't you want more competitive balance?

    Your point about NBA teams tanking is something I hear about a lot, and frankly it's not as much of a factor as you think. The draft lottery system means that, even if you finish in dead last, you still only have a 25 percent chance of getting the first overall pick. There have been isolated instances of teams obviously losing games on purpose, but for the most part that strategy doesn't pay off.

    Yes, it's pretty essential in the NBA to have a top five player on your team in order to be a legitimate championship contender, and a large percentage of those players were top three picks. But the GMs also have to intelligently support those players with supporting players on reasonable contracts, and that's where the salary cap actually rewards GMs who spend their money wisely, unlike in baseball where the Yankees and Red Sox can keep throwing good money after bad until they eventually get it right.

    The economic realities of MLB are exactly why I steadfastly refuse to invest myself emotionally in the Blue Jays anymore. It's an exercise in futility. I haven't forgotten what the Rays did last year, but where are they this year? And even when a team like the Marlins wins the championship, they have to tear the team down and start again because they can't compete with the big market teams to keep their best players. How is that a system worth protecting?


  7. I think we're arguing the same point with regard to the Spurs. I think they would be ahead of the curve no matter the salary structure because they're a smart team. They game the system while using basketball knowledge and, lo, common sense while teams like the Knicks just spend and spend. No bottomless pit of money makes Isiah Thomas competent and the Spurs braintrust dumb.

    I agree to an extent about the Yankees sending good money after bad but I don't think the Red Sox are in the same boat. I've said many times that the Red Sox are the best run team in baseball. Theo makes cold, calculated decisions and sees value where others don't. Of course having $18 million dollar a year JD Drew hit 8th is a luxury few can afford, but their top-notch bullpen is built exclusively on the cheap. The heart of their team (Pedroia & Yook) are signed to cheap, team friendly contracts very similar to those signed by Rios & Hill only last year.

    As for the "few extra hours of basketball" that too speaks to my larger point: the entire month of September is exactly that. If only 4 teams made the playoffs in the NBA, March would be a lot more interesting than guys trying to get their touches while the average coach tries to wrap his head around a 9 man rotation.


  8. Drew: There's no way the Spurs win four titles in the past decade without a cap. Smart management doesn't help when they simply can't afford to keep the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili trio together. It's possible all three of them would take less money to keep a winning team together, but it's so unlikely that it's not a realistic scenario.

    The great thing about the NBA cap system is that the Knicks are forced to re-build "the right way" instead of just spending their way out of their problems. Without a cap, what's stopping them from breaking the bank to sign 2 (or possibly all 3) of LeBron, Wade and Bosh in 2010? They may end up with LeBron anyway because he might decide to take a salary cut while figuring he'll make up the difference in endorsements, but it's good for the sport that they can't just outbid everyone for LeBron's services, because the Collective Bargaining agreement is set up so that LeBron can sign a $130 million contract with Cleveland in 2010, compared to a $100 million contract anywhere else. The NBA is set up so that teams have an advantage in keeping their own star players, and that's a GOOD THING, isn't it?


  9. That is definitely a good thing, but it's hardly the socialist utopia the NBA sells. For every Bird Rights exemption, there are 10 "expiring contracts" traded with no intention of improving the team in the here and now.

    The baseball system isn't flawless (far from it) but salary caps don't cure the ills of resource inequity in one broad stroke. Look at the way teams like the Mavericks spend money above and beyond the cap and tell me the playing field is level.


  10. Whoa, nails post Drew. Then I read the comments and Scott and others made equally good points for the other side. Now I'm confused. I do agree that the NBA's cap and CBA allows for more creativity from GMs and the ability to overhaul rosters like Colangelo has done. This is simply not possible in baseball (see: Rogers ownership of Blue Jays). Baseball teams rely much more so on committment from ownership, patience patience patience (Colangelo would go insane in baseball), and luck with player development and on-field production (fuck you Pythagoras).

    On the other hand, the NBA does seems to reward failure more than baseball because of cap, the lottery, the 16 playoff teams, etc., creating a moral hazard. I say let the shitty teams be shitty and the great teams be great. Baseball has a distinct upper and lower class and it seems to work. There are too many middling teams in the NBA.

    One thing I don't get is why you guys are going automatically from 4 to 8 and 8 to 4 teams. Why not 6 playoff teams per league/conference? Reward the top 2 teams with a first round bye, they earn it.

  11. SP always has a solution; 6 teams. Let's meet in the middle.

    They added the Wild Card, they can add some more.

    Great post, all the way, Drew. You're the king.

  12. Drew: According to Hoopshype's salary page, the Mavs' payroll is actually on pace to be 8th in the NBA next season. The Lakers (natch) are first at $91 million. The Pistons and Hawks figures at the bottom are not up-to-date with their latest signings, so it appears the lowest payroll next season will be Oklahoma City at a hair under $50 million.

    In comparison, Cot's Contracts tells me that there are 12 MLB teams with payrolls over $92 million this year and six teams with payrolls over $120 million. Meanwhile, there are 10 teams with payrolls under $75 million. If the playoffs started today, the average payroll of the 8 playoff teams would be over $122 million, with only 2 of those teams having payrolls under $109 million. Six of the playoff teams would come from the top eight spenders. The math seems pretty clear to me.

    Admittedly, the big spenders tend to win in the NBA as well, but for the majority of these teams, they open their pocketbooks when they believe they have a championship window (thus explaining why San Antonio will have the sixth-highest payroll) instead of just because they can. There are really only a handful of NBA teams that are probably doomed to obscurity for the next few years because of their market and the economy (Minnesota, Memphis, Sacramento, Milwaukee) while the rest of the lower-end teams are re-building... or they're the Clippers.

    Final note: The difference between the highest NBA payroll and the lowest is $41.5 million. The difference between the seventh-highest MLB payroll (Angels with $116.7 million) and seventh-lowest payroll (Twins with $67.9 million) is $48.8 million.


  13. @eyebleaf:

    Trust me, I've explored the six teams per league option and it doesn't work because that leaves three teams advancing to the next round of the playoffs (uneven numbers). If MLB were to expand the playoffs to more team ,the minimum would have to be eight (which is screwy with three divisions). It's either the pennant or the wild card.

  14. Guys, you are overlooking the obvious solution - it's not more teams, it's much more simple than that.

    simply remove the requirement that division winners make the playoffs. Best 4 teams, period.

    You have to keep the divisions because Bud and his minions are married to the "rivalries" (i.e. tons of Yanks v. Red Sox games on TV) but IMO, there's no reason that the Rays can't make the playoffs this year over the Tigers, for instance, if they have a better record.

    As far as a salary cap, there are a couple of reasons i sympathize with it (which I'll reserve for a post that just occurred to me for the blog) but ultimately there's more I don;t like about it than that I do like.

  15. I'm more convinced baseball needs a salary floor, rather than a cap. A cap is an artificial ceiling that punishes teams that can afford to pay players whatever they want. A salary floor, however, evens out the competition better in my largely fantasy world.

    Great discussion on both sides though.

  16. I like this post.

    @Ian H. - You could have two first round byes to deal with 6 teams in the playoffs.

    Drew - I completely agree that salary caps aren't the panacea that people make it out to be. Your NBA example is a good one. How many teams literally gave up not only on the 2009 season but also the 2010 season in the hopes that in the summer of 2010 they might attract LeBron or Wade or one of those superstars?

    In the NHL we are seeing that the salary cap just means that the smart clubs are exploiting loopholes (Detroit with the long-term contracts) and the dumb teams are still screwing themselves (Chicago might lose one of Toews or Kane because of contracts to Huet and Campbell and Hossa).

    Frankly, like you said 162 games is more than enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Adding more teams in baseball is a bigger cash/hope grab than in the other leagues.

    If you want to make the baseball playoffs more equitable how about making a balanced schedule so that the rest of the AL East isn't punished because they play with the Yankees and Red Sox.

  17. I thought I made it clear that the top 2 teams get first round byes a 6 team playoff

  18. Is that picture from a movie??


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