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David Ross' One-Game Playoff Idea Strikes A Chord

David Ross has a way to make the Wild Card situation more fair. But is it just a small patch on an inherently broken system?

Kevin C. Cox

Tim Britton talked to David Ross about his experience playing in the one-game playoff last year, and while Ross clearly loved the experience (minus the losing, that is), he's not thrilled with the even playing field the game can put two teams with entirely disparate records on.

"If it were my choice, I would give it a two-game playoff, where the team that's chasing the lead team has to beat them twice. Pretend it's a three-game series and the team that's up is up one game."

With its overbearing division system, Major League Baseball's method of determining its playoff teams is one of the least fair in all of professional sports. Last year, for instance, the Tampa Bay Rays went 90-72. Thy did so facing the fifth most difficult schedule in the game. The Angels went 89-73 with the fourth most difficult schedule in the game. Neither team made the playoffs. Instead, the 88-74 Tigers, who had a bottom-10 strength of schedule, bypassed the play-in and went straight to the divisional round.

This is not an unusual scenario, either. Every few years a team will pop up that just seems like it didn't earn its way into the playoffs, but was gifted a spot by circumstance. The league, for some reason, requires at least one playoff team from this geographical area, and you'll have to do. The 2008 White Sox only kept the Yankees out because the Yankees actually had to play real competition. The 2007 Cubs made it in at 85-77 over the 88-74 New York Mets and 89-74 San Diego Padres. The 2006 World Series Champion Cardinals won just 83 games in the regular season despite playing in a clearly pathetic division.

As the Cardinals show, some of these teams go on to do great things, but of course they do. That's how the playoffs work. It's a crap shoot. The hope is that the regular season will weed out teams well enough that in the end we'll at least be left with one of the best teams on top. Clearly enough, that doesn't always happen.

Last year, the MLB attempted to avoid some of the most embarrassing instances of this--where an 85-win team makes it over a 95-win team, for instance--by adding a second wild card spot. All well and good if the result were actually a playoff berth, but as anyone who was eyeing one of those spots will likely tell you, the one-game series is more of a play-in than a playoff. And, frankly, it's one of the least fair things in the entire system.

This year the American League got lucky. It was a 93-win Orioles team vs. a 93-win Rangers team, and if either one could complain about the Tigers' presence in the divisional round, they couldn't complain about having to win a one-game playoff against a lesser team. The same cannot be said for the Braves, who at 94-68 were unceremoniously booted from October by the 88-74 Cardinals. One game, and their 94-win season came to an end.

Frankly, there's no way to nickle-and-dime our way to a fair system. While most are likely in favor of the inherent level of unfairness that is the playoffs--the regular season should build to something rather than simply deciding a champion on its own--as long as the division system is around there's going to be a serious element of inequity just in terms of schedule. Looking at the A.L. East this year and then looking at the Central is, frankly, laughable.

Still, there are ways to make things better, and I think Ross' is a decent start. I wouldn't even mind having a system where the mountain the lesser team needs to overcome is based on the difference in record. It's a bit convoluted, but it's better than having the only difference between 88 and 94 wins be the field they play on, or than having a big difference between two different 94-win teams. Sometimes a complicated answer is not wrong, it's just necessary for a complex system.

Of course, having just changed the system, the league isn't about to shake things up again. This organization is nothing if not conservative--we see proof of that every time an awful call is made at a plate or behind home. Still, for the sake of the 2005 Astros and Phillies who would have had to duel to the death while the 82-win Padres waited patiently for the diminished winner, this is something the league has to consider. Because while in some ways the new system is doing its best to mitigate the privilege of playing in week divisions, in reality it's actually taken a step back, diminishing the good done by the introduction of the Wild Card.