Friday, October 16, 2020

Who Needs a Day Off?

I haven't enjoyed all of the changes the 2020 season brought to baseball. I hated the extra inning rule. No matter what the sport, I'm never a fan of deciding a result in any other way than continuing to play the game until a team breaks a tie. Shootouts in hockey and soccer, putting a runner on second in baseball and all other gimmicks of that nature should never be seen at any level above youth sports, at least in my opinion. Seven inning games in double headers seemed like a necessary evil for this season, but I hope not to see this in future "normal" seasons. I'm more agnostic on the DH in the NL. I'll miss some of the strategy involved with pitchers hitting, but I won't miss watching those pathetic at bats that most of them had. I believe the rules needs to be the same in both leagues, and it seems quite unlikely that the AL would ever abandon the DH, so if I had a vote that mattered it would be to keep the DH in the National League, too.

One change that they made this season that I'm all in on is the playoff schedule with no off days in a series. For one, it makes the playoffs a lot more like the regular season, where teams have to have depth in their pitching to compete. If you've been a fan long enough to remember the 1986 World Series, I don't think that would have ever gone 7 games without off days. The Red Sox had 2 great pitchers, Roger Clemens and Bruce Hurst. Oil Can Boyd was a mediocre third starter at best. They had virtually nobody else in their rotation or their bullpen. Their closer, Calvin Schiraldi, had only been called up from the minors in August. (He had been the prospect the Mets traded to get Bobby Ojeda from the Sox) They benefitted greatly from scheduled off days between Games 2 and 3, Games 5 and 6, and then got an extra bonus when a rainout delayed Game 7 and allowed them to start Hurst again.

Playing every day forces teams to make decisions differently, whether it's starters or even how often they use their best bullpen guys. It wouldn't absolutely guarantee that a deeper team would win, but it would certainly give them a better chance of it, and that seems like a big improvement to me. There is always an inherent unfairness in a tournament deciding a championship in a sport that plays by far the longest regular season. No off days in a series gives a leg up to teams with deep rosters like the Tampa Bay Rays, and that's really how it should be.

Another positive from this year's schedule is that it really keeps the momentum of a series going. When there are off days and then possibly rainouts in a normal playoffs, it feels as if these playoff series are always starting and stopping, starting and stopping, breaking up the natural rhythm of baseball. This year the rhythm feels so much more like normal baseball.

I know the TV networks prefer staggered off days, because it allows them to schedule more games in prime time that aren't competing for viewers against other playoff games. I understand that the only reason they scheduled like they did this year was to get the playoffs completed (and grab onto all of that playoff cash) before COVID-19 potentially explodes again. Also, playing at a single neutral site took away travel between cities during the series. Given that all of the games are night games, it's a lot less practical not to have days off after traveling. If we get to the playoffs next season and there no longer is any danger of COVID intruding and we're playing in competing teams' ballparks again, I'm sure we'll probably fall back to the old way of scheduling playoffs. I get it, but that would still be a shame. Playing playoffs every day is one 2020 innovation that I really enjoyed.

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As I mentioned above, it's a simple fact that it's unfair to stage a relatively short tournament to decide the champion of a sport with an incredibly long regular season. But that's an unfairness any baseball fan will gladly accept for the dramatic contrast MLB Playoffs provide to the regular season. I certainly wouldn't change that, although I'd happily do away with all best of 3 playoff series. Best of 5 is short enough, if I had my way every series would be 7 games, even if the regular season had to be shortened. I know that would never happen, but a boy could dream...

Given the inherent unfairness, and how easy it is for a team to have a bad game or two and find themselves in a very big hole, it never ceases to surprise me how often generalizations are made about a team based strictly on playoff performance. Some teams and players are looked at as winners, simply because they performed well in a tiny sampling of playoff games. Conversely, some teams and players are seem as losers because they didn't. While the bottom line for any team in the playoffs is winning a title, the truth is that you have to be good and lucky to win.

The Dodgers are getting a lot of criticism for their failure to secure a World Series title since 1988, when they managed to beat 2 superior teams along the way, the Mets and the A's. They had a lot go their way in those playoffs, and not a whole heck of a lot since then. After winning a crucial Game 3 of their current NLCS against Atlanta, they were buried in Game 4 by a 22-year-old rookie who had only pitched 15 innings for the Braves this season. Now yet another Dodgers bid for a title seems likely to fall short of even making the World Series.

Now, one thing to note here is that the Dodgers weren't the best team even in the NL in many of their playoff failures. I wrote about the 2006 club that the Mets beat to make it into the NLCS in a 2-parter a while back. They weren't that great of a team, and they got beat pretty handily in the NLDS by a Mets club that was flawed, but clearly better. The 2015 Dodgers, also taken out by the Mets, were better - probably even better than that Mets club, but great starting pitching can often do that to you.

More recent Dodgers teams were certainly better than either the 2006 and 2015 clubs. They have a case to make for being the best team in baseball going into the playoffs. But, if they can't win the next 3 Games of this series, they're going to be looked on as a loser again. A short quote from Jeff Passan's story about their Game 3 win captured this perfectly:

Teams that totter along fecklessly in the most important games of the year don't win championships. And these Dodgers, as talented as they are, as much of a résumé as they built in a 43-17 regular season, are not inclined to find themselves on another list of failures.

"We know who we are," first baseman Max Muncy said.

Who they are depends on what they accomplish over the next two weeks.

Now, does what they do in a short stretch of October override the general excellence they've displayed in winning 71% of their regular season games this year? How about the previous three seasons that featured win totals of 104, 92 and 106? It's definitely not fair, but it's how baseball teams are judged. An enormous weight is placed on what they do in the playoffs, and no slack is given for the smallness of the sample size. It's always going to be that way, and there will be many pieces written on what this Dodgers team lacked if they lose this series.

The Dodgers have their flaws, as does any team, but their failures in the playoffs, particularly recently, illustrate an important point about team building. A very good front office can do everything in their power to put a really strong club onto the field and enjoy a tremendous amount of success in the long marathon regular season. If things don't go their way in the postseason that will all be overlooked, and their efforts will be seen as a failure.

If things go as we all hope with the Mets, they can find themselves in the next few years becoming a team that's a legit contender for titles. If things work out perfectly, we'll be celebrating the Mets' third World Series victory before too many years pass. If things don't, if the Mets find themselves unlucky in some playoff series and fall short more than once or twice, we'll all lose our sense of gratitude that they made it back into contention and demand nothing short of a title. That's just how it goes in baseball. All a team can do is build the deepest, most well-balanced roster that they possibly can, and hope that things break their way in the playoffs.

That will do it for me today. Thanks for spending some time here with us. We'll be posting all throughout the offseason as we watch the moves that the Mets make to try to be a playoff team in future seasons. Please stay safe, be well and take care. Have yourself a great day.


 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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