October 31, 2012
Major League Baseball rolled out its new playoff format this October, and the results were mixed. The extra wild card team in each league and the addition of a sudden-death, play-in game jump started the postseason. But by the time the San Francisco Giants finished their demolition of a listless Detroit Tigers team in the World Series, any momentum the playoffs had in the early rounds was lost.
Here’s a look back at how it all happened:
Wild Card Games and Division Series
The regular season ended with a flourish, though not with the sheer chaos of the final day of the 2011 season.
The Oakland A’s swept the Texas Rangers to steal the AL West crown on the final day of the season. The Tigers completed their comeback in the AL Central, surpassing the Chicago White Sox to win the division by 3 games.
On October 5th, the playoffs began. MLB did a great job scheduling the games in quick succession. Gone were the overabundance of momentum-killing off days that plagued the postseason in years past.
The sudden-death wild card games were played on the same day. The Orioles stunned the Rangers, and the Cardinals beat the Braves in a dramatic and controversial game at Turner Field in Atlanta. It was a game that featured a blown outfield fly rule call (it’s true – any time you watch a baseball game, you might see something you’ve never seen before) and a subsequent delay as tens of thousands of angry tomahawk choppers inundated the field with debris.
The playoffs springboarded right into the division series the very next day. The NLDS and ALDS turned out to be the most entertaining parts of the postseason.
Every day, at least two games were played. On three separate occasions, four games were played on the same day. It was a blast to flip back and forth between every game on TV, and spend the day immersed in baseball. This was a big win for MLB, and a format they should keep in future seasons.
Of course, MLB did have some good luck (unlike later on in the postseason – more to come on that). Playoff series are more entertaining when they go the distance. Each of the 4 Division Series went 5 games. St. Louis upset the favored Washington Nationals, the Yankees survived a series with Baltimore, which included back-to-back extra-inning games (12 and 13 innings), the Tigers fended off a spirited comeback attempt by the A’s, and the Giants won the last three games of their series to stun the Cincinnati Reds.
League Championship Series
In the American League, the drama surrounded the travelling soap opera from the Bronx. Alex Rodriguez’s playoff futility reached a new depth in the division series, and manager Joe Girardi was forced to bench him in favor of journeyman Raul Ibanez. Ibanez responded by hitting two home runs in a Yankees win.
There were no such heroics in the ALCS, however. Any offense the Yankees had left was snuffed out by the four aces of the Detroit Tigers pitching staff. The Tigers swept the Yankees in four games sending them to the World Series.
The NLCS was far more competitive. It featured a matchup between the 2010 and 2011 world champs. Once again, the Giants (2010) found themselves in a hole, down 3 games to 1 to the Cardinals (2011). And once again, the Giants won three straight games to stun their playoff opponent.
The World Series between the Giants and Tigers turned out to be an anti-climax. In an effort to avoid losing momentum during their layoff, manager Jim Leyland had his charges play a couple of simulated games against a practice team. After all, they were beaten by an inferior Cardinals team in 2006 after sweeping the ALCS that year.
But even with Leyland’s foresight, the Tigers came in rusty, while the Giants rode their momentum to their second championship in three years. They made Justin Verlander look ordinary. They made the power trio of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Delmon Young look like nothing more than three ordinary fat guys.
And TV viewers looked away. The fall classic averaged 12.7 million viewers, the smallest audience since Nielsen began measuring with People Meters in 1987. Between the coverage of Hurricane Sandy, the election, and some key NFL games, combined with a drama-free World Series, a lot of people had plenty of alternatives to watch.
Overall, the playoffs were a ratings win for Fox, however. In today’s broadcast environment, people have more than just three networks available on their TVs. The market is no longer dominated by a few networks – It is shared with cable networks and new media, such as Video on Demand (VOD), available on multiple platforms.
Of course, a certain ESPN radio guy reveled in the poor ratings of the World Series, no doubt reflecting the opinion of many at the Mothership.
“Between ‘Sandy’, [incorrect comma outside the quotation mark] election, and the NFL the World Series was reduced to some TV mini series mostly old people watched” – ESPN Radio Guy tweeted.
ESPN Radio Guy thinks he’s rebelling against the establishment when he says baseball less popular than football. That would have been quite a statement in 1955, but these days, that’s just being a frontrunner.
The truth is the World Series was the opposite of the Division Series. A sweep is the exact opposite of a series that goes the distance from a drama point of view – and that’s what people want from sports: Drama and storylines. If a series is a sweep, no amount of manipulation from the league can make it any more interesting.
Baseball unfolds organically on the field, not through manipulation from some stuffed suits sitting in league headquarters, and certainly not from self-aggrandized media personalities. Some games are more dramatic than others.
A Step Forward
The extra wild card teams were a great addition to this year’s postseason. The pace of playoffs, especially in the early rounds, was enhanced by the rapid-fire schedule of games. The World Series was a disappointment from a TV ratings standpoint, but mainly as a result of bad luck.
Despite that, the new playoff format was a success: It made the regular season more meaningful, and it got more cities involved in the pennant races. It should be a boon for MLB in the years to come.