A Proposal to Change the Baseball Playoffs

Baseball needs to make a significant change in the format of its playoffs.  MLB should consider moving away from the traditional best of five, best of seven games format to round-robin tournament to determine the pennant winner for each league.  Changing the playoff format will likely increase fairness of the playoffs, improve television ratings, increase revenue, and more importantly reward the fans of the game.

The new format, which we can call the “Pennant Chase”, will have each team play a slate of games against all the other teams in the league playoff. The team at the end of the round robin with the best record will be awarded the league pennant and move onto the World Series which will still be the best of seven.  The number of games each team plays could be anywhere from nine to fifteen.  I favor an additional 12 games or three, four game series with two home and away for each team each series.  For example: This year the Nationals would have played the Giants, Cardinals, and Dodgers in three successive four game series.  This eliminates the home field advantage unless you want to reward the best record with an additional home game against the wild card team

The 12 game series allows MLB to wrap up the post season pennant tournament in two weeks with a couple off days thrown in.  That schedule will also have each team match up with the other team’s top 4 pitchers, staff vs. staff.  Basically, we are talking about two solid weeks of the four best teams in each league matching up against each other to determine the World Series matchup

Fairness:

Does the current format result in the “best” team winning or does it hinge on chance?  The more games played, the more likely the best team from each league will make the World Series by creating a larger sample size of games. A longer playoff better resembles the rhythm of the baseball season, where even the best teams only win 3 out of 5 games.   As it stands, half the teams are eliminated after a five game series.  In a league that plays 162 a five game series is similar to a coin toss.  The 2014 World Series was a matchup of the #4 National League and #5 American League Wild Card Teams.  The whole “anybody and win” vibe is interesting, but tends to invalidate a 162 game season when top seeds are bounced early in the playoffs.  The sudden and brutal losses the Tigers and Angels fans felt this year isn’t particularly good for the game as each team was swept in 3 games.

Due to the structure of the MLB schedule, even teams in the same league only have one home and away series over the course of the season.  The best teams in the league rarely face off against each other unless they share a division.  A twelve game slate allows the each team to match up head to head to determine the class of the league.  By the end of the two weeks, there is no way any team can feel like they got cheated out of an opportunity.

Fan Interest:

Baseball popularity is very different from many of the other major sports.  Individual teams have intense local followings.  We see this with 24 team’s attendance topping 2 million and 11 team’s local television ratings leading their markets in viewership.    National ratings tell us a different story, fewer and fewer of the intense local fans care about teams that play in other markets.  If they did we would see a doubling of viewership as teams were eliminated.  Many fans “check out” on the sport after their team loses.  Ensuring that all four teams get an additional 2 weeks of games, the “Pennant Chase” also ensures that MLB doesn’t lose top markets like Los Angeles or Washington/Baltimore in the first three or four days of the playoffs like happened this year.

Under the current format, game times and schedule are decided well after the tickets are sold.  Fans purchase tickets for all playoff games not knowing if a game 5 or 7 will even be played or if they can attend the game.  If a series ends early, teams have extended off days and playoffs lose momentum.  A full slate of games will provide a more predictable schedule for fans and a gradual build to the climatic games.

Financial:

The “Pennant Chase” format would also ensure a guarantee of playoff games for each team. In the current format each league plays a maximum of 18 games assuming that each series goes the maximum distance.  Each team would be guaranteed 6 home playoff games, a number that doesn’t dilute the value of the ticket, but will still allow teams to charge a premium price.

This year, the NL only had 14 total games and the AL had the minimum number, 11.  Under the new format, each league would likely have 25 total games in the above 12 game 4×3 format; each game is television commercials/content sold.  Assuming each game broadcast is four hours, this results an increase of 28 hours of broadcast content and 50 hour increase over this year.

A slate of playoff games would also ensure that the more and the biggest markets will stay active in the playoffs for its duration.  More markets, more interest, higher ratings.  Teams like the Red Sox and Yankees or even the Cubs have huge national fan bases that automatically increase the profile in ratings of any series they are in.

Problems

So what are the problems with this new proposal?  This is a very different way to look at Continue reading

A Wish List for the Nationals 10 Year Anniversary Bobblehead Series

The first pitch at RFK Stadium by Livan Hernandez

The first pitch at RFK Stadium by Livan Hernandez

Next season is the 10th anniversary of the Washington Nationals, and the ballclub is allegedly giving out bobbleheads of the team’s greatest moments to commemorate the occasion. This is a fantastic idea. Bobblehead giveaways, while incredibly popular, are starting become a stale idea. Linking the bobblehead giveaways to a 10th anniversary theme is a great way to keep the idea fresh.

Without giving it too much thought, here is a quick wish list for the Greatest Moments in Nationals History Bobblehead Series:

- Livan Hernandez, first pitch at RFK Stadium (2005)

- Brad Wilkerson hitting for the cycle (2005)

- Vinny Castilla getting beaned by Lance Cormier in the first game at RFK in his fourth at-bat, thereby preventing him from hitting for the cycle (any Vinny Castilla was suffice actually) (2005)

- Chad Cordero closing out the Nationals 10-game winning streak in their first season (2005)

Chad Cordero

Chad Cordero

- Ryan Zimmermann walk-off home run in the first game at Nationals Park (2008)

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- Stephen Strasburg first MLB start (i.e. “Strasmus”) (2010)

- Frank Robinson (no particular occasion needed)

- Adam Dunn wearing a “Natinals” jersey (we can laugh about this now, right?) (2009)

Adam Dunn's "Natinals" jersey

Adam Dunn’s “Natinals” jersey

- Bryce Harper stealing home on Cole Hamels on Sunday Night Baseball (this one would look the coolest because he’s sliding) (2012)

Bryce Harper stealing home against the Phillies

Bryce Harper stealing home against the Phillies

- Jayson Werth’s Game 4 walk-off (2012)

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Oops, I forgot to add one:

- Steven Souza’s diving catch to save Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter (2014)

NLDS exposes Matt Williams’ limitations as a manager–what will we see in 2015?

In my 3am post-mortem of the 2014 NLDS, I neglected to mention to the Game 4 managerial malpractice of Matt Williams. I did this because I knew the rest of the baseball world would be analyzing and overanalyzing everything Williams did–and didn’t do–in the decisive loss of the series.

My restraint was rewarded because on FoxSports.com, Dave Cameron took a blow torch to the Nats manager in a piece that was both harsh and completely fair. I suggest you read every word.

Matt Williams mistakes last night were completely self-evident. He didn’t use his best available pitchers in the most important moments. In the seventh inning, he let Matt Thornton face a hitter (Posey) he shouldn’t have faced, and then turned to an inferior pitcher (Barrett) to end the crises he himself created. The game ended with the Nats three best available pitchers–Strasburg, Clippard, and Storen–still in the bullpen.

I don’t have too much more to say about Williams’ bullpen usage–or lack thereof–because these mistakes are so obvious. Again, read the Cameron piece for a full explanation.

I’m far more interested why Matt Williams keeps making these mistakes. One year into his tenure as manager, it seems Williams is the type of manager who prefers–almost without exception–putting his players in predictable situations. Oftentimes, it appears Matt Williams lacks creativity or the ability to think outside the box. I don’t believe that. Williams has the ability to think outside the box. He just chooses not to. He’s far more comfortable putting his players in predictable situations, while making the assumption that consistency will lead to success.

Unlike many MLB managers, Matt Williams was a star player. He didn’t bounce from level to level and team to team. He played 16 of his 17 MLB seasons with only two teams. Over half of his nearly 7600 MLB plate appearances were from the cleanup spot. Matt Williams was a player who didn’t see a lot of change in his career. There’s a good chance he believes a chunk of his success came from this consistency. Every day, same team, same place in the order. Stability led to success over time.

This is why he kept Denard Span in the leadoff spot through the first half of the season when he struggled to get on base, and it’s why he kept Adam LaRoche in the cleanup spot through his sporadic slumps throughout the season. And most relevant to last night’s debacle, it’s why he kept Tyler Clippard pitching almost exclusively in the 8th inning and Soriano and later Storen pitching exclusively in the 9th.

But as we saw, this approach has its drawbacks. While deferring to predictability, Williams kept an inferior pitcher on the mound last night when they needed their best available player to end what become the Giants series-clinching rally.

And his predictability approach kept Bryce Harper confined to the 6th spot in the batting order for almost the entire season. Williams long ago tabbed Adam LaRoche as the “cleanup hitter” and he never budged. His desire to avoid back-to-back lefties in the order gave Williams no other option than batting Harper 6th, even when it became obvious in the playoffs he was the Nationals best hitter.

If Williams had been willing to think outside the box, he may have moved Harper into the 4th spot in the order. Maybe then, one of Harpers 3 home runs would have come with a runner on base. And maybe last night he wouldn’t have batted with 2 outs in the 9th, and his walk could have sparked an actual rally.

Williams has the entire offseason to think about his mistakes, and maybe he’ll have a summit with team leadership (i.e. Rizzo) to discuss his managerial approach. Matt Williams has likely earned a second season as Nationals manager. Whether he’ll recognize his own faults is the outstanding question.

Thoughts on a devastating NLDS loss and looking forward to 2015

A week from now, it won’t feel any better. Really, nothing will make you feel better about what happened the past five days. Even 10 years from now, you’ll look back at this team  and wonder how so much promise unraveled so quickly. Even if the Nats win 5 of the next 7 World Series titles, you’ll still look back at this season as a million dollar check nobody bothered to cash.

Because, really, this team should have done more than wilt away in front of an inferior Giants team that seemed to bring a little bit of passion the Nats just didn’t have. This team this series wasted near shutouts from Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister and a solid if not spectacular performance by Stephen Strasburg in games 1-3. Even the vilified bullpen allowed only 5 runs in 19 plus innings over four games. A team that won its division by 17 games on the strength of its pitching pitched well this series. They likely would have continued pitching well if they had managed to stay alive this postseason.

So, no you won’t feel better about this series once time has given you the benefit of perspective. This Giants team is frisky enough to scratch out a run every now and then, but they’re not a strong offensive team. The Giants could and should have been dispatched had the Nationals offense looked anything like the 2014 Nationals offense.

So there’s plenty of blame to go around, but most of it resides with the Nationals hitters who, with the exception of Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper, didn’t hit. It’s usually not worth getting too riled up about hitting stats over a 4-game stretch–which is a very small sample size–but it’s odd so many hitters went dark at the same time. Werth, LaRoche, Desmond, Ramos, and Span all retreated to their bad habits as hitters, and the team collectively scored a measly 9 runs over 45 innings.

Some commentators will use words like “clutch” and “choke” to fit some sort of lazy narrative that the Nationals weren’t ready for the “big stage”. But the credit should probably go to the Giants pitching staff who came in prepared to pitch to the Nats weaknesses, and executed their plan when it really mattered. I didn’t see too many adjustments from the Nationals hitters over four games, which is problematic. Over the course of a long season, things tend to even out. Over four games, things don’t have time to regress to the mean.

Other people will blame the Nationals four day layoff while the Giants played a Wild Card game to keep them “fresh”. I don’t think there’s any way to prove whether this was a factor in the series, but frankly, I’m having trouble believing that it was. The top seeds in each league won in the LCS against the wild card teams last year, and many teams this season didn’t have trouble with a four day layoff. The Orioles scored 12 runs in their first game after a three day layoff. The Cardinals and Dodgers scored a combined 19 runs after four day layoffs. And if the Giants were so fresh, why were their bats as cold as the Nats all series long? If four days is enough time to cool down bats, four days is enough time to warm them back up, and the Nationals looked just as cold in the last game as the first. Sorry, I’m not buying the layoff theory. It’s too convenient.

The Nationals simply lost. These things happen in a five game series. It’s not particularly fair, but nobody cares about fair. To win the World Series, you have to win short series. The Nationals didn’t show up, and you’ll now remember 2014 as a waste. For longer than you realize.

Looking ahead.

-While you emotionally recover, Mike Rizzo has already turned the page to 2015. Without almost the entire team under team control next season, conventional wisdom suggests there could be few changes to this roster. But we all know better. Mike Rizzo realizes if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. This is the guy that added Denard Span in 2013 and Doug Fister in 2014. He has his eye on at least one big name player to upgrade this roster.

-Adam LaRoche will probably move on to a new team. He’s a free agent, and a costly one at that on an average annual basis. Most importantly, he occupies the position Ryan Zimmerman will probably need to play next season. With no openings in the outfield, and third base off the table due to his shoulder injuries, Zimmerman will probably learn to play first base full time. Given the choice between Zimmerman and LaRoche, there’s no contest. Zimmerman is still in his prime as a hitter, and LaRoche is just beginning the long regression to journeyman veteran. LaRoche has been a fine first baseman, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him back for one more season. But Zimmerman won’t begin opening day 2015 on the bench like he spent the entire NLDS.

-The other option for Rizzo is exercising Denard Span’s team option before trading him to open a spot in the outfield for Zimmerman. Rizzo would only consider this if he feels Bryce Harper is ready to move back to centerfield full time. But Rizzo moved Harper away from centerfield for a reason. The best bet is that Span is back next season with Michael Taylor ready to take over in 2016.

-If Zimmerman moves to first base, Rendon will probably move back to second, and Rizzo will target a third baseman through free agency or trade (probably trade). Rendon may stay at third, with Rizzo targeting a second baseman. Either way, don’t be surprised to see an infielder added this offseason.

-Whether Span stays or not, outfield will be an interesting situation to monitor. Michael Taylor will get more seasoning in AAA next season, but Steven Souza doesn’t need any more time in the minors. He’ll probably begin 2015 with the big league club, and it’ll be interesting to see whether he improves as Jayson Werth’s power and defense declines. Werth has three more years on his contract. He may not be one of the Nationals top three outfielders by the time it’s done.

-The other offseason story will be the impending free agency of Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, and Ian Desmond, who all enter their last year of team control with the Nats. All will be expensive to re-sign, making it unlikely any of them will stay with a team that’s allegedly “beyond tapped out” in payroll. Fister is the most likely to stay since he demands fewer years due to his age. But it’s likely Rizzo is content to let all of them walk before folding prospects Blake Treinen, AJ Cole, and Lucas Giolito into the rotation.

-Don’t be surprised to see Rizzo look for a shortstop of the future, possibly by trading some of its young outfield or pitching depth. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see the Nats trade Tyler Clippard to a team desperate for bullpen help, like the Tigers, if they offered a young shortstop.

-Speaking of next season, I fully expect the 2015 NL East to illustrate what a missed opportunity this season really was. This year’s Mets gave me a 2011 Nationals vibe all season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see them make the same year to year leap that team did. Next year’s Mets could take the division. Same with the Marlins, whose young corps will continue to improve. The 2015 Braves cannot be as bad as this season’s version in the second half. The NL East will be far more competitive than the cake walk it was this year. This team will need to get better if it hopes to again earn the opportunity they just wasted.

Thoughts on a terrible weekend for the Nationals

Well, the worst case scenario is upon us. We are one game away from a relatively dominating 96 win season being relegated to a footnote. Baseball is unfair. A six-month season can be rendered irrelevant in three games. But that’s the system we have, and nobody would be complaining about it if the Nationals were up 2-0 instead of down 0-2.

Here are a couple of other thoughts before we move on to Doug Fister and Game 3:

- It’s not over. Not even close. With Doug Fister in Game 3, Gio in Game 4, and Strasburg and/or Jordan Zimmermann in Game 5, the psychological hole for fans is far greater than the actual hole this team is in. If Doug Fister wins tonight, the narrative completely shifts and the pressure is on the Giants to close out the series at home. This thing isn’t over. It’s a five game series for a reason.

- Matt Williams made the right call. This has already been debated to death and probably will be even more so if the Nationals lose this series, but Matt Williams made the right decision putting in Drew Storen in the ninth inning Saturday night. I tweeted my approval at the time and I did so for a reason. Too often we base our decisions on the outcome, when really it’s the thought process before the decision that really matters. On Saturday night, I think the odds favored Storen facing Buster Posey with a man on first base. It’s that simple. I could provide a long explanation for why, but at this point it feels like the battle lines are already drawn. I just think it’s unfortunate that Matt Williams will continue to get killed for this decision, when it probably was the right one. He’s made plenty of mistakes this season, but this wasn’t one of them. He put his guys in the best position to win the game, and they didn’t do it.

- The relay. If the Nationals had won in extra innings, that Bryce Harper to Ian Desmond to Wilson Ramos relay in the ninth inning would have become legendary.

- The uniforms. I’m disappointed the Nationals wore their red jerseys Friday and Saturday. In every way, the home white jersey is a superior look. A team should always wear it’s best uniform on the biggest stage.

- The crowd. It’s unfortunate that a six-hour baseball game gave birth to or–more accurately–reinforced the tired narrative that this city doesn’t care about baseball. For years, people used lack of fan support as a reason to keep baseball away from DC. When the Expos finally arrived in 2004, the fan support given to the Nationals shattered that myth. This fan base continues to grow and the crowds this weekend, just like in the 2012 playoffs, were impressive. It’s a shame, then, to see so many people take shots at the Nationals fan base when empty seats started to become visible on the TV as Saturday’s game went into a 5th and 6th hour. I will note that many of the empty seats were in the Diamond Club and President’s Club, where fans had a place to warm up. And many of the empty seats were in the high upper deck, where many fans presumably retreated to the lower deck to escape the wind. I can tell you that while there were plenty of empty seats in the late extra innings, the concourses were full of people–many of whom were waiting in line at the bathroom. The narrative that 50% of the fans went home is wrong. Yes, some fans left early, but considering the circumstances, the Nats fans showed some pretty good loyalty on Saturday, sitting through terrible weather (and terrible baseball) for six hours, only to watch their team lose a heartbreaker.

It should also be noted that I don’t judge the fans who did leave. As a general rule in life, I don’t judge anyone’s decisions without knowing their life situation. Nobody planned for a six-hour game. If someone had child care issues, does that make them a bad fan for leaving the game? What about people who brought little kids? Are they supposed to make their child sit in the cold for six hours? A lot of the uneducated criticism in this case, particularly coming from people sitting in a press box being paid to attend the game, is pretty distasteful.

- The players. If the Nationals don’t show some fortitude in San Francisco, it’s possible we’ve seen the last game in DC for some very prominent and well-liked Nationals. There’s a presumption that Mike Rizzo will bring back the 2014 team largely intact, but that’s simply not his style. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the following Nationals in another uniform next season: Adam LaRoche (free agent), Denard Span (free agent w/ one-year team option), Ian Desmond (one season until free agency), Jordan Zimmermann (one season until free agency), and Tyler Clippard (one season until free agency). All of the above players could easily be brought back on a one year basis, but Mike Rizzo thinks long-term and isn’t afraid to trade a small short-term gain for a larger long-term benefit (example: the Mike Morse trade in 2013). Other players who are almost definitely gone next season: Scott Hairston, Ross Detwiler, Rafael Soriano, and maybe Kevin Frandsen.

Here’s a half-baked idea to match Standing Room Only fans with fans who can’t use their NLDS tickets through Twitter

This all started back in 2012. In late September, I completely dropped the ball on buying playoff tickets when the Nationals put them on sale. The deadline had passed, all NLDS games at Nats Park were sold out, and I was left on the outside looking in.

But there was no way I was going to miss the first playoff baseball in my hometown in 80 years. I had two choices: pay a small fortune on StubHub or buy standing room seats.

I opted for the latter and it was a huge mistake.

There are plenty of good places to watch baseball at Nats Park if you don’t have a seat. In fact, the Nationals designed the stadium that way. But in the playoffs, there are far more standing room only tickets sold than places to stand. I watched all of the Game 3 Edwin Jackson disaster with a partially blocked view from the outfield in the lower deck.

When I used my standing room only ticket in Game 4, I was determined to find a seat. I spent the first few innings wandering the lower deck before I found two seats that were seemingly unoccupied down the first base line in the lower deck. Around the 5th inning, I settled into the unused seats where I watched one of the best baseball games I’ve ever seen. Through pure luck, I turned my standing room only ticket into lower level seats where I eventually watched Jayson Werth’s legendary walk-off home run.

Fast-forward to 2014. A few weeks ago, I was chatting with a fellow Nats fan on Twitter who lamented how sad she was both of her Game 4 tickets in 2012 went unused due to a last minute conflict in her schedule. My interest piqued, I asked the location of her unused seats. First base line. Lower deck.

Did I unwittingly find the person who allowed me to watch Game 4 from actual seats? We’ll never know since two years later, I don’t remember the exact section or row. But either way, it gave me an idea: let’s use Twitter to match standing room only fans with fans who can’t use their tickets.

Here’s how it works. If a fan can’t use their tickets, or even notice unused seats their section, simply tweet under the hashtag #MyNatsParkSeatIsEmpty. If you’re an unlucky fan stuck with a standing room ticket, monitor the hashtag. First come, first served.

Now, this is only a half-baked idea, and there’s no way to guarantee this actually working. But if we somehow match one standing room only fan with an actual empty seat, it’ll all be worth it.

Last night’s game finally closed the book on Adam Dunn’s $56 million post-Nationals contract

Last night closed the book on the 4-year $56 million dollar contract Adam Dunn signed when he left the Nationals via free agency after the 2010 season. Letting Dunn walk away was controversial at the time, considering Dunn had just come off a 38 home run, .358 OBP season.

Well.

Adam Dunn’s struggles since leaving Washington are well-chronicled. He batted .202 over that 4-year period, including a historically bad .159 in 469 plate appearances in 2011.

But most importantly, Adam Dunn’s departure earned the Nationals a first round compensation pick in the 2011 draft where they selected Alex Meyer, a pitcher who quickly rose the top prospect rankings before being shipped to Minnesota for…Denard Span in 2012.

The Dunn for Meyer for Span swap doesn’t even rank as the Nationals savviest free agent/compensation pick move. That would be Jordan Zimmermann, who was drafted in 2007 after the Nats let Alfonso Soriano depart after the 2006 season. But the Dunn for Meyer for Span swap does demonstrate how effective GM Mike Rizzo is at thinking big picture and building a team for the long term.

This type of thinking is why Mike Rizzo didn’t empty the farm system to “make a World Series run” and it’s why the aforementioned Zimmermann and Ian Desmond haven’t yet signed contract extensions. This guy knows what he’s doing.

Winning the National League East is fun. And watching playoff baseball involving the home team is even more fun. Rizzo’s plan is to do it every season.