Lost amid the defibrillation of Philadelphia and Milwaukee's seasons, and their ascent to nascent wild-card contention, is a sobering reality about this new playoff format: It begs for, and rewards, mediocrity.
It is the middle of September, and baseball is celebrating a pair of teams that have clawed their way back to around .500. Their refusal to fold is laudable, certainly, and their re-admittance to the wild-card shuffle should invigorate fan bases that were ruing September. And that's about the only positive thing baseball gets from this watered-down race that rewards the pedestrian and manufactures and force-feeds drama where it need not be.
It's one thing for a division to have a down year and produce a champion with a record just over .500. Such anomalies happen. Should the second wild-card leading Cardinals continue at their current pace, however, they will finish with just 85 victories – three fewer than the previous low for a wild card, the 2006 Dodgers, and six less than the average wild-card winner.
The playoffs are supposed to be a celebration of excellence. And while the on-paper Cardinals do suggest brilliance, their on-field product is one of disappointment and underachievement, both in the theoretical sense and the Pythagorean. (Based on their +83 run differential, they should be 83-64, not 77-70.)
Instead, the Cardinals are slumming. They're not the only ones, either. Baseball's playoffs used to serve top-shelf quality. Now they want us to guzzle the well stuff and act like it's the same. The sport preys on fans' ability to work themselves into a frenzy at a sniff of the postseason because it's a crapshoot, because a team like the 83-78 Cardinals of 2006 can nonetheless win a championship, because of this contrived idea that a greater number of competitors equals greater competition. It doesn't. Don't mistake quantity for quality.
The number of deeply flawed and disappointing teams nonetheless in the playoff hunt is disheartening. Contention and bad baseball are not supposed to mix in September, and yet a team like the …
1. Philadelphia Phillies proves that under the new format, nearly four months of meh play, plus the deadline dump of two-thirds of your outfield, matters not when it comes to having a shot with two weeks left in the season.
On Aug. 22, the Phillies were 57-67, 20 games back of first place, 10 ½ behind St. Louis and tied with the Mets. (Yes, the Mets.) Over the next 19 games, brought to life by their starting pitching, a suddenly dominant bullpen and the resurgence of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley, the Phillies won 15 and crept a game over .500. A four-game series against Houston awaited. This was their moment.
Naturally, Houston, the worst team since the 2003 Tigers and featuring a murderer's row of minor league talents, beat the suddenly daunting Phillies three out of four games. First the Astros mounted an eighth-inning comeback. Then a rookie named Dallas Keuchel, who entered the game with a 1-7 record and 5.35 ERA, shut Philadelphia out for 5 1/3 innings without managing to strike out a batter. The Phillies' bullpen blew it again Sunday, allowing four seventh-inning runs and dropping them back under .500 at 73-74.
Meanwhile, their partners in Houdini kept winning, and now the …
2. Milwaukee Brewers are just 2 ½ games behind the Cardinals. Milwaukee's streak began two days before the Phillies'. The Brewers were 54-66. And they came upon the sort of gift that no trade could bestow them.
Their schedule since then: Awful Cubs, Choking Pirates, Awful Cubs, Choking Pirates, Miserable Marlins, Underperforming Cardinals, Excellent Braves, LOLMets.
Look, a great schedule doesn't guarantee anything. The Pirates had the easiest schedule in baseball, and now they're on their way to a 20th consecutive losing season. The Brewers marauded all over their opponents, and that was without Zack Greinke (traded), their traded-at-the-deadline ace.
Now comes the fun part: a tough stretch. The Brewers will spend the next 10 days on the road, starting with three games in Pittsburgh, then four against Washington and three at Cincinnati. The latter two happen to be the NL's two best teams. Three at home against Houston and three more in Miller Park vs. San Diego close out the season for the Brewers, who are actually ahead of the …
3. Pittsburgh Pirates in the standings. In fact, let's use those very standings to play a game we here at 10 Degrees like to call Pirates Schadenfreude.
• At the All-Star break, the Pirates led the NL Central with a 48-37 record. They were one game ahead of Cincinnati. Today, they trail the Reds by 14.
• Since the break, the Pirates are 25-35. Their peers do not include the other teams contending for a playoff spot. They are more like the Rockies (25-35), Cubs (25-36), Marlins (24-38), Mets (20-40) and Astros (15-46).
• The Pirates' team ERA is more than three-quarters of a run higher after the break than it was before.
• Pittsburgh's run differential was +32 before the break. It is now -7. Which is about where it should be for a team that's 73-72.
• The last time the Pirates were .500 was May 30. They were 25-25. They could reach that Monday in their final game against the Cubs.
That's enough piling on. Expected though they may be, such collapses are still uncomfortable to watch. And the last thing anyone wants is squeamishness and embarrassment watching a ballgame. Though every time you look at the …
4. Tampa Bay Rays' empty stadium, a similar sort of feeling washes over. Even though Tropicana Field's capacity is a tiny 34,078, they haven't managed anywhere close to a sellout since the opening two games of the season. The excitement of a playoff race and visits from the Yankees and Rangers in August drew an average of 20,286. Whatever the reason for the Rays' annual pallid attendance, it's an ongoing embarrassment for a city gifted with a brilliant team and unwilling to support it, antiquated stadium or not..
Public-service announcement for the Tampa-St. Pete metro area to actually earn its designation as a major league town aside, the Rays haven't exactly played inspired ball of late. After clawing to within 1 ½ games of first place with consecutive wins to start the Yankees series Sept. 3-4, the Rays have lost seven of 10 and trail Baltimore by four games for the second wild card.
And while we're lamenting the second wild card: Imagine what the AL would be like without it, too. The Yankees and Orioles throwing bombs at each other fighting for the AL East title, with Oakland in the background, trying to foil the East. Tampa Bay six games back of the A's and essentially dead in the water. And the …
5. Detroit Tigers focusing entirely on the AL Central as opposed to holding out faint hope that the wild card still can be theirs. That the Tigers have a potential escape hatch for turning what should've been a runaway in the AL Central with their near-$140 million payroll to a dogfight is the sort of unintended consequence this playoff format wreaks.
It's remarkable, actually, to look at opening day payrolls and witness the sheer lack of correlation in 2012 between money and winning. The top 10 going into this season: Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Angels, Tigers, Rangers, Marlins, Giants, Cardinals, Brewers – three division leaders and one wild card among them.
Whatever ground they try to make up on Chicago, the Tigers can't scratch back into first. The White Sox's lead is now two games, and it could stretch to three with Monday's makeup game from a rainout Thursday. Then it's three against the A's, led off by two boffo pitching matchups: Max Scherzer vs. A.J. Griffin and Justin Verlander vs. Brett Anderson. Able to attest to just how devastating the A's pitching can be are the …
6. Los Angeles Angels, still trailing Oakland, still trailing Texas, still reeling of sorts even though they took two of three in Kansas City. Because the one they missed was painful, one of the great gut punches of the 2012 season: the devastating Ernesto Frieri, who had held AL hitters to a .132/.268/.223 slash line, allowed back-to-back home runs in the ninth inning, the first by Billy Butler to tie the game and the second by Salvador Perez to win it.
With that win, the Angels would've been 1 ½ games back of Baltimore. As it stands, they're 2 ½, with a tougher schedule, with a bullpen they can't really trust, with a manager wound tight as a spool of thread, with year one of Albert Pujols' contract nearing its end, with Mike Trout's historic season doing the same, with questions about the present and especially the future and with the …
7. Los Angeles Dodgers threatening to take back the entirety of the market that was once theirs through sheer force of the dollar. As demonstrated earlier, of course, baseball's dollar has no FDIC. There is no guarantee on it. Adrian Gonzalez hit a monster home run in his first at-bat in Los Angeles. In the 85 since, he has none, and his batting average is .233, his on-base percentage .287 and his slugging percentage .372.
[Tim Brown: Dodgers' season fate rests on Matt Kemp's shoulders]
Hanley Ramirez can't bother to get on base more than 32 percent of the time, and Shane Victorino is charging toward free agency with .234/.303/.311, and with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Ted Lilly each on the shelf, Joe Blanton and his 6.07 ERA join a rotation that, much like its team, is in peril.
The Dodgers' shopping spree was noble, spirited and may, in the end, work out. For now, it's a damn mess, and the fact that this team could've been in the wild-card lead with a win Sunday despite sporting a 44-52 record since the beginning of June is a damning statement on both the wild card itself and …
8. St. Louis Cardinals' complete inability to bury inferior teams. Here are the Cardinals in a nutshell: They've scored the second-most runs in the NL (behind Milwaukee) and they've allowed the sixth-fewest, and they somehow cannot parlay that into any traction in a race that should be theirs.
Part of it is the one-run factor. The Cardinals are dreadful in one-run games: 18-25. They are the anti-Orioles. One-run games, the sort that should end up around .500, correlate anecdotally with teams that lack toughness. It's nothing more than an intangible, difficult to assign any truth to it. And yet it takes moxie and resiliency to scratch out 27 wins in 35 one-run games like Baltimore has, so wouldn't that make the opposite true about the Cardinals, losers in similar situations?
Because of its talent and schedule, St. Louis remains the favorite. To show just how far the Cardinals have dropped, however, consider this: With 15 games left last season, the Boston Red Sox held a four-game lead over their eventual tormentor, Tampa Bay. With 15 games this year, the Cardinals' advantage is only six games over the …
9. San Diego Padres?!? That's right. The Padres, who at the All-Star break were a half-game better than Houston, is 71-76 – and a team that's 71-76, a .483 winning percentage, is within legitimate striking distance of the second wild-card leader.
Granted, San Diego would have to leap Arizona, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and St. Louis to make the playoffs. Epic collapses would need to happen everywhere. The fine folks at Coolstandings.com give the Padres all of a 0.1 percent chance.
Last season, of course, the Red Sox had a 99.9 percent chance heading into September. So anything is possible.
And that it's possible for a 71-76 team to mathematically hold playoff hopes this late into the year, and that a plethora of teams around .500 still aren't giving up, and that the …
10. Philadelphia Phillies are no longer at .500 and harbor October aspirations says a) they are tremendous optimists and, hey, good for them and b) what the hell has baseball done to allow sub-.500 teams optimism in the middle of September?
Baseball touted the second wild card as something that would feed the down-the-stretch-drama beast. Certainly the one-game playoffs between wild-card teams will be entertaining, the do-or-die aspect a welcome treat. And the fact that baseball penalizes the wild card by forcing it to waste a top starter before the division series or risk losing because it didn't pitch its frontline guy is the sort of disincentive the wild card should've had in the first place.
To do those things at the expense of the regular season and its integrity, though, goes against better judgment. Perhaps this is an anomaly and the AL wild card in the future will average 94 wins, as it has, and the NL's will exceed 90 as well. Maybe these are first-year kinks that get the cynics and those against since its inception all in a lather (in this particular case, a blather).
More likely is the annual bastardization of a regular season that is unique and special to baseball. It is a 162-game slog, a slow burn of strategy and stamina. Diminishing it in any way is counterintuitive to what baseball should try to do: keep it as pristine as possible, and damn sure don't let some off-brand version of a ball club sneak into the playoffs.
It's eminently possible the Cardinals go on a 12-of-15 jag and finish with 89 wins and streak into the playoffs looking every bit the contender they should've. And should that happen, or should the Dodgers do it, or should some other team get Rockies-in-'07 hot, it will render these concerns moot.
It shouldn't, because just like the new wild card, these competition concerns aren't going anywhere. In so many ways, baseball wants to be like pro football. Between the revenue spikes and relative parity, it has done a nice copy job. Now comes another mimicking gone right: Like the NFL, MLB wants you to believe that a .500 team is worthy of making the postseason.
It's just as much a farce in baseball as it is in football.
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