Selling the (September) Drama

So it turns out maybe September won’t be so dramatic after all.

A month or so ago, tight pennant races abounded and the wild-card standings were all bunched up, too.

Now, though? Not so much. As Joe Sheehan points out in his latest (subscriber-only) newsletter, Baseball Prospectus now has nine teams with better than a 90-percent chance of making the playoffs … and of course only 10 teams actually get in:

100% Royals

100% Cardinals

 99.7 Blue Jays 

 99.6 Pirates

 98.2 Yankees

 97.2 Dodgers

 93.7 Cubs

 93.4 Astros

 93.3 Mets

 54.5 Rangers

 24.5 Twins

 12.4 Angels

The division races are largely over, although it’s certainly possible that the Yankees will catch the Blue Jays or the Rangers will catch the Astros or something else unlikely will happen. The National League’s basically set. The wild-card race in the American League remains interesting.

There is not, relatively speaking, much drama in the offing. At least not if you believe those percentages.

Here’s Joe at his best:

You can’t legislate drama. Drama just happens. We all loved September 28, 2011 and the incredible baseball that led up to that amazing night, but it took a strange confluence of events for that night to feature so many meaningful games and moments. MLB, with its usual forward thinking and grasp of nuance, immediately tried to manufacture that night every year by creating a one-game playoff round. It can’t be done. The last days of the season, or one-game playoffs as we had in 1978 or 1980, are the culmination of six months of stories that needed one more chapter to be complete. It’s not the one-and-done aspect, in isolation, that gives games that meaning; it’s everything we’ve seen and learned and loved over the course of the year. You don’t have that when you take two teams who weren’t building up that history and pit them against one another on a random Tuesday in October. It’s artificial.

Well, hell. Everything’s artificial. Everything became artificial in 1969, with more artifice piled on in 1995 and then again in 2012. The leagues haven’t been pure since 1968, and even before then there were innumerable seasons in which the second-best team in the majors didn’t reach the postseason because they played in the same league as the best team.

As for legislating drama, drama’s in the eye of the beholder. Joe doesn’t seem to find anything dramatic about the Wild Card Games because the teams have no history. Wait a minute, though; the Chicago Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates don’t have any history? I’ll bet they’ve played some hard-fought games this season, plus they’ve been playing against each other since 1887.

Anyway, I find plenty of drama, history or no history, in the very format of the Wild Card round, just as I find plenty of drama in the 8/9 games in the NCAA basketball tournament. The one-and-done format is inherently dramatic. To me.

Joe misses the days of two great teams in a down-to-the-wire pennant race. I miss the pennant races, but maybe not so much the days, since most of those days did not include one of those classic pennant races. There were a lot of boring Septembers back then, too.

I don’t believe MLB was stupid enough to think that adding a couple of wild-card teams would lead to a September 28, 2011 every year. I think MLB was just feeding the hunger, mostly among the franchises and the players, for a slightly better shot at postseason glory. 

And one more note about drama: Somebody ran the numbers, and it turns out the new format provides almost exactly as much late-season drama as the previous format. And that’s without even counting the wildly dramatic (to me!) Wild Card Games.

I miss the old days. But the new days can be pretty great, too.