Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Home cookin'

As I’ve made clear before, I think there are few pleasures in life more pure than a long, uninterrupted day of sports. In that same piece, I suggested one way to get those glorious days to occur more frequently in Major League Baseball would be to radically expand home field advantage in the playoffs and play every single wildcard, divisional, and league championship game at the stadium of the team with the better record. Two and a half years later I think it’s and even better idea and I’d like to talk more about it here.

The most immediate advantage of this change is that it aligns MLB playoffs to reflect the unique nature of baseball. The MLB season comprises more regular season games than any other sport by up to an order of magnitude. As a result, we have a better idea of who the best teams are and can be comfortable giving those teams the series-long advantage. Furthermore, baseball is unique in that it is ideally played every day. Where other sports require rest days, baseball can run for a week straight, especially if you don’t have to travel. Playing 5 games in a row or 7 games in 8 days during the playoffs is much closer to the baseball we follow for six months of the year than the perverted, stop-and-start version served up every October.

Fewer rest days would also force managers to be more creative and emphasize team depth. As cool as it can be to see Madison Bumgartner go HAM, or watch the same three Kansas City relievers lock down every game, it’s jarring to have such a drastic difference in style between the playoffs and regular season. Moreover, Sabbathian* levels of heroics would still be possible – a pitcher could easily start two games and be available to work out of the bullpen (or even head out for another start) in a third time in a seven-game series and the (even greater) degree of difficulty would make feats like that stand out even more.

*It may not have been a deep postseason run, but what CC did to simply get the Milwaukee Brewers there in 2008 is still (possibly save Mark Buerhle’s streak of 45 consecutive batters retired the following season) the most memorable pitching performance I’ve seen.

Incidentally, cutting down on rest days during the playoffs could actually increase the amount of rest for the regular season. The commissioner’s office has been exploring ways to introduce more off days during the season but convincing anyone to cut games – and thus revenue – is a tall order. By playing at a faster pace during the playoffs, baseball could stretch the regular season longer (allowing for more off days) and still conclude the World Series on time.

Furthermore, reducing off days and eliminating travel days would mitigate the effect of series running different lengths. With each game only taking one day (instead of two) to play, situations where one team wins quickly and has to wait for its opponent would only set teams apart by 2-3 days instead of up to 5. We might never satisfactorily answer the question of rest versus rust, but we can make it a less urgent one.

At first glance it seems the money issue could be the biggest impediment – those would-be away teams aren’t going to want to forfeit their shot at 2-3 lucrative playoff home dates to fill their parks. In reality though, the way MLB playoff revenues are split means this wouldn’t be such a staunch obstacle. Although the home team would keep all concessions, merchandise, and parking revenue, all gate-related monies are split evenly between the two participating teams (after commissioner’s office and the players take their cut) meaning that where the games are played won’t affect the owners’ bottom line all that much.

From schedules to strategies to spreadsheets we can continue examining the merits of this proposal, but the bottom line is that implementing these changes will result in a veritable tidal wave of baseball. I, for one, am ready to get swept away.

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