In just under a week, a panel will decide the four teams that will participate in the creatively-titled College Football Playoff. Will the committee tasked with doing so pick the correct teams? Subjective, but they’ll probably come pretty close. Is there anything stopping them from making hilariously bad picks for the sake of hilarity? Nope! College football is an incredibly dumb sport, and that’s what I find enjoyable about it.
Major League Baseball is a less dumb sport in that we don’t blindly trust a group of people to select the playoffs. The playoff teams are determined through an objective measure–number of games won–and even if a team that subjectively seems dominant misses the postseason, they will only have their lack of on-field results to blame. But now I ask–what if Major League Baseball didn’t have this objective measure?
I’m going to put my mind in a college football mode (note: I’m writing this while watching college football, so it isn’t that much of a reach) and determine what the Major League playoff would be under two systems: the Bowl Championship Series format (1998-2013), in which a formula combining polls of writers and coaches as well as computer-based metrics determined two teams to meet in the championship game, and the current College Football Playoff (2014-), in which four teams are selected. For the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to pick teams according to what I think would be the two and four highest ranked teams. So that I’m not here all day, I’m sticking to 21st century seasons in which the St. Louis Cardinals were involved in the playoffs–I think it’s safe to assume the Cardinals would not make a 2-4 team playoff if they couldn’t make an 8-10 team playoff in reality.
And if you think these systems are stupid–the system before the Bowl Championship Series was similar except that teams from two of the stronger conferences in the sport were contractually obligated to not play in the championship game, thus frequently meaning the top two teams didn’t play each other. Before that, teams didn’t even particularly aspire to match up. Before that, polling for the national champions happened before the postseason. Progress is slow, but it is still progress.
What happened: Following a 95-win season in which the Cardinals won the NL Central and tied for the second-best record in Major League Baseball, the Cardinals defeated the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS before losing to the Wild Card winners, the New York Mets, in the NLCS.
Under the BCS: The San Francisco Giants had the best record in Major League Baseball and were a top-three playoff team by both runs scored and (preventing) runs allowed, so it’s hard to argue they wouldn’t be in the top two. I suspect the inside track for #2 goes to the Chicago White Sox, who had the most prolific offense of the cluster of 95-win teams and had the advantage of being the top team in the American League. There has long been a bias (one with which I largely agree) in favor of conference and division champions in college football postseason selection when things are otherwise equal.
Under the CFP: The Giants and White Sox remain, with the former as the #1 seed. The 3 and 4 are, in some order, easy to determine–it’s the other two 95-win teams. Although the Cardinals had a better run differential than the Atlanta Braves, the Braves won the tougher division (see: the Mets) and were the defending NL champions, and committees tend to be biased towards their belief in teams as a tiebreaker when their demonstrated performance is otherwise similar. I’ll say Giants/Cardinals and White Sox/Braves.
What happened: The Cardinals tied for the NL Central title, but because both teams were going to the postseason anyway, the Houston Astros technically won it. The Cardinals went to the NLDS and lost in five games to the eventual champion Arizona Diamondbacks.
Under the BCS: The gap between the second and third most wins in baseball was seven games, so despite the fact that the top two teams were in the same division (this happened in a BCS championship game as well, in 2011-12), this is an easy call–the #1 Seattle Mariners face the #2 Oakland Athletics.
Under the CFP: Both teams make the postseason, of course, and since the team with the next most victories is the New York Yankees, they sail into the postseason. For the sake of diversity, though, the CFP model would prefer, unless there really weren’t a choice, for an NL team to join them. In this case, I suspect they’d pick the Houston Astros over the St. Louis Cardinals–since they had the same record, a deference to Houston’s superior head-to-head record is hard to argue against too adamantly.
What happened: The Cardinals won the NL Central (and 97 games) and bested the defending champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS before falling to the San Francisco Giants.
Under the BCS: The New York Yankees won 103 games and outscored their opponents by 200 runs and are the Yankees, so it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t get a shot at the title. And while the Atlanta Braves, 101 game winners to top the NL, have a credible case, I think the Oakland Athletics, 103 game winners and hot off the heels of a 20-game winning streak, would get in as the hot hand.
Under the CFP: In addition to the Yankees and Athletics, two fairly easy picks get into the postseason–the aforementioned 101-win Braves, and the (eventual champion) Anaheim Angels, who had an MLB-best 207 run differential and the next-best win total (99), which is enough to make up for their lack of division title.
What happened: The Cardinals won 105 games and reached the World Series, which was for no particular reason canceled that season.
Under the BCS: Without question, the 105-win Cardinals sail into the championship round. And despite the Boston Red Sox having the superior run differential, the 101-win AL East champion New York Yankees persevere and set up a title tilt between the two title winningest franchises in MLB history.
Under the CFP: The Red Sox do get their chance in the playoff, facing off against the New York Yankees. We know how that went in 2004. The #4 seed is the Atlanta Braves, who had the sport’s fourth-best record and were also the next-best team by run differential. So we can presume that if the Cardinals were to beat the Braves, they would face the Boston Red Sox, and would obviously crush them.
What happened: 100 wins and an NL Central title, followed by an NLCS appearance, is the sort of season that by most standards is all-time great, but because of what happened the season before, it is relatively forgotten in the recent history of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Under the BCS: Of the playoff teams, the Cardinals won the most games, scored the third-most runs, and allowed the second-fewest, so putting them in the championship round is an easy call. The Yankees and Red Sox remained glamour teams, but their support group would likely have a vote split, paving the way for the 99-win eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox.
Under the CFP: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim won 95 games and would have a very valid grievance for being in the final four, but the same-record Yankees and Red Sox were offensive juggernauts and would be an enticing television draw. This isn’t fair, but this is the way sports leagues are able to convince themselves to create injustice.
What happened: The Cardinals had a lackluster 83-78 record which included a late-September free fall, but despite a relatively mediocre record, the team won the NL Central and eventually the whole dang World Series. Not to spoil the next couple sections too dramatically, but it’s safe to say that it requires an eight-team playoff for the Cardinals to even crack the tournament.
Under the BCS: The NL’s best record belonged to the New York Mets, a roster filled with A-list baseball players, so they’re an easy pick for the championship. The AL’s best record belonged to the New York Yankees, a roster filled with A-list baseball players whose geography makes for a natural rivalry in this series.
Under the CFP: Although they had a worse run differential than the Detroit Tigers, the Minnesota Twins were the AL Central champions, and the allure of a division championship can’t be discounted, so they get the 3-seed. But the Tigers still managed to sneak into the postseason as the 4-seed thanks to a relatively lackluster slate of division champions from which to choose–the only other one to win 90+ games were the Oakland Athletics, who only scored 47 more runs than they allowed on the season.
What happened: The Cardinals snuck into the postseason with 91 wins and then Matt Holliday got hit in the nuts on a fly ball and they got swept by the Dodgers. At this point, do you really care if the Cardinals miss this postseason? Would that really be a downgrade?
Under the BCS: The Yankees are a very easy #1 seed–103 wins and 915 runs scored can’t be easily ignored. As for the #2 seed, it’s a less obvious call but the Los Angeles Dodgers are an intriguing matchup–they were the NL’s best team, were the best run suppression team in the sport (to counter the Yankees’ offensive juggernaut), and it sets up a classic World Series matchup between the country’s two biggest markets.
Under the CFP: Matching up against the Dodgers in the 2/3 matchup is their cross-metro rivals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim won two more games and were the second-biggest offensive juggernaut of the (real-life) playoff teams. Although the Phillies would have an argument for the #4 seed, an even more tantalizing matchup unfolds here–the Boston Red Sox, winners of 95 games. So the College Football Playoff model gives us Yankees/Red Sox and a battle of LA. That…that works for me.
What happened: The Cardinals were a good team–their offense was certainly there–but they were still a relatively ordinary Wild Card winner. So of course they won the World Series. I mean, if you’re at this website, I’m guessing you have a pretty encyclopedic knowledge of that whole thing.
Under the BCS: This is actually a pretty perfect year for this system. On one side, you have the winningest team in baseball, with the best pitching on the season. On the other side you have the second-winngest team in baseball, with the best offense on the season. And they’re in separate leagues and won fairly difficult divisions. Phillies/Yankees, it is.
Under the CFP: A totally worthy #3 seed is the Texas Rangers, who scored only 12 fewer runs than the Yankees and tied for 3rd in baseball with 96 wins. While the other 96-win team, the Milwaukee Brewers, weren’t quite as impressive as the Rangers, the committee will default to rewarding winning teams with division titles, and that’s what the Brewers were.
What happened: The Cardinals were the first ever National League Second Wild Card, a bunch of Pete Kozma stuff happened, and the Cardinals nearly made the World Series. They were a good team and were arguably a bit unlucky throughout the regular season, but boy howdy did they make up for it in October.
Under the BCS: The best team in baseball in 2012 was the Washington Nationals–they won the most games (98) and were in the top half of playoff teams in both runs scored and in preventing runs. They may not have been an overwhelming, historically great team, but they were somewhat decisively top-two worthy. Although the next-best record belonged to the Cincinnati Reds, the New York Yankees were superior by run differential, had the advantage of representing another league, and given this, I’m willing to overlook a two-game difference that I would’ve overlook if the difference were, say, six or seven games.
Under the CFP: The Reds do sneak in to the four-team playoff as the three-seed–4.13 runs per game is pretty underwhelming, but 97 wins is 97 wins. And the four-seed goes to the best of the two remaining 94-win division champions. The Giants put up a fight, but the Oakland Athletics are the Bay Area representative of choice here, with a superior run differential. Side note: While the Cardinals definitely benefit from this system, I can’t overstate how differently we would perceive the San Francisco Giants in this universe.
What happened: 97 wins, tied for most in MLB, and a World Series appearance. Not bad!
Under the BCS: Two teams won 97 games and had the best run differentials in baseball. One is in the National League and one is in the American League. And as it turned out, they eventually met up in the World Series. In this particular format, the order doesn’t really matter, but the Boston Red Sox would be the probable one-seed, due to tougher strength of league and a slightly better run differential, with the St. Louis Cardinals as the #2.
Under the CFP: Two teams won 96 games, but committees love picking hot hands, so I think only one gets in. That’s because the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were in last place in June, came back to win 92 games. I say they get the three-seed. And since that leaves two basically indistinguishable 96-win teams, I say the committee sides with the Oakland Athletics over the Atlanta Braves for one silly reason–two teams per league.
What happened: In a relatively underwhelming campaign by their standards, the Cardinals did still win 90 games and the division and made it to the NLCS. In case you’re relatively new to the Cardinals, that this felt lackluster proves just how deeply spoiled Cardinals fans were in the early 2010s.
Under the BCS: Baseball’s two best teams by record and run differential create an intriguing narrative for a championship series–West vs. East, AL vs. NL, and the two best young players in the sport competing against each other for their first titles. And in this matchup, we get the Los Angeles Angels of Mike Trout meeting Bryce Harper’s Washington Nationals.
Under the CFP: Local rivals square off in the 2/3 matchup as the other 96-win team in MLB, the Baltimore Orioles, take on the Nationals, who get the #2 seed by virtue of superior underlying numbers. And because of this, the #4 seed creates another local matchup, as the 94-win Los Angeles Dodgers face the Angels for Southern California dominance.
What happened: Although the Cardinals had an underwhelming playoff run, they won an MLB-best 100 games and even if they had some sequencing luck, the results are hard to deny.
Under the BCS: It is impossible to see a triple-digit win total and conclude, unless you have several such teams, that said team doesn’t belong, and thus the committee isn’t going to brush off the Cardinals as the #1 seed. But there is BCS controversy this season, as the #2 team isn’t the 98 or 97 win teams that didn’t win their own division, nor a 95 win team that did, but rather a 93-win team that had a juggernaut of an offense and a late-season ascension into becoming arguably World Series favorites. And that is why the Toronto Blue Jays will wreak havoc.
Under the CFP: I think the 95-win (best in the AL) Kansas City Royals are safe–the results are just impossible to ignore. But I see further controversy in determining which NL Central team gets to face the Cardinals in the first round of the playoff. The Pittsburgh Pirates won more games, scored more runs, and allowed fewer runs than the Chicago Cubs–none of these were by overwhelming margins, but all are true. But the Chicago Cubs were the hot hand, and I think the committee would essentially reward them for their service time manipulations of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber. The Cubs would get the 4th spot and the 98-win Pirates would be rightly indignant.
What happened: In the superteam era, the Cardinals weren’t regarded to that level upon returning to the postseason, but they won 91 games and made the NLCS and hey, I had fun!
Under the BCS: In the 2004 (real, college football) BCS, the system works as horribly as it ever could, and the undefeated Auburn Tigers missed out on the postseason because there were two other credible championship contenders who were undefeated. And in this loaded year, really good and really worthy teams miss out. In this case, the top two on regular season merit is somewhat easy–the 107-win Houston Astros are the 1-seed and the 106-win Los Angeles Dodgers are the 2-seed–but that doesn’t make the end result satisfying.
Under the CFP: Better. While their pitching lagged behind that of the Astros and Dodgers, the 3-seed New York Yankees and 4-seed Minnesota Twins (103 and 101 wins, respectively) were very worthwhile playoff teams. Though this season is a reminder that under a small playoff structure, the superteam problem would be even worse, as being a low-90s win team just isn’t good enough so teams would be quicker to sell to the juggernauts. And that is why I oppose this system that is not going to ever exist and I strongly reject the straw man I am debating.