Neither team in the World Series this year finished the regular season with the best record in its league. The naïve fan complains by pointing to numbers of wins: The team with the most is the best, right? So the Fall Classic this year should have been a showdown between the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Angels.
The sabermetrician says, How do you know? You have to measure a team’s strength relative to the strength of its opponents. Did the Angels have a softer schedule than the Kansas City Royals? If so, to a degree that would cancel the nine-game difference between the win totals of the two teams? Or perhaps push the Royals past the Angels and all the way to sole possession of the American League crown statistically configured? Let’s run some numbers.
Don’t worry. I’m not about to do that here. I was only channeling the logic of the stathead. His critics think he spoils the fun, though he performs a service. He articulates the doubt that all fans who give the question enough thought feel in their bones. No one is sure whether it made sense for the Angels to have to defend their claim to a World Series berth by playing postseason games against a team with an ostensibly inferior record. And I say “ostensibly” because no one is sure how the value of one team’s won–loss record compares with that of another team’s. It’s like a dollar in Boston and the same dollar in Kansas City. It’s worth more in Kansas City. But by how much? That depends on what you intend to buy with or sell for the dollar and on the data you use when trying to calculate the difference, if any, between, say, a seat for $70 at Kauffman Stadium and a seat for $140 at Fenway Park.
It didn’t have to be like this. For 65 seasons, major-league baseball supported an obvious, elegant solution to the pressing problem posed by a nation divided over the question of which baseball team was the best in the world. That solution was called “the World Series,” not to be confused with the spectacle that goes by that name in our own day. To explain, I have to sketch some history, with apologies to baseball historians — these brushstrokes are broad.
In the beginning God created the National League. In 1901, its younger brother and rival, the American League, was born, and the preexisting order was disturbed. The National League was still a self-contained baseball universe, however. Being the senior circuit, it was also the superior circuit, according to the common wisdom. And so, when the baseball season ended in early fall, the team atop the National League standings still had grounds on which to boast all winter long that it was the world champion.
But now the grounds were muddy, and the American League was trespassing all over them. National League supremacy was only assumed and asserted, not proven. Moreover, what if the National League was superior overall but its best team was not as good as the best team in the American League? How could anyone know unless the two teams faced off?
No one disputed that the team with the best record in its own league was the best team in its own league, because schedules were perfectly balanced: Each of the eight teams played each of its seven opponents 22 times, split evenly between home and road. (Granted, as Sam Miller explains at Baseball Prospectus, we will never be able to say “with any certainty that a 97-win team played better than a 96-win team,” because, even with a balanced schedule, “what about the team that plays [the Dodgers] during the month when Kershaw is injured?” Still, while randomness cannot be eliminated from this business, neither should it be deliberately increased, as it has been over the years, contrary to the spirit of the game: “I was not successful as a ball player, as it was a game of skill,” Casey Stengel noted of his career in baseball.)
In August 1903, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Americans (as the Red Sox called themselves back then) were running away with the titles in the National and the American Leagues, respectively, and the owners of the two clubs began negotiations for a postseason “World Series.” It would be best of nine. Boston ended up winning, five games to three, and that’s how you knew it was better than any of the NL teams: It beat the best of them.
One year later, the New York Giants finished the season with the best record in the National League and fell back on the prejudice that the National League pennant and the world championship were the same thing. Like an incumbent officeholder leading in the polls, acting the statesman, and declining to debate his opponent, the Giants refused to play Boston in a demeaning exhibition, as they characterized it; manager John McGraw sniffed that American League play was “inferior” and “haphazard.” The Giants forwent gate receipts to make their point, demonstrating in the process that, for the pros, this World Series novelty wasn’t just a moneymaking barnstorming gig.
The World Series resumed in 1905, between the Giants and the Philadelphia Athletics, and it continued every fall through 1968, when the world crashed or, if you were on the countercultural left, the Age of Aquarius dawned. Modernism took to the streets, Dionysus killed Apollo, and love of logic flew out the window. Major League Baseball succumbed a little to the zeitgeist, abandoning a crucial bit of the linearity that had accounted for so much of its appeal. It inserted between the regular season and the World Series a playoff series that diminished the significance of the baseball on either side of it, though the move did make business sense in that it increased the number of teams in contention for most of the summer.
Beginning with the 1969 season, each league divided itself into two divisions, East and West, and complicated the balanced schedule. I’ll spare you the formula. Though it was easy enough to remember, it created enough of a difficulty that you couldn’t just pick up the sports page, look at the standings, find the two division leaders, identify the one with the better win–loss percentage, and conclude that it was the most successful team in the league. You knew that almost certainly the divisions were not competitively balanced, and so a fair comparison between the two division leaders would have to involve a comparison between the composite winning percentages of the divisions themselves. A team played more games against its division rivals than against the other teams in the league.
Sabermetrics was in its infancy in those early days of divisions and playoffs, as were computers. Excitement over the day-to-day advances and setbacks that teams experienced on the road to a “world championship,” as it was still called, usually generated enough fog to deter the casual fan from trying to fathom why, for example, the Cincinnati Reds, with their 99 wins, should defer to the New York Mets, with their 82 wins, for the honor of representing the National League in the 1973 World Series. Maybe that was the reason for the playoffs: No one had the patience to do the math that would show that the Reds’ 99 wins really did amount to more than the Mets’ 82.
No, the only good reason for divisions and playoffs was, and remains, commercial. Both leagues had expanded from ten to twelve teams in 1969. Most of them would have been practically eliminated from contention after the All-Star break. They would have spent half or more of the season marking time and suffering depressed attendance and TV ratings. In two divisions of six teams apiece, fewer teams were likely to get buried than in a single twelve-team league. The NBA had pioneered this method of multiplying contenders by creating divisions. To the MBAs in the office of the commissioner of baseball, it all must have seemed eminently rational.
Baseball, they say, is too much a sport to be a business, and too much a business to be a sport, but the second half of that adage is truer than the first. After three more rounds of expansion (1977, 1993, 1998), the creation of a third division (the Central) in both leagues, the introduction of first two and then four wild-card teams into the playoffs, and the introduction of interleague play, the original notion of the World Series, as a matchup between the pennant winners representing the two big leagues, which otherwise were hermetically sealed off from each other, has become hard to explain. The leagues, or what is left of them — the American and the National Leagues were dissolved as legal entities in 2000 — mingle throughout the regular season, and a team can, in theory, finish below .500 and still win the pennant.
How different Major League Baseball would probably be today had the Continental League, announced by Branch Rickey in 1959, not been shot down by the owners of the existing major leagues, who saw it as competition. Three leagues of ten teams each, with the pennant winners competing in a round-robin before one was eliminated, leaving the two still standing to go at it in the World Series — that would have been a development of the original World Series idea, clear and mathematically rigorous, instead of what we have now, a degeneration into muddle and randomness.
At Grantland, the editors are running World Series stories under the slug “2014 MLB Playoffs.” Why not just be done with it and call this final MLB playoff series the MLB finals?
Over the past half-century, MLB has gradually refashioned its product to appeal to shorter attention spans. An individual game is now valued less for advancing the plot of a long season than for offering immediate displays of spectacular skill. What a web gem! Monster shot! Look at the break on that curve!
The baseball talent that MLB comprises in 2014 may be, per capita, greater than at any time in the game’s history. The game being played is not exactly baseball, however, or at least not in macrocosm. Each isolated game is still baseball pretty much as it has been since the end of the Dead Ball Era around 1920, only the quality of play today no doubt surpasses that of earlier generations by an order of magnitude. But the games taken together cohere as a baseball season only loosely, like the bits and pieces of a collage that make up the collage — so unlike the stones of the cathedral that made up the cathedral that was big-league baseball in its golden age during the first seven decades of the 20th century.
— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.