At one point, it was funny, perhaps even cute. Now it's just horrifying. You all know what I'm talking about: the NL West "race." Despite being below .500, the Padres (64-66 through Monday's games) have a healthy 4 1/2-game lead over the second-place Dodgers and D'backs. For weeks now, San Diego has been resetting the record for latest date in a season for a losing team to be in first place.
Among the various number-cruching pieces that have sprouted up on this topic recently, this tidbit from the Elias Sports Bureau (as reported by the Rocky Mountain News' Tracy Ringolsby) is the most salient: The worst out-of-division winning percentage was .412 by the 2002 AL Central. The NL West is at .418. So it's not the worst division ever, but it's close, and it could be the first to give us a sub-.500 playoff team. That's a problem.
Aside from the 1994 Rangers, who led the AL West at 52-62 when the strike hit, the closest baseball has come to such a debacle was in 1973, when the Mets won the NL East with an 82-79 record. That is still the mark for fewest wins by a division champ -- at least for now. The 1997 Astros and '84 Royals each won 84 games, and the '87 Twins went 85-77. Among those four teams, the Mets (NL champs) and Twins (world champs) won playoff series; the Astros and Royals were swept.
Among the other Big Three sports, non-winning teams make the playoffs every so often, but it's never happened after a full season of baseball, a sport that prides itself in being different. That's the whole point of the 162-game schedule, to make sure only deserving ballclubs are left at the end. The NL West is threatening to blow that whole premise apart. How can a division be deserving of sending a team to the playoffs when it allowed the Kansas City Royals to go 7-5 against it in interleague play? (Overall, the mighty AL Central went 44-25 against the NL West in interleague action.)
The scariest part of isn't even that a losing team might make the playoffs. It's that a losing team might win in the playoffs. If the Padres take so much as a series, let alone a pennant or a World Series, then all of the statheads who have called the current playoff format a crapshoot will have been proven correct. MLB will have to at least consider a new rule that would disqualify a losing division champion from postseason play and allow the top four records to advance. Hopefully, it won't come to that. The Padres will have every chance to reach the .500 mark and surpass it in September/October, when they play 23 of their remaining 30 games within their own division. Can we at least count on this meek division to save itself?
-- Jacob Luft (1:45 p.m.)
Why is it a problem to have a sub-.500 division winner when in college basketball, a sub-.500 conference champion is a great story? What is the solution, a BCS-type scenario in baseball where only the strongest divisions can be represented in the playoffs?
-- Walt, Queen Creek, Ariz. (2:31 p.m.)
The possibility of the Padres not only winning the division but also a playoff series is a threat to the integrity of the game and the current system, which has made the postseason more exciting. The possibility is great, considering that an NL East team could very well win the Wild Card, meaning the Braves would play the Padres in the Division Series. The Pads have clobbered them in the regular season ... not a good sign.
-- Sean Callahan, Charlottesville, Va. (2:56 p.m.)
Is there even any reason to have divisions? Why not just have the four best records from the AL and NL go to the playoffs. Then you have no problem.
-- Nathaniel Woodrum, St. Louis (3:16 p.m.)
The main impetus behind the six-division format was as a sort of welfare system for the small-market midwest teams that make up the two Central divisions. That way the Royals don't have to compete directly with the Yankees for a playoff spot. -- JL (3:42 p.m.)
So what if the Padres win the Division with a sub-.500 record? They were the best team in the division, thus allowed in the playoffs. Someone mentioned it be a shame if the Padres faced Atlanta in the first round because the Padres clobbered Atlanta. Well if Atlanta doesn't take the sub-.500 team seriously, it deserves to lose. That's what makes the playoofs great, you never know what will happen. If the Padres do happen to make the playoffs with a losing record, imagine what the headlines would say if they make it to the NLCS and maybe to the world Series, and imagine if they won the World Series.
-- Mike, Chesterton, Ind. (3:16 p.m.)
The fact that any team from the NL West could be in the playoffs just confirms the fact that the World Series hasn't been about the best team in baseball since the playoffs were introduced. Imagine if the Padres won, the Astros got the wild card and the Cards lost to the Padres in a five-game series?
-- Gerry, Columbia, S.C. (3:36 p.m.)
The only problem I have with a sub-.500 division winner is the awful best-of-five first round playoff format. Any team can take three out of five. If you want the best teams to advance in the playoffs, make all rounds best of seven. This would make it more likely that pretenders are eliminated, including sub-.500 teams and teams with only two legitimate starters.
-- Mark D. Glaenzer, St. Louis (3:36 p.m.)
I agree with that. Also, all playoff series should be played with no off days. That way you have to use your fourth and possibly fifth starters. Play Games 2 and 5 during the day so as to provide enough time for the players and media to travel back and forth between cities. -- JL (3:45 p.m.)
What happens if your scenario on taking the four best records were to take place? If the Cards weren't playing so well and if the Astros continued in their slump to produce runs, one division (this years NL East) could seemingly produce all four teams. If your goal is to crown the best team in baseball, then the best teams should play it out in postseason. If that means one division sends four teams, three teams, two teams, one or none at all ... so be it.
-- Billy, Summerville (3:46 p.m.)
The team with the best regular-season record hasn't won the World Series since 1998, so "bad" teams having playoff success is hardly new or shocking. If you're going to go that route, why not abandon playoffs altogether, like they do in European soccer? There, the best regular-season record wins: end of story. But where's the fun in that?
-- Jim McLennan, Scottsdale, Ariz. (3:51 p.m.)
Say a sub-.500 team does make the playoffs, and it does win a series or two, does that mean we should revamp the entire system because of an anomaly? Just because it happens once in the 100-plus years of baseball doesn't mean we should go to drastic measures to ensure it doesn't happen again.
-- Matt, Eugene, Ore. (4:51 p.m.)
I'm certainly not a Padres fan (I still haven't forgotten '84 when they upended the Cubs in the NLCS), but it's not their fault that the NL West stinks, or that Barry Bonds has missed all of 2005 (unless his surgeon secretly works for San Diego). If they win, they win. If they go all the way, good for them! It took me a few years, but I finally embraced the six-division format with three playoff rounds and a wild-card team -- I think it's great for baseball. But this (possible) anomaly of a losing team in the postseason is the risk we take. Having said all that, just like the MVP and Cy Young awards, let's wait until 162 games have transpired before passing judgement.
-- Sal, Chicago/Houston (7:51 p.m.)
I think J. Luft has a long career ahead of him in politics after that red-tape filled diatribe. So a rule has a loophole that gets exploited once every 150 years, so what? Wake me when the Padres actually win the World Series, that'll really scare people.
-- Clifton, LaLa Land (8:01 p.m.)
Does this mean I can count on your support from the battleground voting ward of LaLa Land? -- JL (10:23 a.m., Wednesday)
I think a sub-.500 division champ would be awesome, if only to have McCarver, Selig and the ever sanctimonious Costas choke on their own gall. Me, I'm cheering for the Pads to win the division with, say, 78 wins, then win it all!
-- Mark, Los Angeles (8:06 p.m.)
The last-place team in the NL East has a better record than the first-place team in the NL West, and the NL West team will make the playoffs. Maybe a solution would be to make the divison leader at least have a better record than the wild-card leader, or they are not guaranteed the playoff spot, and there could be two wild-card teams.
-- Craig Schroll, New Brunswick, N.J. (11:36 p.m.)