Schedules and tradition take a hit with 15-team leagues
I never liked the idea of two 15-team leagues, and now that it's here, it looks even worse on paper. I know that you can look at a 2,430-game schedule from just about any year and find anomalies and oddities. But this first season with interleague play all year creates two trends that push baseball in the wrong direction:
• Pennant race rivalries are de-emphasized.
Baseball did try as best it could to keep the end of the season weighted with intradivisional games. But the clumsiness of 15-team leagues still reduces such head-to-head matchups everybody wants to see in September. The Yankees, for instance, play six of their final nine games against the Giants and Astros. The Nationals play their last six games against the Cardinals and Diamondbacks. And if the Mariners are in contention in the AL West in September, they will do so as near strangers to their division rivals. They play 17 of their last 26 games against teams outside their division.
And by the way, forget about another Night of 162, the end to the 2011 season that was the most exciting night in baseball history. This season ends on an NFL Sunday.
• The end of baseball as it was invented gets a little bit closer.
Interleague play used to be confined to two narrow windows fairly close together. AL teams would have their pitchers take batting practice and run the bases just prior to those windows, and then forget about it -- until and unless they were preparing for postseason play. Now? Interleague play comes so randomly that what's a poor AL manager to do about prepping his pitchers to play offense?
Take the Tigers, for instance. They play in NL parks in early May, late May, late August and -- get this -- the last three days of the season. I can't wait to see how manager Jim Leyland handles it when an AL playoff berth is on the line and Justin Verlander has to hit and Victor Martinez can't.
And memo to David Ortiz: the Red Sox play eight games in the last six weeks without the DH.
My guess is that AL pitchers risk injury because of the randomness of playing in NL parks (should they take BP all year?) and pennant races will seem very, very weird when teams go back and forth in September under AL and NL rules. And once managers and general managers actually see these changes in place, they will ask an obvious question: Why don't we just use the DH in all interleague games, including the ones in NL parks? And once you lose NL baseball in interleague games, you are one more step closer to losing it altogether.
Why did baseball go to two 15-team leagues? Some owners were bothered that teams in the AL West started with a one-in-four chance of making the postseason, teams in the NL Central a one-in-six chance and all others a one-in-five chance. Players didn't like the schedule inequities that interleague play caused, especially since the advent of wild cards mean teams compete against the entire league for a playoff spot, not just their own division. Players also argued the 15-team leagues would create a better travel schedule.
(I'm not sure about that theory. Take the Giants. Last year they played 23 games in the Eastern time zone, none after July 22. This year they get 30 games in the East, including 18 after July 22.)
Essentially baseball wants the schedule to be as equitable as possible, but in doing so risks turning baseball into a "conference-style" sport like the NBA in which rivalries are de-emphasized. Consider this dizzying four-week stretch of opponents for the Yankees starting in mid-April: Diamondbacks, Blue Jays, Rays, Blue Jays, Astros, A's, Rockies, Mariners, Bobcats. (Okay, I slipped the last one in there to see if you were still with me, but you get the point.)
Don't worry, you might say, you'll get used to it. That's what I'm worried about.
The Hall of Fame voting results last week renewed talk among writers that they should be allowed to vote for more than 10 players, the limit imposed by the Hall since balloting began in 1936. There is no data to suggest there is urgency for such change. The most players elected in any year since 1955 -- and under current voting protocols that have been in place since 1967 -- is three. The average number of players listed on a ballot this year was six.
I do understand, however, at least the discussion of the idea. I voted for six players this year and at first glance see five Hall of Fame worthy players joining the ballot next year. One of them can't be on my ballot.
But more choices run the risk of creating more problems. In fact, maybe what the Hall of Fame ballot needs is fewer choices, not more. Maybe it needs weeding.
Players are kicked off the ballot if they fail to gain five percent of the vote. Fine. But why should players stick around after a decade when it's abundantly clear they are not Hall of Famers? Here's an idea: if you don't reach 30 percent after 10 years on the ballot, you are removed. You don't need 15 years to know someone obviously is not a Hall of Famer. Getting rid of such "squatters" creates a leaner ballot.
But wait, you might argue, wouldn't we be denying the longshot candidate who gains enough support over the years to get in on a 14th or 15th ballot? The answer is no.
Twelve players have been elected by the writers after more than 10 ballots (not including Dazzy Vance, who used a 16th year, which is no longer possible, to gain election in 1955). All 12 late-ballot entrants were well above 30 percent by the time they had 10 cracks at it:
|Hall of Famers Elected After 10 Years On Ballot|
There is the proof: If you can't manage even 30 percent after 10 years on the ballot, you're not a Hall of Famer. Yes, that means in past years Dave Parker, Dave Concepcion, Tommy John, Jim Kaat and Mickey Lolich would have been dropped if we had a 30-10 rule, and from the ballot this year, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy and Alan Trammell would have been dropped and Mark McGwire has three more chances to stay on. Harsh? Not really. The ballot is crowded not because there are too many good candidates but because there are too many who clearly are not Hall of Famers.
Still, I don't expect the Hall of Fame to change voting rules. There is a consistency to the voting process since the mid-1960s and the Hall doesn't see a problem that needs "a fix." The high standards have been upheld over the years and I don't get the sense the Hall sees a need to make easier the difficult decisions writers always have faced.
Larry Walker may wind up being another one below the 30-10 threshold. He has had three cracks at the Hall of Fame and never gained more than 23 percent of the vote. He was a great player, but his lack of durability works against him. He played 145 games in a season only once, never played 140 games in consecutive seasons and had 175 hits in a season just once.
Voters also seem to understand park effect. Walker played 30 percent of his career games in Denver, where his batting average was 98 points higher than on the road and his home run rate was 49 percent greater.
So why doesn't football understand park effect better? Take Peyton Manning. His great career has been helped by playing much of it indoors. When the Broncos signed him to replace Tim Tebow, they had to be aware that Manning is a far worse quarterback outdoors and especially in cold weather, a fact confirmed yet again in Denver's loss and Manning's uneven play last Sunday against Baltimore. Check out the breakdown of Manning's postseason record:
Now let's break it down further, by game time temperature:
Manning is a Hall of Famer in the postseason as long as the conditions are mild. When it's cold, he's not very good at all.
Manning has been mentioned as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. But can you be considered a truly elite quarterback if you don't win the most important games when the elements raise the degree of difficulty? To find some context, I looked at the seven quarterbacks with the most career touchdown passes (Brett Favre, Manning, Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and John Elway) as well as assorted elite quarterbacks who played before the NFL became such a pass-happy league (Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Joe Montana) and some from today's era (Ben Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Kurt Warner).
It's a cross section of 15 elite quarterbacks. Here's how they rank according to most postseason games won in freezing weather (32 degrees or less):
There is no doubt Peyton Manning is an all-time great, but his track record in cold-weather postseason games leaves him outside the short list of the very best at the position. Time is running out on Manning to change the narrative. But with home games in Denver and how the AFC championship game has been played in New England or Pittsburgh in five of the past six years, the odds and the weather are stacked against him.