There are several factors that allowed a team that won only 83 games into the playoffs. First off, interleague play means that a league is no longer guaranteed to net to .500 ball. This year, the National League was dominated by the American in interleague play, resulting in the NL being 56 games below .500 (1267-1323). Still, the Cardinals had only the 5th-best W-L in the NL, behind West champion San Diego, wildcard LA, East champion NY and non-playoff Philadelphia. The 5th-best record made the playoffs due to the vagaries of Divisions. With the 16 teams split into three divisions instead of two, and the schedule weighted heavily on intra-division play, the probability that a weak team will make the playoffs in substantially increased, especially in the AL West, which has only four teams. Don’t forget that, in 1994 when they went on strike, the Texas Rangers were leading the AL West with a record substantially under .500. Last year, it appeared that the Padres or Giants might win the NL West with a sub-.500 record, but San Diego squeaked out an 82-80 record. That the Cardinals won the six-team NL Central with only 83 wins is quite unexpected, but they might have won 84 if they played the full schedule (they almost had to play a makeup game against the Giants to complete their 162 games), and they would likely have won several more if they hadn’t played 15 games against the AL, losing 10 of them. Interestingly, St. Louis actually played sub-.500 ball (39-42) against their Division rivals, but beat up on the NL West (23-11). According to ESPN’s “Relative Power Index”, which is 25% team winning percentage, 50% opponents’ average winning percentage and 25% oppenents’ opponents’ average winning percentage, the Cardinals only ranked 10th in the National League (22nd in MLB)!
Clearly, the system is unfair, because:
1) the teams play different sets of teams in interleague play
2) the teams play different sets of teams in league play
The intra-league schedules are a real mishmash. Each team plays either 18 or 19 games against each other team in its division, but this means only 57 intra-division games for the AL West, but up to 77 for the NL Central! This leaves substantially different numbers of games for teams to play against other divisions, but even within other divisions the number of games played against different teams varies. For example, last year the A’s played 6 games against Baltimore, 9 games each against the Yankees and Devil Rays and 10 games each against Boston and Toronto. What a mess!
Clearly, the current system is designed to maximize revenue and has absolutely nothing to do with trying to maximize the probability that the best team in each league gets to the World Series. That’s not even a consideration for “Bathwater Bud”, the owners or the MLBPA. On Fox, they were crowing about how there has been a different WS champion in each of the last seven years, and how that shows that parity has been achieved. Bullshit! It’s just a reflection of how random the whole process is. Look, instead, at the teams that have won 95 or more games over the last seven years, and you will get a much clearer picture of where the strength lies. The current system did this:
1. resulted in the 22nd-best regular season team winning the World Series
2. resulted in the World Series being played in absolutely miserable weather conditions, both for the players and the fans
3. resulted in weeknight games ending past 11 PM in the Eastern time zone
If MLB really wanted to make the World Series Championship more meaningful, to maximize the impact of a team’s true quality and minimize the impact of luck, it would:
1. end interleague play
2. reduce the number of divisions in each league to two
3. play a balanced schedule
4. eliminate the Division Series and the Wild Card
5. match the Division champions in 7-game League Championship Series
Of course, nothing like this will ever happen, and many people probably prefer the “randomization” of the WS championship. Not I.
BTW, I’m soooooooooooooooo glad that the World Series is over, so I do not have to watch Fox again until next Fall.