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The LDS: Game One Winner Take All

by Mike DePilla
Saturday, October 9, 2010
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If the Braves hadn't escaped the bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the tenth inning yesterday, all four first-round playoff series would be 2-0 and, as good as the actual games have been, the outcomes would all basically be decided and the only drama would be to see if the losing teams can at least avoid a sweep.

Two series are already all but over, and a third one probably is as well. The Twins, even with home-field advantage, are for once on the the other end of White Sox-Twins syndrome and cannot handle the Yankees. That series is over. The Reds, who were never really a match for the Phillies in the first place, blew their chance to at least make things interesting with an absolute catastrophe of a 7th inning yesterday. That series is over.

I cut the Rays, who find themselves in the same hole, a little more slack, because if anyone is going to come behind from 0-2 it would be them against the inexperienced Rangers. But with that series shifting to Arlington and Cliff Lee set to start Game 4 if necessary, the Rangers are firmly in control.

After all those series became lopsided, the Giants were a Buster Posey flyball away from joining the 2-0 "this one's all but over club", but his double play ground out, complete with Derrek Lee fist pump, followed by Rick Ankiel's monster homer in the 11th gave MLB at least one compelling series, at least outcome-wise, in the first round.

That is the problem with best-of-five: it basically plays like a one-game playoff for teams that haven't played urgent baseball for a while.

Going back to the playoff format change in 1995, the winner of game one of a LDS has gone on to win the series 43 out of 60 times- 72% of the time. And things have been even more one-sided recently, as Game One Winners have won the last 15 series in a row. If the '10 series hold up, it will be 19 in a row. The last team to lose Game One in a division series and come back to win the series was the Detroit Tigers in 2006 over the Yankees.

Fifteen Game-One-Take-Alls in a row, that is crazy. Is this a problem, or just a temporary swing in a small(ish) sample size?

I looked up the data and crunched the numbers, and the National League seems especially susceptible to this trend. In NLDS history, 27 of the 30 teams that won Game One went on to win the series. That is 90%.

Lose the first two games, and you're as defeated as Rudy Giuliani in the '08 primary. You often see the iconic image of Ken Griffey Jr sliding into home to complete a comeback from the 0-2 hole to beat the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS, but that kind of comeback has only happened three other times in LDS history: 1999 (Red Sox over Indians), 2001 (Yankees over A's) and 2003 (Red Sox over A's).

The same dominance applies to the winner of Game 3 of a tied series. Here's another interesting note: 22 LDS series have started out 1-1. In those series, the team that wins Game 3 has won the series 18 times, or 82% of the time. Only four teams have come back from even a 2-1 deficit, an no one has done it since 2002.

So even if you think my reduction of the LDS to a one-game playoff is over the top, (with 15 in a row I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest it), at the very least it is de facto a best-of-three. There's no sticking your toe in the shallow end of the pool- with the MLB playoffs, you dive right in full-force. Is it a fair system to have Game One matter so much?

Putting aside my desire for the 2-Wildcard system, there's no doubt at all that MLB needs to make the first round of the playoffs a best-of-seven series. It is brutal that you can play exceptional baseball for the better part of six months, win your division and then see your postseason essentially over in two days.

The logic that the first round should be as long as (or longer than, hey I could defend a best-of-nine LDS!) the second round or World Series is obvious. The transition from meaningless, repetitious regular season games to all important, "win now or have your backs to the wall" best-of-five (that plays like best-of-three or less) series is very jarring, especially for a team that earned their way to the postseason by clinching their division title several weeks before. It's hard to prepare for that.

Now, you might say all this Game One bashing undermines my desire for the one-game playoff for the Wildcard winners. It doesn't. I place the Wildcard on a separate plane from division winners, and thus it doesn't matter that their season comes down to, literally, one day. They are lucky just to be there. Division winners are not.

To me, it seems there is an easy fix to all this. It's very simple:
  • Shorten the regular season to 150 games.
  • Lengthen the Division Series to a best-of-seven format.
I would say 99% of people around baseball would say the season should be shortened: there's little doubt MLB would be better with a 150 game season and a best-of-seven first round playoffs, keeping good teams fresher and the LDS more fair.

I wouldn't even be surprised if the players accepted a slight pay cut to go with a week or two off the season. However owners will never sign off on this kind of change because of the loss of revenue, which supersedes any other improvement to the game. So short of a shocking turn of events, you would have to make a case that shortening the season actually benefits their bottom line, that somehow those late September lame exhibition games for also rans in front of empty ballparks is a losing proposition.

The best-of-seven first round is a real possibility though, and here's hoping it gets considered at the same meeting in which the powers that be discuss the 2-Wildcard system.

Until then, will the Yankees, Phillies and Rangers complete their sweeps?


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