There are 162 games in Major League Baseball’s regular season, but this year they still weren’t enough. Going into this season, several of the top teams were from big media markets. The owners and advertisers in any league are happy when big market teams play well because it means the possibility of more shared revenues coming in from ticket sales, TV rights, advertising, licensing, merchandising, and other streams of income. Plus, there are those extra games in the playoffs, which add to the financial bottom line.
So baseball must have been thrilled when experts predicted that the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Chicago Cubs would be among this season’s top finishers. Those are the three largest media markets in the United States; the owners could not have scripted things better. And those three teams, along with the Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, and Washington Nationals, were said to have the best chances to go deep into the playoffs and perhaps contend for a championship.
Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals. Source:AP.com.
But baseball is a funny thing. On any given day or in any given season, any team can exceed expectations. Even the best built models can fail to predict the outcome.
By the late summer, it seemed like the experts’ predictions were fairly accurate. Houston was as good as everyone thought they’d be on the heels of their championship last season. The biggest surprises were the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, and Oakland Athletics coming on as strong as they did with very young teams. The Atlanta and Philly surges in the National League East division put the final nails in the coffin of the Washington Nationals. The Nationals are always picked to do well, but as usual, they failed to meet those expectations.
The only other surprise was the extent of the Boston Red Sox dominance in the American League East division. Most models had the Sox finishing with roughly the same number of wins as the New York Yankees. Yet the Red Sox were even better than anticipated and won plenty more games than the Yankees did. That’s not to say that the Yankees fell short of expectations; the Red Sox exceeded their similar expectations and won their division handily.
Source: Creative Commons via Wikimedia.com by Keith Allison.
Struggles in Chicago and Los Angeles
As summer turned to fall, inevitability turned to a struggle for two teams that many people picked to be battling for the National League pennant. The Chicago Cubs came in with that fearsome lineup, great pitching, and a celebrity manager who helped them win their first world title in the modern era in 2016. Similarly, the Los Angeles Dodgers were considered one of baseball’s deepest teams last year, a roster to which they added a rough diamond of a slugger in Max Muncy, plus a resurgent Matt Kemp. Forget scrapping their way to 80 wins; both the Dodgers and Cubs were built to win 95 games apiece.
Crowd at the Cubs 2016 World Series parade.
Instead, late in the season, they faced increased competition. In the National League West, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies challenged the Dodgers, who were not able to seal the deal on their division title. After the last game of the season, the Dodgers and Rockies remained locked in a tie. Similarly, in the NL Central, the Cubs were supposed to run away with the division crown, but could not. The Milwaukee Brewers had a great season and the St. Louis Cardinals had a stirring late season run, leaving the Cubs and Brewers tied after the last game had been played.
The Unthinkable: Games 163 and 164
At the end of the regular season, two divisions were tied. Each of these teams had played 162 games over a period of six months, yet they had to play one more to decide both the NL Central and West divisions. Whichever two teams won these tiebreaker games would head straight for the playoffs. The two losers of these tiebreaking games would end up in Wild Card games with only a one-game chance to make the playoffs and contend for a championship.
A Wild Card games is a one-shot, “must win” elimination game. The winner goes to the playoffs and the loser goes home. I’ve always criticized the one-game system because I don’t like reducing the whole season down to a single sample. I’d prefer they play a 3-game series to determine the Wild Card winner. But one game it is.
And so, this year, in a period of three days, we had two Game 163s to determine NL division winners, plus the two Wild Card games (one in each league). And three big market teams (that should have punched their tickets to the playoffs many weeks earlier) were stuck playing in these games. A day after the season should have finished, the Dodgers had to play the Rockies in Game 163, while the Cubs faced the Brewers in their own 163.
The Cubs were eliminated after losing the tiebreaker to the Brewers and then dropping the Wild Card game to the Rockies. No doubt, the league owners and advertisers grimaced as one of the Top 3 media markets was eliminated from baseball’s postseason.
Chicago lightning strikes. Source: Creative Commons via Flickr.com by Nimesh Madhavan.
The Dodgers beat the Rockies in Game 163 to win the NL West division and earn the ticket to the playoffs that came with it. No doubt, the league owners and advertisers cheered (some of them quietly), since Los Angeles is one of the top media and entertainment markets in the country.
The Yankees had to play the one-game, “must win” Wild Card faceoff with the Oakland Athletics. They won and advanced to the playoffs. No doubt, the league owners and advertisers again cheered (some of them quietly, because everyone else hates the Yankees), since their revenue-sharing checks are higher in any year when the scions of the nation’s largest media market get to play postseason baseball.
The Safety Net Worked This Time
For the league’s money people, this could have been a disaster. When a Kansas City or a Minnesota sneaks through, knocking out a New York or a Los Angeles, millions of potential viewers are eliminated also. For perspective, the New York metropolitan area has more than seven million households plugged into TV and a robust nationwide fan following, while Kansas City has less than one million TV households and many fewer from outside that local area. You can see some of the others listed here.
Screenshot from Wikipedia page. Please see link in "Reference" section below.
It would have been easier for these big market teams to have won their divisions outright and not been forced to play tiebreakers and “must win” games just to qualify for the playoffs. And yet, when the dust had settled, two of the three big teams made it through. Chicago was a loss, but the league still got the Yankees and Dodgers into the playoffs for at least one series apiece.
Congratulations to the revenue monsters! And fortunately, each of these teams is fun to watch also. The playoffs should be quite interesting.
Photos are public domain unless otherwise credited in the text.