Baseball is like politics. We grumble about the bozos who have no clue, ignoring the positive strides made by those who do.
Thinking here of the wild card games, an AL thriller for the ages on Tuesday followed, 24 hours later, by an NL showdown that packed similar suspense. It was the kind of theater inconceivable a generation ago, when the playoffs were restricted to teams that finished first.
While the decades-old format enforced the integrity of the regular season, it typically made for a handful of Haves and a whole bunch of Have Nots. If a second-place team was eight games out with 10 to go, its fans had no reason to care.
The introduction of the wild card, in 1995, extended a lifeline to any club hovering around .500. Instead of using September as a tryout camp for prospects, mediocre teams were compelled to look at the last month of the baseball season like the last lap of a NASCAR race.
Former commissioner Bud Selig was an early proponent of the wild card, and his ability to transform it from daydream to reality should be recalled as the ultimate achievement of a reign marked by its many labor pains.
But the original wild-card plan was flawed. Second-place teams assured of a playoff berth had little incentive to finish in first pace, because first and second meant the same thing: Advancement to a best-of-five series. Getting into the postseason and staying in worked most noticeably for the Marlins, whose franchise history can be condensed like this: Two World Series trophies, zero division titles.
There was something wrong about that, and bright minds reacted. In 2012, a wild card berth was adjusted from a guaranteed playoff ticket to an all-or-nothing, one-game showdown.
The notion of paring down a six-month season into one night is not without its detractors — hey, we’re talking baseball, there are always detractors — but it’s evident the one-game showdown has been a hit of grand-slam impact.
There’s a unique drama about the fifth game in a best-of-five, or the seventh game in a best-of-seven: Every player in the dugout has the potential to make a difference, and every pitcher in the bullpen is a phone call away from warming up. Reliever roles, starter roles, those are out the window. When the sole ambition is to win today, tomorrow is an afterthought.
Which brings us to Orioles manager Buck Showalter, an esteemed tactician who knows as much about baseball as any person on this planet. Showalter’s team lost its wild card game at Toronto in 11 innings, when Edwin Encarnacion smashed some low-hanging fruit delivered from the reliably unreliable Ubaldo Jimenez.
A starter who had recently steadied himself after five months of rocky outings, Jimenez is not the best pitcher on the Orioles’ staff. He is not second-best, nor the third-best. The best pitcher on the Orioles staff is lefty sinkerball master Zach Britton, who was posed with 47 opportunities to close games in 2016, and closed 47.
Despite his historically dominant work — Britton appeared in 69 games and gave up four earned runs — he was not called upon to throw a single pitch in an 11-inning game.
Afterward, Showalter was asked about the philosophy of calling upon his closer only for a save situation.
“It has nothing to do with philosophy,” answered Showalter, who knew, deep down, it had everything to do with philosophy. Britton takes the mound with a lead. If there’s no lead, he sits, and so the best relief pitcher in baseball sat.
Showalter’s adherence to a role-playing system make sense during regular season. But with everything on the line in a do-or-die playoff, there is no template.
A case could be made, based on analytics, that Britton should have started the wild-card game. It goes like this: Outs are precious. You’re allotted 27 of them. To surrender one with a sacrifice bunt in the fourth inning, and another with a failed stolen base attempt in the seventh, you’ve giving the opponent a precious edge.
If Britton starts, that’s three outs, guaranteed. If he remains on the mound for the second inning, it’s probably another three outs. That’s six outs among 27, a healthy chunk, and starting pitcher Chris Tillman takes it from there.
The idea of starting a premier closer did not occur to Showalter, and it wouldn’t occur to anybody else born before 1980. Conventional wisdom holds that in baseball, as in other team sports, you’re this or that.
Showalter’s failure to find room for Britton in an 11-inning defeat won’t define his career, but it’ll hover there as an asterisk. One game, season at stake, an accomplished manager chose old-school protocol over new-wave analytics, and debate ensued.
The wild card is so cool.