Weekly Hit Ground Ball: Pennant winners

Baseball writer Joe Posnanski and Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane are united in their belief that Major League Baseball could learn from the Premier League when it comes to rewarding successful teams.

They are drawn to the simple logic of recognising champions on the basis of their entire season, rather than solely a handful of games at the end.

It is odd when you stop and think about it; each team battles their way through 162 gruelling games in a marathon season and all it counts for is a ticket – for 10 of the 30 teams – into the playoffs.  Whilst the additional Wild Card round, introduced last year, has recaptured some of the importance of winning a division, there’s still a curious imbalance to the overall season.

The team that plays the best over six months gets little for their efforts. It’s the team that gets hot at the right time over, at most, 20 games or as little as 11 games that takes all the glory.

Just ask the Washington Nationals. For all the pride they should feel in winning the most games (98) in the 2012 regular season, they received little credit for the achievement.

Up until 1969, the best team in each league was suitably rewarded. You had to outplay the rest of your league to be crowned a pennant winner and that gave you the chance to face the best team from the other league in the World Series to be crowned as the best in baseball. That changed in 1969 when each league was split into two divisions, creating the division series stage of the postseason, and has evolved over time to the current 10-team set-up.

Posnanski sees the playoffs as something that fits with the American psyche, but you only have to drop down into the second tier of English football to see why playoffs are so appealing. They guarantee a dramatic end to every season and, in creating additional opportunities for glory, ensure that more teams have something to play for as the season enters the closing stages.

The playoffs unquestionably add plenty of excitement to MLB – Posnanski and Beane certainly are not advocating scrapping them completely – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of giving little recognition to the team that won the most games in each league.

The best team in each league does get the benefit of avoiding the Wild Card ‘play-in’ game and having home field advantage in the Division and League Championship Series, but why not add to that to make the regular season count for something as a competition in its own right.

Why shouldn’t the ‘pennant winner’ be the team with the best regular season record rather the team that wins the League Championship Series?

Just as in the pre-1969 days, winning the pennant would come with a slightly hollow feeling if it wasn’t followed by a triumph in the World Series, but at least a team’s success over the course of the season would be acknowledged in a way that currently isn’t the case.

Trouble in Toronto

A pennant win and a trip to the postseason look a long way off for the Toronto Blue Jays.

The 2013 Blue Jays were always going to look similar to the 2012 Miami Marlins after the two teams completed their blockbuster trade in mid-November.

Five regular starting players from the 2012 Marlins made their way over to Toronto and even though one of those – catcher John Buck – was shipped on to New York before suiting up in a Blue Jays uniform, fans could be forgiven for looking at the players and getting confused.

Wasn’t this the team that was put together to win in Miami?

Sadly for Toronto fans, the similarities between the two teams do not end with the names on the back of the uniforms.  Just as the bubble quickly burst in Miami, the sky-high expectations in Toronto seemingly have been dashed before we’ve even made it far into May. Heading into Sunday’s games, only the Houston Astros had a worse record in the American League than the team pegged by many to be a World Series contender.

The Blue Jays can bemoan some bad luck with injuries to key players. Losing Jose Reyes for several months was a big blow and it’s also reasonable to assume that the ailments R.A. Dickey is battling through are the main reason for his 2012 Cy Young form deserting him.

However, Josh Johnson’s trip to the DL can hardly be seen as a surprise considering his recent injury history and, more than anything, there are teams throughout the Majors having to deal with injuries to potential key contributors right now. The New York Yankees are the obvious example of a team that has still managed to keep afloat in the early going despite their ship heading into the rocks and taking on plenty of water.

With so much of the season left to play, it’s foolish to completely write off a team that still has talented and experienced players on their roster. It’s not impossible for the Blue Jays to win enough games from here to grab a Wild Card, but the signs of a dramatic resurgence don’t seem present.

Toronto’s plight, replicating the Marlins’ flop of a year ago, once again shows that ‘winning the offseason’ doesn’t necessarily count for much. If your team does go all out over the winter months and grabs plenty of headlines, it might actually be wise to bask in the attention and to enjoy the optimism while it lasts.

Recent history suggests you may as well celebrate your team winning the offseason as it’s likely to be the only thing you’ll have to celebrate that year.

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