Tradition decrees that the playoff chase officially begins September 1, although media babble about the chase often begins as early as mid-August. Much as I respect tradition, this is one area where I think the tradition needs to be changed. September 1 might have made sense in the past, but the introduction of the second wild card team has altered the picture.
Mind you, the notion of a playoff chase is silly. A win in April counts exactly as much towards the playoffs as a win in September. And nobody’s goal is to make the playoffs. That’s just a step on the way to the real goal: winning the World Series. But people want a story, and the media are designed around providing stories, so as long as there are newspapers, TV shows, and Internet pundits, there will be a playoff chase.
IMNSHO, for a playoff chase to make sense, it must be clear which teams are chasing, which ones are being chased, and which ones are watching wistfully from the sidelines (and playing spoiler). The addition of the second wild card means that more teams see themselves as competing later in the season than ever before.
We have a clear, objective definition for which teams are being chased: they’re the six division and four wild card leaders; the teams who would be in the playoffs if the season ended. What’s not so clear is how to distinguish the chasers from the spoilers. I propose we shortcut the argument and simply declare that any team not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs is a chaser. By that logic, any team that has been mathematically eliminated is a spoiler.
At this point, somebody is going to want to claim that there are teams that are obviously not going to make the playoffs, despite still having a mathematical chance. Allow me to point out that–as we’ve discussed several times–baseball is a game where the improbable can occur on any given day, and probably will. In terms of making the playoffs, consider for example, the 2004 Astros. With 35 games left, the were given a .41% chance of making the playoffs–that’s 243:1 odds–and yet they snuck in. The 1934 Cardinals faced 80:1 odds with 25 games left. The list goes on (see Nate Silver‘s fine analysis for more examples). Let’s not rule anyone out until they’re actually out.
So what does this get us in terms of the official start of the playoff chase? As I said earlier, to have a chase, we need chasees, chasers, and spoilers. With a simple, objective definition for the distinction between chaser and spoiler, we also get a simple, objective definition of the start of the chase: it’s the day when the first team is mathematically eliminated: the day we have our first spoiler.
As I write this post, before any games have been played on September 4, we don’t yet have an official playoff chase. We’re close, but not quite there.
Texas is currently 23 games back in the quest for a wild card berth and one game from elimination. An Oakland win or a Texas loss will, metaphorically speaking, throw out the first pitch on the playoff chase. That could give us a chase roughly* 25 games long. A few too many for the mathematically-impaired to count, even if we take off our shoes, but still a manageable number.
* Thanks to scheduling quirks and rain outs, teams have played different numbers of games; at the moment the range is between 137 and 140.
Oakland has today off, but Texas is playing Seattle. Tune in at 7:00 Central to find out if the playoff chase starts tonight. Media outlets are standing by!