This is a baseball post, but I’m going to begin it with a point about football. I’ve often thought that one of the most unfair things in sports is the NFL overtime rule. For those of you who are unfamiliar, when an NFL game ends tied in regulation play, it moves into “sudden death” overtime, where the first team to score wins the game. If the team with the first possession scores on that possession, the game ends without the other team even getting to touch the ball in overtime. In other words, this is like if a tie baseball game ended after the visiting team scored in the top of the 10th, without the home team getting a chance to bat.
Clearly, this is patently unfair, but it will often be defended, usually by some variation of the argument, “the better team’s defense should be able to stop the other team from scoring first.” This is plain nonsense. There has never been a football team so great it has an impregnable defense; if the other team can end the game by scoring first, that team has an advantage. However, in football and in all sports, there seems to be a prevailing attitude that there are winning teams and losing teams, and no matter what obstacles you throw in their way, winning teams just win. I believe that, to the extent sabermetrics has central tenets, one of them is that there are not “winning teams” and “losing teams”, but better teams and worse teams, and if you throw obstacles in the way of a better team, they start to look like one of the worse teams.
So, with this attitude in mind, let’s consider what happened in the NL Central race this week. The Cardinals and Brewers enter play today tied atop the division, with the Cards making up a three game deficit by sweeping the Orioles while the Crew was swept by the Yankees. The Yankees have the best record in the American League, and have a staggering run differential of +1.5 runs per game, by far the best in baseball (the only other team with a +1 run per game run differential is the Red Sox, who of course the Brewers also had to face). The Orioles, meanwhile, have the 3rd worst record in the AL, and the second worst run differential, at -0.7 per game. So, yes, the Brewers and Cardinals are tied atop the Central, but this is like a tie between two marathon runners, one of whom had to run through a dense forest filled with hilly terrain and rodents of unusual size while the other got to run on a moving walkway. There’s no two ways around the fact that it’s unfair.
The Brewers won’t gain much sympathy for complaining about this, and at any rate, it won’t accomplish much; the schedule can’t be changed and the games can’t be unplayed. To use a postgame interview cliché, it is what it is. But let’s not try to pretend it’s fair, and above all, let’s not try to pretend that if the Brewers truly deserved to win the division, they’d be imbued with some sort of magic winning team mojo that allows them to stand down one of best teams in the league. The Brewers have a great baseball team; unfortunately, they had to face an obstacle that made them look worse than they are.