A big fuss was made last year when the Washington Nationals chose to sit Stephen Strasburg for the entire postseason rather than expose his arm to the strain of excessive innings a year removed from Tommy John surgery. The Nationals made the playoffs, but were knocked out in the first round in a close series with St Louis. Would they have beaten the Cardinals with Strasburg? Would the additional innings have led to an injury that shortened his career? We’ll never know. Either way, you have to give general manager Mike Rizzo kudos for sticking with his convictions when everyone else was ripping him.
The counterargument to Rizzo’s strategy is that you only get so many opportunities to win a World Series and that to sacrifice that opportunity for some intangible like a pitcher’s health is foolish. That rationale assumes that winning a World Series is the Holy Grail, the be-all and end-all that is the sole purpose of a major league franchise. Indeed, any Indians fan understands that, since most of us have not seen a World Series win in our lifetime.
However, is it possible that it is no longer a valid philosophy, and that maybe Rizzo is simply in tune with reality? I am one of those guys who can annoy you at parties by answering trivia questions about who won the 1928 World Series, but I have to think a minute before I can tell you who one in 2011. It’s not just that I am at the age where short term memory is a problem, either. It may be that recent trends in baseball have devalued the World Series to the point that teams should no longer make every decision with that in mind.
The main factor in devaluing the World Series is the fact that you play your ass off for 162 games, handle everything that comes your way, and still find yourself with just a 12.5% chance of winning the World Series. Sure, you get Game 7 at home if you are the best team, but first you have to get to that point, and even then home teams win less than 60% of the time. How many times in the past decade has the best team won? The Giants spent most of last season outside the top ten in most “power polls;” normally I don’t pay much attention to such things, but when teams get no respect all year long and then win the title it shows you what relevance the regular season has to the final outcome. The previous season the Cardinals looked like they were staying home for the playoffs until the Braves collapsed on the final weekend of the season, then St Louis got hot and went all the way.
Fans of other sports react to expanded playoff fields by not paying attention until the last month of the regular season, but I think baseball fans are wired differently. A true baseball fan places more value on excellence over the long grind of 162 games; knowing that fluky things can happen for a week or a month, but that over the course of an entire season true greatness will emerge. Thus it becomes a quandary to acknowledge the 2011 Cardinals as the best team in baseball when that was clearly not the case. They simply got hot at the right time.
That is so much more likely to happen in baseball than in any other sport (with the possible exception of hockey, where all you need is a hot goalie) that an expanded playoff field only diminishes the meaning of what a baseball season should really be. The best teams in baseball generally win sixty percent of their games, whereas the best football or basketball teams generally win more than eighty percent. Thus the odds of the best team beating an inferior team four out of seven are not much better than even, making for a high likelihood of teams that are not perceived to have earned a title actually winning it.
There are other things that have hurt the World Series. Football season is now nearly half over by the time the Series begins; whereas the Series once competed with somewhat meaningless early season games, by late October weekend football games are part of the routine for most sports fans, and baseball is something fans of non-contenders haven’t thought about for a couple of months. Plus, the World Series games are often played in godawful weather and end after midnight; I am generally not inclined to start a game if I know I won’t be awake for the finish.
But, back to Stephen Strasburg. The Nationals obviously felt that a better chance at winning one World Series was not worth sacrificing a sustained run of excellence that could result if Strasburg is an ace for next decade. One has to wonder if there is a financial consideration at work in that decision. The Nationals have control over Strasburg for four more years (including 2013), and seem to have the financial wherewithal to keep him beyond that if they choose to. According to Forbes Magazine, the 2012 NL East title resulted in a 31 percent increase in the valuation of the franchise; there is certainly an incentive to protect the assets that cause that valuation. Would a World Series win have caused a greater rise in value? Maybe somewhat, but anyone who understands compound interest knows that a 30% increase year after year is better than one large boost. So a team is better off thinking long term.
Furthermore, the Nationals do not have the ability to increase revenues from television because of the agreement they signed with the Orioles when they moved to D.C., so they need to have sustained success in order to maintain the value of the franchise, since gate revenues and other sources of revenue are more dependent than TV dollars on the immediate fortunes of the team rather than what happened a few years back. Under those circumstances, the decision to sit Strasburg makes financial sense.
The other possibility is that Mike Rizzo has weighed the odds and decided that the best chance of winning a World Series is not to have the best team in any given year, but to set yourself up to be a perennial playoff team. No matter how good you are in one particular year, the odds of winning three straight series are still rather long, but if you make the playoffs enough years in a row, the odds eventually will be in your favor. Look at it this way: if you are rolling dice you have a better chance of rolling a seven than a nine, but if you rig the game so you have five chances to roll a nine or one chance to roll a seven, nine looks like a better bet. That is the long-term bet the Nationals are making.