Entering play today, there are precisely three teams which have neither (a) clinched a playoff spot nor (b) been eliminated entirely from doing the same. Two of those teams, Atlanta and San Francisco, are very likely to make the posteason; the third, San Diego, is less likely, but has a compelling series this weekend against the Giants.
What that leaves us is 27 teams currently occupying a sort of competitive purgatory — playing without any hope of reaching the postseason and, yet, unable merely to concede the remainder of their games. Yes, there are implications for draft position and tickets that’ve already been sold, but, from a competitive standpoint exclusively, those teams are done-ity done done.
For those of us who like watching baseball, in general, and who, specifically, dedicate substantial amounts of time to devising systems by which we might adjudge the watchability of a particular contest (see: NERD), this particular time of year raises some questions. Well, one question mostly. This one:
Is there any appeal to watching a team that has either clinched, or been elimated from, a playoff spot?
It’s important to note immediately that we’re not considering team allegiance in this conversation. It’s very likely that people in Boston, for example, will continue to watch Red Sox games — because, well, that’s what you do if you’re a Boston fan. (Mind you, it’s not the only thing you do. You probably also refer to everybody as “guy” and use filthy, filthy language — even around grandmothers and newborns. But those matters aren’t germane to the present effort.)
For the neutral supporter, though, the question remains: is there any reason to watch a non-contending team?
I think we can “yes.” I think we can say it for a number of reasons, probably, but two reveal themselves immediately. For one, it’s still baseball, and watching baseball is, as foreign people are always saying in their foreign-sounding languages, “better than a kick in the face.”
So, that’s one reason.
The other is this: there are still things to learn. For example, consider yesterday’s Pirates-Cardinals game. I previewed it in a white-hot edition of One Night Only; Jackie Moore provided the readership with some equally hot postgame notes on the performances of starting pitchers Young James McDonald and Even Younger P.J. Walters. Yes, the game was meaningless so far as wins and losses are concerned this year, but it’s likely that those two starters and any number of field players — Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez — it’s likely they all contribute, at some level, to future wins. Smart baseball fans care about that type of thing.
So we can say with some degree of certainty that the so-called “meaningless” games we’re talking about — we can say that they have some value, that they’re not meaningless to the curiouser of us.
But that prompts us to ask another question, specifically: is it possible for any of these so-called meaningless games — is it possible that even the most interesting of them could be more compelling than a game featuring a still-contending team?
Consider the Diamondbacks, for example. Or the Brewers. Both teams rate pretty highly by NERD’s exacting standards (a 9 for each). Arizona is young and plays excellent defense. Milwaukee has the best offense in the NL by park-adjusted wRAA. Both teams hit for power, feature modest payrolls, and have scored fewer runs than their Base Runs totals would otherwise suggest. Those are all qualities amenable to the baseball nerd.
The Giants and Braves, on the other hand, feature NERD scores of 4 and 5, respectively — not bad scores, but not great, either. San Francisco runs the bases poorly, they’re on the old side, they feature a slightly below-average offense. Really, a lot of their aesthetic value is in the quality of their starting rotation. As for Atlanta, they also run the bases poorly, they feature one of the league’s poorer Team UZRs, and their HR/FB ratio is below average.
Of course, the difference is that both of those teams (i.e. the Giants and Braves) are playing meaningful games — meaningful in the traditional baseball sense. So while, yes, the Brewers might be more interesting than the Braves in a vacuum, the circumstances presented by a playoff race aren’t very vacuum-y at all.
We’re confronted with a truth, then. Roger Caillois discusses it somewhere in his excellent Man, Play, and Games, but I have no idea where I’ve deposited my copy of said text, nor am I particularly inclined to go looking for it. In any case, I’m almost positive that Caillois writes something like this in it, something like: for whatever its other vrtues, a game that doesn’t incentivize winning — or that features even a single contestant for whom victory isn’t the primary objective — that is, by definition, a less interesting game.
As I very obviously have no intention of reaching something so pedestrian as a “conclusion” in the present work, allow me to end with two notes, as follows:
1. Given the nature of competition and games, it’s unlikely that a game between two eliminated (or playoff-bound) teams — it’s unlikely that said game could be more interesting than one featuring a still-contending team.
2. On the other hand, merely because a team — owing to its place in the standings — merely because a team as a whole lacks incentive to win a game, this doesn’t necessarily apply to all the individual players involved in the game. For example, in the case of the aforementioned Pirates-Cardinals game, we can assume that St. Louis starter P.J. Walters in fact had a great deal of incentive to perform well. As a young pitcher likely to compete for a spot on the 2011 Cardinals, Walters presumably wanted very much to dominate his opponent and impress the major league coaching staff, who ultimately have control over his career and, thus, his livelihood. We might even say that Walters had more incentive to perform ably in yesterday’s game than a veteran player on a contending team.