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The Tyranny of Split Season Playoffs

And some other disappointing minor league team results

Nat Bailey

Tonight, the Vancouver Canadians will wrap up their 2018 regular season schedule on the road in Spokane. While it remains to be seen how the finale will go, there are a few things that can be definitively said about their season:

  1. At worst, they will finish tied for the best 76 game record in their division
  2. They will not be qualify for the playoffs

How can those statements both be true? The Northwest League divides its regular season into two halves, with the division winners of each half qualifying for the playoffs. In Vancouver’s division, Everett edged out the Canadians by a game in the first half (20-18 vs. 19-19), and with their win over Vancouver last night Spokane clinched the division for the second half, two games up with one to play. The peculiarity is that Spokane was in the cellar for the first half, and Everett is tied for the cellar in the second half.

Of course, the NWL is far from unique among the minor leagues in doing this, with the Midwest League and Florida State League doing the same in terms of affiliations within the Blue Jays system. The difference of course is that they’re full seasons with 140 game schedules, so a half season of 70 games is almost as long as the NWL’s 76 game season.

While split seasons have their merits in terms of renewing hope, it strikes me as quite perverse that a team with the best record over a full season can be left out, especially when the send best team at winning won’t be among four playoff teams in an eight team league. That’s especially the case when in the other division, courtesy of Hillsboro romping to a 50-25 record, a below .500 team is going to make it (both second half and full season). Perhaps some sort of CFL-style crossover provision should be considered.

That said, one shouldn’t feel too badly for the Canadians and these circumstances, for they are the authors of their own demise. Four days ago, they had a two game lead on Spokane with five games left, including the last three head-to-head after falling into a tie with two losses and two Spokane wins. They controlled their own destiny, and blew it.

They were also the beneficiaries of a similar situation in 2012. The Eugene Emeralds (then in their division) won 47 games, one game better than both Vancouver and Everett at 46 wins. However, Everett won the first half and Vancouver the second, and Eugene was on the outside with the best record in the league.

In fact, teams with consistent good-but-not-great records have never been in a worse position, thanks to another perversity from the Northwest League last year. In used to be that is the same team won both halves of the season, the team with the next best overall record qualified. However, last year, Vancouver won the first half and had a shot at winning the second half as well.

Their last series was against Tri-City, who could not win the second half. But if Vancouver won the second half, they had the next best overall record. So their only shot to make the playoofs was, perversely, to lose (they swept Vancouver and didn’t make it). That potential seems to have spurred changes, as that no longer applies in any league and the qualifier is simply the next best second half team (even if the first half runner was closer/better, so more pervisity).

While Vancouver was eliminated, they were far from the only minor affiliate to feel pain last evening. The Bluefield Blue Jays were also eliminated from the Appalachian League playoffs in the deciding game of a best of three series against their archrival the Princeton Rays. That apparently wasn’t bad enough, as the circumstances of the 6-5 loss were even more painful.

Bluefield jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead in the 1st on a three run home run by Jordan Groshans, who after early struggles upon his promotion found his stride down the stretch. They extended that to 4-0, but Princeton clawed back and drew even by the end of the 6th. Bluefield retook the lead on a single by Alejandro Kirk in the 7th, and were still clinging to the 5-4 lead with two out and a runner on second in the bottom of the 8th.

Bluefield’s fireman, 2018 draftee Brad Wilson, induced a routine ground ball to first that should have ended the inning. But he couldn’t handle the throw as he covered the first base bag, and the error allowed the tying run to score. After a walk, the go-ahead and ultimately game winning run scored on a single up the middle. Groshans struck out to end the game, the only blemish on a three hit night with an intentional walk.

Finally, the Buffalo Bisons, who dropped their 10th straight game 4-3 to Syracuse despite getting the tying run to third with one out in the 9th. With the loss, and Louisville winning, the Bisons now have the worst record in the International League at 61-76. That’s a stunning fall for a team that at its highwater mark on June 19th was 34-29 and in the wild card hunt.

Indeed had they just gone .500 the rest of the way they’d have stayed in the hunt as Scranton wrapped up the wild card with 72-65 record. Instead, they’ve limped to the finish line with a 27-47 record since. A major factor in that being their rotation stripped by the Jays, at many points dubiously. It’s one thing to promote Ryan Borucki, it’s quite another to bring up Deck McGuire and Chris Rowley for one or two games in the bullpen and then cast them away on waivers.