THE COUCH SLOUCH

Expanding the NFL and MLB playoffs? The Slouch is all-in

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The NFL and Major League Baseball – two of our floundering nation's most successful, longstanding entertainment entities – each recently decided that it wants to add two more teams to an always-expanding postseason.

Why would they mess with success?

Because they can and they will – and because there's TV gold in them thar playoff hills.

Naturally, everyone is complaining about diluting the quality of the postseason field blah blah blah and how unnecessary it is to add bad teams to the playoffs blah blah blah.

My response?

Blah blah blah back atcha.

Playoff expansion is as certain as death and antitrust exemptions.

In U.S. professional sports history, no league has ever said, "Starting next year, we will decrease the number of teams making the playoffs." It would be like 7-Eleven reducing the size of a Big Gulp.

Besides, while many people give lip service to preserving the sanctity of the regular season, most of them want to see their team with a shot at the playoffs and everyone prefers watching the postseason to the regular season.

"Win or go home" is a lot sexier than "Win and catch the 9:40 flight for the weekend Tampa series."

Anyway, let's quickly review our major sports' postseason numbers, at the moment:

The NFL, with 12 teams out of 32, and MLB, with 12 teams out of 30, are the stingiest in terms of allowing you in the playoffs; both want to go to 14. In the NBA, 16 of 30 teams make the postseason, and in the NHL, it's 16 of 31.

(We are omitting Major League Soccer from this discussion for a couple of reasons. MLS has the highest percentage of teams make the playoffs – 14 of 26 – and the league also appears to be endlessly expanding, maybe to as many as 90 teams by 2030. One day, there might be more MLS clubs in Los Angeles than there are Jersey Mike's.)

For being the most popular game in town, the NFL, remarkably, has the shortest postseason – four weekends of games. One more playoff team per conference adds two games to the postseason's opening weekend, then everything else would be the same.

I've always thought it inevitable that the NFL eliminate the first-round byes altogether – from a marketing and viewing standpoint, it makes no sense to sideline your marquee names and best teams for the opening weekend of a rather brief postseason.

Meanwhile, MLB not only is thinking of adding one playoff team per league, but then it takes a turn into Funky Town: The team with the best record in each league gets a first-round bye; each league's other six playoff teams meet in best-of-three series, with the other two division winners getting to pick their opponents in a televised seeding extravaganza.*

* I use the term "extravaganza" loosely here.

My first reaction was, "Huh?"

My second reaction was, "Hmm."

My third reaction was, "Ooh la la!"

I like replacing the one-and-done wild card games with these opening best-of-three series, in which every Game 2 and Game 3 is an elimination contest.

Moreover, I love this crazy-at-a-glance gimmick of having the best teams pick their poison. This adds a layer of strategy in determining your fate and adds an undeniable layer of motivation for the chosen opponent.

"What, you picked us as your first victim? No respect! We are FIRED UP!"

Come on, folks, grab onto the future before it leaves the train station.

Regular-season games are a road to nowhere; postseason games are a path to history. Why not add to the playoff guest list? As Caligula once shouted, "The more, the merrier!"

Yes, this rewards mediocrity. But with the end of American exceptionalism in sight, this is the right plan at the right time. Will more .500 teams make the playoffs? Of course. Then again, these days .500-caliber politicians win elections, .500-caliber fast-food joints do brisk business and .500-caliber fiancés become husbands.

How do you think I've made the matrimonial postseason three times?

Ask The Slouch

Q. I'm astounded at how many NFL coaches' sons get hired to be NFL coaches. Has Stepson of Destiny Isaiah Eisendorf shown extreme proclivity to couch slouching, downing Yuengling, watching the PBA and occasionally writing an 800-word missive? (William Grubb Jr.; Clarksburg, Md.)

A. In a rather transparent attempt to distance himself from me, Isaiah will not sit down, does not drink beer, refuses to watch bowling on TV and never writes anything other than his signature on a credit-card charge he might not pay.

Q. Why does the excruciatingly useless and needless NFL scouting combine still exist? (Bret McRae; Boise, Idaho)

A. The stopwatch lobby remains a potent, influential force.

Q. With no trial in sight, is there any chance that Robert Kraft could bring in the NFL replay team to speed up the already year-long legal proceedings in his Florida solicitation case? (Mike Soper; Washington, D.C.)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

You, too, can enter the $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. Just email asktheslouch@aol.com and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!


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The numbers show a concerning trend. Composite image by Brandon Strange

Michael Brantley signed a two-year, $30M deal with the Houston Astros prior to 2019 to little fanfare. The then 32 year-old was coming off of yet another injury riddled season with the Cleveland Indians, and the signing was seen as a safe gamble (if there is such a thing). Brantley would produce if healthy, but would he ever be healthy?

Brantley went on to have two of the healthiest seasons of his career, putting up big numbers for the Astros. Across two seasons, Brantley slashed .309/.370/.497 with a 134 wRC+. The Astros got the best version of Brantley, who had slashed .295/.351/.430 with a 114 wRC+ during his tenure with the Indians.

Brantley is set to hit the market once again, and the Astros face a couple of questions. One, is Brantley worth bringing back? Two, is Brantley worth a qualifying offer?

Hard Hit % - 37.3%

Barrel % - 4.9%

K % - 15%

BB % - 9.1%

Chase % - 20.1%

(All numbers from 2020)

Brantley's greatest skill is controlling the strike zone. He forces pitchers to come to him, and he's only getting better at it. His chase % was the best of his career, and it was 6% better than his 26% mark in 2019. Brantley was t-19th in MLB in chase % with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Yasmani Grandal. Brantley combines this enviable level of plate discipline with another enviable trait: he doesn't swing and miss. His 16.4% whiff % was in the 93rd percentile of MLB. By comparison, Acuña and Grandal were in the 29th and 26th percentiles respectively. Those two don't chase often because they keyhole one spot that they know they can drive. Brantley forces pitchers to come in the zone similar to those two, but he usually doesn't swing and miss when the pitchers do come to him.

However, there are some alarming trends for a hitter now well onto the wrong side of 30.

His 15% K% was the highest it's been since 2011, when he was a 24-year-old in his first full big league season. It was a 4.6% increase in K% over last season. Brantley's 16% whiff % is far and away the worst it's been in his career, and it's 5.6% worse than it was in 2019. That 5.6% is the difference between swinging-and-missing the second least in MLB and swinging-and-missing the 11th least. That's a steep drop over one season. Remember, Brantley chased pitches outside the zone the least he ever had in his career. That increase in whiff % mostly came on strikes. His contact % on strikes dropped 4.8% from 2019.

A big indicator of age is the inability to catch up with the fastball. Brantley's 13.2% whiff rate against fastballs in 2020 was the worst it's been in his career. The second worst? 7.5% back in 2011. On the surface, Brantley performed fine on fastballs in 2020. He batted .295 with a .438 SLG against them. But it gets a little uglier just one level deeper. Brantley's xBA on fastballs was .242. His xSLG was .410.

Compared to his 2019 performance against fastballs, it was quite the downturn. Brantley batted .320 against fastballs in 2019 with a .311 xBA. He slugged .501 with a xSLG of .506. Lastly, Brantley had an 89.3 average exit velocity on fastballs in 2019 compared to 87.4 in 2020. The downturn in fastball productivity is alarming.

Brantley performed great against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2020, but once pitchers realize that he can't stay on the fastball like he used to, Brantley will be setup for failure, not success.

Brantley doesn't run well either. His average sprint speed of 26.2 ft/s was in the 34th percentile in MLB. Brantley did perform well defensively by nearly every metric, but he was in the 39th percentile in outfielder jump. He really can't afford a downturn defensively, and with Yordan Alvarez returning as the full time DH next season, they won't have the ability to give Brantley the occasional day off his legs at DH

The qualifying offer has been set at $18.9M for the 2020 offseason. Considering Houston's lack of draft picks due to their punishment for technological sign-stealing, recouping some of that draft capital would be helpful for the club. $18.9M would represent a $3.9M raise for Brantley, which is exactly the price of not being able to bring back Brad Peacock.

It's unlikely that Brantley will regress so quickly that he'll be unplayable in 2021. He will likely be a productive ballplayer. Considering that the Astros can afford to pay the raise in salary if he accepts the qualifying offer, it is worth giving it to him. If he declines the QO, however, it isn't worth giving him a multi-year deal. There are too many signs of regression, and anything more than one year is a risk. If Brantley demands a multi-year deal, the Astros should let him walk and take the draft pick compensation.

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