NECBL Alters Playoff Format

Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The New England Collegiate Baseball League announced a composite schedule for the 2017 season on Tuesday, one that changes the league’s playoff format and pushes back the NECBL All-Star Game, according to a news release by NECBL commissioner Sean McGrath.

The playoffs shrink to six teams from the previous eight, rewarding the top three teams in each of the NECBL’s two divisions. The top seed of each division receive a first-round bye; the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds will play each other, and the winner advances to play the No. 1 seed for a chance to reach the NECBL championship. The postseason change “emphasizes the importance of winning either division,” according to the release.

The 2017 NECBL All-Star Game, to be hosted this year by the North Adams (Mass.) SteepleCats at Joe Wolfe Field, has been bumped to July 30, a week later than in previous seasons.

The changes are the league’s reaction to a shortage of pitchers that many teams, including the Upper Valley Nighthawks, faced late last season and in the playoffs, making a championship run more about a team’s healthy bodies than the on-field competition.

“The biggest problem is … 10 years ago, players stayed for the entirety of a season,” Vermont Mountaineers general manager Brian Gallagher said. “Some of these players get shut down early. Player attrition has been terrible.”

Gallagher was one of a majority of NECBL general managers who approved the playoff format change, saying it would put emphasis on teams to compete for the No. 1 seed and create added pressure.

“It does have its pros and cons,” Gallagher said. “You’re putting one less team in the playoffs. A lot of times, the No. 4 seed is below .500. I just don’t think a team below .500 should be in the playoffs.”

Noah Crane, the Nighthawks GM, voted against changing the playoff format.

“The more teams in the playoffs, the better,” he said. “It’s more exciting. You’re rewarding fan bases by getting into the playoffs; playoff games are typically your best nights of the summer. … You get that added drama and intrigue. Now you’re lessening the opportunity for teams to experience that. I almost feel like everybody should make the playoffs.”

Crane also said he worries about the impact a smaller playoff field will have on struggling teams that find themselves out of playoff position with several weeks to go in the regular season.

“You’re taking away opportunities to reward fan bases, generate revenue and keep (athletes) excited and interested,” he said. “What happens to the seventh, sixth, fifth and fourth teams with no hope of getting into that third spot? Those kids will pack it in quicker. Last year, our kids were fighting for that fourth playoff spot. They were engaged; they were playing hard. If they were in this situation now, they’d be bailing with a few weeks left. I think this creates problems.”

Past suggestions to help encourage athletes to stay at their teams for an entire summer have included shortening the NECBL’s regular season, which will remain at 44 games in the league’s 24th season this summer, though a shortened regular season would mean fewer games for teams to generate revenue.

“I think summer baseball has to look into that and evaluate it,” Crane said. “This isn’t a solution to that problem. … There’s a period of time, middle to late July, where it gets tough (to keep athletes engaged). This doesn’t address that.”

Upper Valley will open its 2017 season on June 9 on the road against the Newport Gulls. The Nighthawks return to Vermont 24 hours later to host North Adams for the team’s home opener at the Maxfield Sports Complex in White River Junction.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.