Sports

Why the Furious Critics of Baseball’s Wild Playoffs Are Wrong

Are they aware of a team called “the New York Yankees”?

Stanton seen from behind high-fives a smiling Judge outside the dugout, fans cheering in the stands behind them
Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge celebrate Stanton’s three-run home run against the Cleveland Guardians in Game 5 of the ALDS, at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday in the Bronx. Elsa/Getty Images

The Major League Baseball postseason is a ritual exercise in volatility. No other sport has the combination of a 162-game regular season and a playoff system that allows a team to reach the summit with as few as 11 more wins across three series (or, now, 13 wins across four series). NHL and NBA teams play half as many regular-season games (82) and need 16 more playoff wins to top their sports. The NFL demands three or four extra games on top of a 17-game regular season.

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Compared with other sports, small playoff samples relative to the regular season make baseball weird and open championships up to teams beyond any given year’s top echelon. The invaders have had a pretty good few weeks in the 2022 postseason, having bounced the 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers, the 101-win Atlanta Braves, and the 101-win New York Mets from the tournament before the National League Championship Series. The two teams contesting the NLCS, the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, won 89 and 87 games and would’ve missed the playoffs altogether prior to 2012, when the postseason expanded from four to five teams per league. This year it went to six. Now the Padres and Phillies are the NL playoffs.

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Whoever wins will play either the New York Yankees or the Houston Astros in the World Series. The New York–Houston meeting has been a recurring series in recent playoffs, and it is a juggernaut going against a juggernaut. But especially now that the Yankees have beaten the Cleveland Guardians in five games and avoided a sad divisional series exit of their own, it’s the National League’s results that will have people talking about whether the playoffs have fallen into perversion because the league’s best teams couldn’t push through them. There has been a lot of hand-wringing about this, some of it (most of it?) just sour grapes from Dodgers, Mets, and Braves fans. (It might be unfair to include the Braves here, as I really think I’ve seen more of it from New York and Los Angeles.) The most prominent establishment voice of this view is probably a Los Angeles Times column that came out just before the Padres eliminated the Dodgers. It said, in part: “If there ever was a case for canceling the playoffs and awarding a championship because one team was so clearly better than all the others, our 2022 Los Angeles Dodgers would be it.” The Padres’ elimination of the Dodgers, according to the columnist, is “akin to winning a 26.2-mile marathon by an hour, then having to beat the runners-up at a 100-meter sprint to be declared champion.”

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Is it whiny? Yes. Is it wrong? A bit, but not in the way it might seem. It’s at least an accurate description of what the baseball playoffs are, and one that matches up with what former Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane told Michael Lewis in Moneyball, a book that’s nearly 20 years old. “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” Beane said. “My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.” The people who are annoyed with MLB’s postseason format are off base in holding up this year as a special example of its variance. The ALCS, as it turns out, is a Goliath against a Goliath. The NLCS is more of a Cinderella collision, but lesser teams than both the Phillies and Padres have won recent titles.

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The people who view the early exits of the Dodgers, Mets, and Braves as a crisis aren’t wrong that the postseason is not a foolproof way to find the best team. But they are at odds with a fundamental point about what we’ve decided sports are on this continent: an entertainment product designed more to be fun than to separate the wheat from the chaff. There’s nothing that special about 2022 in this regard, other than that more people than usual seem to be overstating exactly how variable the MLB postseason is.

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It isn’t quite right to say that the complainants are arguing with the very concept of a postseason. After all, MLB is more extreme in its embrace of wild postseason swings than its peer leagues. Other than money, there’s nothing keeping MLB from a middle ground between its current postseason and none at all. MLB could scrap divisions and have the two best finishers in both the AL and NL play a seven-game series, then follow that up with seven more between the two pennant winners. But at root, asking for a system like that is asking for sports to be something that most American fans have never wanted them to be: more predictable.

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There’s something to that model, to be fair. Walk into a London pub and suggest that the English Premier League pick its champion via a playoff, and you may leave with beer on your head. But we have collectively decided on this side of the ocean that we don’t want regular-season standings to determine our champions. We like tournaments, and we have cast our votes repeatedly by buying tickets and, more importantly, watching them on TV so that their broadcast rights could be worth billions. The big royal we of American sports fandom has decided that we like the prospect that things might reach the truly bizarre. Usually they don’t, but the hope is the point, and sometimes it happens. The 83-win St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series in 2006. Five wild-card teams have won the Super Bowl this century.

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Most people do not want to get rid of the potential for magic. What most of us want is for the games to be compelling as postseasons get longer. Sometimes there’s an awkward conceit in that. NCAA tournament upsets in the first two rounds are thrilling, because who doesn’t like watching a school they’ve never heard of send Kentucky packing? But at some point, you might like that school to politely bow out so that the Elite Eight and Final Four will be more competitive. That’s a real sensation that at least some of us feel. But it doesn’t hold up as well in professional sports, where the talent gap between semifinalists or finalists is something less than North Carolina’s men’s basketball team against Saint Francis. It does happen, like when the delightful Colorado Rockies made it to the World Series in 2007 and got launched into orbit in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox. When those mismatches happen, they seem like a natural counterpoint to any worries that MLB’s postseason format is inept at finding great teams.

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Which raises the point: MLB’s new format of a three-game wild card series, a five-game division series, and seven-game pennant and World Series does enable lesser teams to make runs without winning many games. But it’s still hard to even sniff a World Series, and the chances in any given year are that whichever teams make it to the last round will have been elite-ish all season. The median World Series winner this century won 93.5 games, an amount that would usually be good for somewhere between the fifth- and eighth-best record in the majors—not best in class, certainly, but also safely good enough to make the postseason even before the league expanded the field from eight to 10 total teams in 2012. Only four 21st-century champs have pulled it off after operating at less than a 90-win pace, a threshold that only 25 percent of all teams have met. Only 15 percent of MLB teams have played at a 94-win pace, right at the median for Fall Classic winners. This party isn’t open to just anyone.

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That might not be exclusive enough for your tastes. Reasonable people can differ on whether a 90ish-win team should have such a short path to the top. But the cream still rises more than anyone else, something that hasn’t changed as the playoffs have gotten bigger. Three of the past six World Series winners were 100-win teams, and the 2020 Dodgers played at a 116-win pace in a 60-game regular season. Underdog stories win out, like the 88-win Braves in 2021. But when a No. 6 seed wins the Super Bowl, it generates less existential worrying about what it means for the NFL. It’s not clear why baseball should be different.

The 2022 Yankees are a good case study in how the postseason is a coin flip, but one performed with a weighted coin. Their series with Cleveland got odd thanks to rain, which postponed Game 2 and then resulted in Game 5 being pushed from Monday night to Tuesday afternoon. In theory, rain reschedulings affecting 40 percent of a series should create more chances for the baseball gods to randomize things. Players are off their routines. Pitching rotations are disrupted. Conditions might not be good. But Mother Nature did not change that the Yankees have Gerrit Cole, the staff ace who started two wins. It did not cause Aaron Judge to change into a Guardians uniform. And in the decisive game, while the Guardians started Aaron Civale and his earned-run average of nearly 5, the latest postponement gave the Yankees the chance to start All-Star Nestor Cortes, one of the best pitchers in baseball. Civale didn’t make it out of the first inning, Cortes was sturdy, and the Bombers won, 5–1. This is a cruel game, and the Yankees could’ve self-immolated on Tuesday with no explanation other than bad timing. But the likelier outcome was that they’d perform well because they’ve performed well all year. A five-game divisional series injects chaos, to be sure, but not so much that it brings everyone to equality. Judge and Giancarlo Stanton both homered, because variable postseason baseball is still just baseball.

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The ALCS will be more best-on-best. The Astros are great, and they haven’t even been cheating for the past several years. They got here by sweeping the Seattle Mariners, who had been the best story in baseball this season as they ended a 21-year playoff drought. Houston methodically squeezed the life out of them, most painfully with a 1–0 win in 18 innings to close them out. That was a useful reminder that even in this upset-heavy year, the cyborg teams are still a pretty good bet to outflank everyone else.

Baseball has numerous problems. Most of them revolve around fewer people liking baseball nowadays. One is that many of the league’s owners underspend on talent and don’t make more than a cursory effort to build winning teams. Those miserable teams tend to be more in the Padres’ weight class than the Dodgers’, and if an agreeable goal for everyone is for baseball to get healthier, then it seems good that nonbulldozer teams have made some deep runs this fall. (We should pray that owners see the Padres’ investment in their team and try to emulate it, rather than do a cheap knockoff.) Letting them into the dance in the first place made it marginally less likely that the best team in baseball would be the last one standing. But there are tradeoffs baseball can’t afford to make, and there are others that it clearly can.

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