Since the World Series ended, I haven’t been able to string fifteen minutes together to write anything in this space. I have, of course, had plenty of time to think about the Cardinals’ improbable run to another championship and yet another year that ended with a team spraying champagne despite not being among the league’s best regular season teams.
Is a lesser team hoisting a trophy good for the game of baseball? Should the primary focus of baseball’s postseason be to recognize the best team with a title, to give fans the most entertaining product possible, or to maximize league-wide revenue? I don’t think we can answer these questions objectively. Obviously, baseball is a business and wants to squeeze every dollar it can, but if that requires NBA-style questionable officiating to get the big market teams the most exposure, alienating fans in the smaller markets can’t be a good long-term strategy.
That leaves two potential outcomes baseball can aim for in structuring its postseason: fairness and entertainment. If the league wanted the best team to win the championship every year, it would eliminate leagues and divisions, play a 162-game schedule, and crown the team with the best record. From 1903 to 1968, each league’s best team advanced directly to the World Series. From 1921 to 1964, the Yankees reached 29 of 44 World Series and won 20. The Yankees of Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, Berra, and Mantle were clearly the best team in the league most of those years, and if baseball were fair, not from a resource allocation standpoint, but from a best-team-wins standpoint, they probably would have won more than 20 titles in that span. To imagine being a fan of another AL team over that stretch is a depressing proposition.
In 1969, the League Championship Series were introduced, and baseball’s playoffs were either watered down or livened up, depending on your point of view, for the first time. In the 25-year era of the four-team postseason, only the A’s won more than three titles, and they won them in one of baseball’s smallest markets. The Reds of the ’70s and the Cardinals of the ’80s may claim that they would have won more titles if the playoffs were designed to reward the best teams, but from an entertainment standpoint, it’s hard to argue that this wasn’t a golden era for playoffs. Think about the postseasons of 1976 or 1985 or 1986 and your memories likely extend beyond the World Series to the playoffs that determined which team would play for the title, even if one team was markedly better in the regular season.
Starting in 1995, baseball has had three rounds of playoffs, and the entertainment value over these past 17 postseasons has been undeniably high. Fans with short memories will call 2011’s playoffs the most exciting ever, and with all the tightly-contested series leading up to a classic World Series Game 6, they may have a case, but the 1997, 2003, and 2004 postseasons offered similar fireworks in both the early rounds and the World Series. One perceived shortcoming of this eight-team era is that, since the playoffs don’t give much of an advantage to the teams with the best regular season records, series are won with health, hot streaks, and luck, rather than stronger hitting, pitching, and fielding. The 83-win 2006 Cardinals and the 90-win 2011 Cardinals are certainly evidence of this trend.
Who was the best team in baseball this year? Superficially, the Red Sox had the most talent, a stunning combination of offensive firepower, starting and relief pitching, defense, and baserunning. While they dominated as expected from May to August, April and September count too, so it’s hard to look back at the season and say the Red Sox were the league’s best team. The Phillies finished with the league’s best record and had one of the great pitching staffs in recent memory. The Yankees finished with the best record in the tougher league and had a collection of talent arguably on par with Boston’s, as evidenced by the best run differential in MLB. The Brewers had three aces (or near-aces) and two of the league’s best hitters and ran away with the division the Cardinals play in. And the Rangers, who led the league in fangraphs’ WAR percentage, certainly looked like the league’s best team throughout October, at least until David Freese’s fly ball hit the right field wall instead of Nelson Cruz’s glove.
We could point to a few specific shortcomings- the Red Sox’s conditioning and work ethic, the Phillies’ aging hitters, the Yankees’ lack of pitching depth, the Rangers’ bullpen’s poise under pressure- as reasons why none of these teams was best suited to win the title, but the final result was determined by a few key moments- Craig Kimbrel blowing a big save, Chris Carpenter shutting down the Phillies for nine innings, the Brewers’ fielding falling apart, Nelson Cruz not catching a long fly ball- rather than a season’s worth of superior play.
Would some combination of these teams playing for the title have been better? Under the old rules, the Phillies and Yankees would have played in the World Series, courtesy of their records being the best in their respective leagues. That would likely have been the 2010 matchup as well (Tampa won one more game than New York, but it’s easy to question New York’s motivation to win games once they’d clinched a playoff spot and wanted to reset their rotation for the ALDS), and in 2009 (when those two teams really did meet for the title), the Yankees would’ve played the Dodgers (though, again, we can’t know the Phillies wouldn’t have won, as they went on cruise control after easily clinching their division). The best team would probably have won at least one of the last two titles under this plan, but I, for one, would have a hard time watching baseball for six months knowing that the same two teams were likely to play for the championship every year.
In adding more teams to the playoffs (which they may do again this offseason), Major League Baseball is clearly demonstrating a focus on revenue generation, and likely fixating on entertainment value, while recognizing that the best team won’t be rewarded with a title every year. Considering baseball’s financial inequities (if you don’t know which team in each league has the highest payroll, the previous paragraph will give you a clue), the playoff system goes a long way toward leveling the playing field for teams that can’t buy 98 wins, but might be able to sneak in the tournament by winning 90 in the right division. Fans in Baltimore and Toronto may disagree, but more teams go into each baseball season with legitimate hopes of raising a trophy than in most other sports.
At this point, you may note that the NBA’s playoffs are similarly formatted, with several rounds of best-of-seven series with home court advantage going to the team with the better regular season record (unless one won its division and the other didn’t). Why, then, do the same teams always seem to win NBA Championships, while baseball had nine different champs in the first decade of this millenium?
The answer lies in personnel. Health aside, nearly every basketball game features the same five starters for each team and an eight-or-nine man rotation getting substantially all the playing time. Home court advantage tends to mean something, whether the officiating is different, the crowd motivates home teams, or it’s just easier to play when you slept in your own bed last night, but generally, the better team will win well over half of all basketball games.
A baseball series features different personnel every night. Starting pitchers heavily influence outcomes, yet each starter only pitches once or twice in a playoff series. Some players may platoon based on the pitcher’s handedness, and relievers aren’t available to pitch every night. A team with a better 25-man roster may not put a better nine-man lineup on the field every night during a series. Home field tends to mean very little in baseball, as regular pauses in the action keep the crowd from helping a team establish momentum, and facing AJ Burnett instead of CC Sabathia makes a hitter feel better regardless of what bed he slept in the night before.
The only way to safely determine the best baseball team is to increase the sample size. The Royals might beat the Tigers three times in five, or even 10 times in 19, but if they play 162 times, there’s no way the weaker team will win half of the time. As such, baseball’s regular season is more effective than any other sport’s at determining which teams should make the postseason, but its postseason is the worst at weeding out the weaker teams.
In the end, though, I think that’s the way it should be. We can objectively look back at this season and celebrate the Red Sox’s devastating lineup, the Phillies’ historically great rotation, and the Rangers’ budding dynasty putting it all together for 15.99 playoff games. Perhaps most importantly, we can celebrate the Cardinals for hanging in the playoff race despite the absence of their best pitcher, winning enough games in September to eclipse the collapsing Braves, outdueling the Phillies’ aces, outslugging the superior Brewers, and winning one of the most exciting World Series ever, despite being down to their last strike twice in Game 6. They didn’t have to be the best team in the league to do all that, but a bad team wouldn’t have been given the chance.
And that’s a win for baseball.