Baseball has a problem: America seems to have forgotten how it works.
The nation’s sports outlets have been left raging and/or baffled by the shocking early playoff exits of three great teams – the Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves and New York Mets.
But the reactions point to a culture that has become obsessed with the idea that a season without a championship is a failure; and that’s particularly unreasonable in MLB.
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Because baseball isn’t a contact sport, and players are only required to do their job a few times per game (as batters) or once every few days (as pitchers), it has a remarkably long regular season, lasting an insane-on-the-surface 162 games.
But that season length does two key things. The first is create the vibe that enabled baseball to become ‘America’s pastime’ – because it’s pretty much always on from March to September.
Instead of peaking every Sunday for four months like the NFL, or even more frequently like the NBA (with its 82-game season), the fact you can pretty much turn on a radio every day for seven or eight months and hear a baseball game is half the fun. The relaxed pace of the season follows on from the relaxed pace of the sport.
Judge smashes #62, fan FALLS from stand! | 00:54
The second thing the length of the season does is allow us to really work out who the best teams are.
There’s a quote, credited to legendary manager Tommy Lasorda, which goes along the lines of: “No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose a third of your games. No matter how bad you are, you’re going to win a third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.”
You can see this at work when you look at any year’s MLB standings. The worst teams will lose around 100 games (for a record of 62-100), and the best teams will win around 100 games (for a record of 100-62), with everyone else in the middle.
Even if you’re an absolute basket case of a team it’s effectively impossible to not win 50-odd of your 162 games, because that’s just the randomness of baseball. Some player, who might have been terrible across the course of the season, will hit a crucial home run, or throw a crucial strikeout that gives you a win every few days.
And so by the time each MLB season reaches its zenith, the playoffs, we’re down to the absolute elite – but that ‘elite’ has been growing year-on-year.
In an ongoing attempt to get more money out of the TV rights deal, MLB keeps expanding its playoffs. Before 1969 there was only the World Series, where the best team in the American League faced the best team in the National League; as recently as 1993, it was just a four-team playoff.
This worked really well because it rewarded regular season dominance. You had to prove your mettle over the course of five or six months to even make the playoffs, never mind to win the World Series.
But last year a 12-team playoff was introduced, meaning over a third of the 30-team league makes it to the pointy end.
Now, the playoffs are fun because they’re do-or-die – elimination games mean a hell of a lot more than those played in some random afternoon in mid-June. And in baseball, the playoff series either last three, five or seven games.
But you can see the dilemma already. That is a much smaller sample size of games that we’re using to determine the season’s champion, than we use to determine the ‘best’ team across the course of the year.
The National League of 2022 is a prime example. As mentioned at the top of the article, the Dodgers (111 wins), Braves (101 wins) and Mets (101 wins) were among the best teams we’ve seen in recent years – along with the American League’s Astros (106 wins), this is just the second time in MLB history four teams have won 100-plus games.
Also making the NL playoffs were the St Louis Cardinals (93 wins), San Diego Padres (89 wins) and Philadelphia Phillies (87 wins).
So in the opening round of the playoffs, when the Mets played a Padres team that won 14 fewer games across the course of the season, the Mets were understandably favourites.
But that 14-win gap meant nothing over the course of a very short three-game series, and when the Padres won the series 2-1, the New York newspapers were scathing of the Mets’ performance.
“All those wins mean nothing as Mets fail to show up for do-or-die game,” the back of the New York Post proclaimed, while Newsday’s David Lennon questioned whether they were “the worst team (US)$290 million could buy”.
The reaction was similar when, in the second round of the playoffs, the 87-win Phillies downed the 101-win Braves, while the 89-win Padres beat the 111-win Dodgers – inarguably one of the best teams in baseball history, yet one that has only won one World Series in its recent dominant era.
“(The) Dodgers are baseball’s biggest losers,” long-time writer Bill Plaschke penned in the LA Times. “They’ve never been humiliated like this.”
All neutral observers would agree it’s very exciting that two unexpected teams are competing for a spot in the World Series – particularly the Padres, who have rebelled against the orthodoxy that small-market teams shouldn’t spend too much money, with many MLB team owners seemingly happy to sit back and collect the huge revenue cheques that come in without investing back into the roster.
But it has also created this absurd environment where the results of a short series have apparent experts, who’ve been watching baseball for decades, are proclaiming that these fantastic teams are failures.
It exposes a complete lack of understanding of how baseball works. Any team can win a short series – and a look at the regular season proves this.
Let’s look at those Dodgers in particular. They went 111-51 this past season – that’s winning more than two-thirds of their games.
But in early June, they lost three games in a row to the Pittsburgh Pirates, who went 62-100 this year.
And later that month, they lost three games in a row to the San Francisco Giants, who went 81-81 this year.
And in early October, they lost three games in a row to the Colorado Rockies, who went 68-94 this year.
There are many, many examples from every team in every season like this. Every team will, at some point, lose three games to a team they ‘shouldn’t’ – because that’s baseball. That’s just how the sport works.
But when it happens in the playoffs, there is some sort of expectation that this randomness – which is what it is – should disappear.
This is absurd, especially because in the playoffs you’re playing higher-quality opposition. If the Dodgers can lose three games to the Pirates, they sure as hell can lose three games to the Padres.
As long-time baseball writer Joe Sheehan explained in his excellent newsletter on Tuesday: “When a good team beats another good team in three of four, it doesn’t mean anything. The Padres played better than the Dodgers did. The Phillies played better than the Braves did.
“We have to be able to stop there, and not look for larger truths. There aren’t any to be found in 36 innings of baseball.”
So when long-time baseball columnists like the aforementioned Plaschke declare the Dodgers have been “humiliated” by losing three of four games against another quality team, it just sounds ridiculous.
And this trend of the best teams, as seen across the regular season, not winning the World Series is likely to accelerate – especially because MLB wants to eventually expand the playoffs again to a full 16 teams.
That’ll mean more exciting playoff games, and that’s fun. We’re not complaining about that part.
But to watch the sport intelligently, you need to understand that anything can happen in a short series – and not condemn a top team for falling victim to the randomness.