Winner Takes All
BY DEB SEYMOUR
It’s that MLB playoff time of year – and this time, with yet a new format.
Are the playoffs diluted under the current format? If what you really wanted to see was the two best teams in MLB face off for the championship every year, you’d have to go back to the days of one and only one playoff series every year: the World Series. Back before all the significant league expansions, back before the NLCS and the ALCS, and certainly back to the time when there were no divisional or wild card rounds.
Brian Cashman, New York Yankees senior vice president and general manager, allegedly believes, as does Billy Beane, Oakland A’s executive vice president of baseball operations, that these days (in Beane’s words), “The playoffs are a crapshoot.”
This particular year, battling in the league championship series for the chance to play in the World Series, are three teams with 90-win regular seasons and one team with an 84-win regular season. Eliminated from the postseason in the wild card and divisional rounds were three teams with 100 or more wins in the regular season.
In the now 29th season of the wild card era, we’ve seen seven wild card teams actually win the World Series. If one of the three wild card teams remaining this year actually wins the World Series, that would make it eight out of 29, or a wild card World Series champion in 28% of the years since the wild card was introduced.
That’s a pretty high percentage, when you think about it. But the postseason is a different breed than the regular season. Baseball starts all over again in the playoffs; and part of the proof for that idea, which isn’t just an empty concept, is that there are teams who’ve made it to the playoffs year after year, but with only one championship to show for it – or, in some cases, actually none.
“I think there’s something special about October baseball,” remarked Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto last week. “And to see the teams that thrive in this environment and thrive with this much pressure, when the games mean so much, there’s so much more focus involved in the postseason.
“It’s hard to get that focus for a 162-game regular season. So to see, in my opinion, the teams that thrive here and play well in this situation, I mean, that’s what baseball is all about. That’s what you play for.”
Take the 1990s Atlanta Braves, for example. The Braves made it through the division series and league championship series to the World Series in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996, and 1999. Yet the only world championship ring they had to show for all that in the end, ironically, was in the first year of the wild card – 1995. Those 1990s Braves fielded some really excellent teams, many years featuring a playoff starting rotation of three now Hall of Famers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. But, at the end of the day, all you can do is play the games; and there are no guarantees you’ll win it all.
John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux of the Atlanta Braves pose for a portrait during Spring Training on March 20, 1997. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images)
The wild card era brings with it even more of a playoff crapshoot, as it were – although if you look over at the NBA, which has as many if not more of its teams in the playoffs every year, recent regularly top seeded teams like the Golden State Warriors over the past decade seem to have had more consistent success than what we’re seeing in MLB. The Warriors have won four titles since 2015 – in 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2022.
One can ask what makes it so much more possible to win repeated championships in the NBA than in MLB, but that would be ignoring stretches in MLB in which primarily one team has dominated the postseason, such as the Yankees from 1996-2001. They didn’t get to the World Series in 1997, but in the five years of the six the Bombers were in the World Series, they won four.
A more recent example than the 90’s Braves of how a team has had World Series success in only one year of a lengthy stretch of postseason appearances is the Los Angeles Dodgers.
From 2014-2023, the Dodgers have made the playoffs every single year. They’ve won exactly one World Series in those ten postseasons.
Said manager Dave Roberts, shouldering responsibility after their most recent exit in the divisional round at the hands of the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks, “I’ve got to do a better job of figuring out a way to get our guys prepared for the postseason. I’ll own that. I think we’ve got great players. But I’ve got to figure out a way to get these guys prepared for whatever format, whatever series. Yes, we do a great job in the regular season, but the last couple postseasons it just hasn’t gone well for us and I’ve got to figure it out.”
Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts reacts to losing the National League Division Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three game sweep at Chase Field on Monday, Oct. 11, 2023, in Phoenix, AZ. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Spoken after the Dodgers’ NLDS loss, Roberts’ comments were actually surprisingly reminiscent of the thoughts of JT Realmuto, quoted above after the Phillies’ NLDS victory. Baseball in the postseason is just a different venture than in the regular season. And it represents different challenges than in the regular season.
Another recent example besides the Dodgers, albeit a slightly less consistent one, is, in fact, the 20-teens and 2020’s Yankees – the franchise with the all-time most World Series wins. Those very same Yankees who won the world championship four years out of six from 1996-2021.
It’s easy to make some hand waving gesture and just reduce it all to the playoffs being a crapshoot; but even if you have a strategy, it’s got to be the right one. After repeated postseason losses to the Houston Astros over the past half decade, the Yankees were rumored to have the Astros as the target in their sights over the last offseason; and supposedly built their 2023 roster to beat that specific franchise in the playoffs.
The problem is, this season the Yankees never even got there (although the Astros did make it, and for the seventh consecutive time). We can hypothesize till the cows come home about what were the key factors to the Bronx Bombers bombing this year; but the fact remains their attempts to outduel the Astros in postseason play were never even tested.
Are the MLB playoffs actually a crapshoot? Superficially, yes. No one (except Trevor Plouffe) in 2019 would have called the Washington Nationals World Series contenders early that season. They played well enough to earn a wild card spot, however; and proceeded to win their way to the championship.
Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto (10) celebrates winning Game 4 of the NLDS game between the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies on October 12, 2023, at Citizens Bank Park. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
But, as both Realmuto and Roberts alluded to in their remarks, there’s a different mindset when it comes to playing winning baseball in the playoffs. And that observation is true across all sports. There’s no special NBA-specific magic to basketball teams going on championship streaks like the one the Warriors have come close to achieving most recently, the Los Angeles Lakers bordered on earlier in the 2000s, and the Chicago Bulls actually did achieve back in the 1990s.
If anything, the magic is in being able to adopt that mindset, year after year, at precisely the right time, when you have the appropriate talent on your team to win it all, over and over and over. As we at BallNine have said, that takes the necessary leadership and coaching; but it also takes players who can turn “it” on when playoff time arrives, and not turn it off until the playoffs are over.
There have been incredibly talented players who’ve struggled in the postseason, all through the years organized baseball has been played. And there have been players for whom that’s their special time of year – they just put on a different baseball cap, metaphorically speaking, once the calendar turns to October.
There’s no need to enumerate the best players who’ve struggled most under playoff circumstances. We all know who they are and have been. But the players who can thrive in that different kind of competition – they’re the ones, at the end of the day, who will own the most championship rings.