Baseball’s postseason: It’s fun, but what does it all mean?

Here they go again, the wild-card Redbirds refusing to lose. (AP photo)

Here they go again: Wild-card Cardinals refuse to lose. (AP/Post-Dispatch photo by Chris Lee)

Time was, the World Series represented and rewarded excellence. At worst, the champion of baseball was the team that finished first in its league over a six-month season. Even when there was a perceived upset, it wasn’t Douglas over Tyson. The 97-win Giants unhorsed the 111-win Indians in 1954, but the Giants had Willie Mays.The Pirates won in 1960 despite being outscored 55-27 by the Yankees, but Pittsburgh had won 95 games to New York’s 97. Heck, the Miracle Mets were 100-game winners.

But the playoffs expanded in 1969, the year those Mets won it all, and baseball’s postseason changed. From 1944 through 1968, the team that had baseball’s best record won the World Series 13 times in 25 years (52 percent). After the two league championship series were added in ‘69, the World Series was won by the team with baseball’s best record seven times in 25 years (28 percent). And then, once the wild card arrived, everything went nuts.

Since 1995, a wild card has won the World Series five times (31.3 percent); the team with baseball’s best record has won three times (18.8 percent). Contrast this with the NBA, which features 16 playoff qualifiers and therefore more variables: Over its past 16 seasons, the NBA team with the best regular-season record has won seven times (43.8 percent).

And now the baseball postseason has grown again, if only just. Beginning this season, a second wild card was added in each league, and baseball’s method of accommodation — actually, “method” might be too kind a word — was to jam the wild cards into a play-in game and see what shook out. Almost inevitably, what happened was that the two wild cards with the lesser record (i.e., the two who wouldn’t have qualified a year ago) won. Sure enough, the wild-card Cardinals surged from six runs behind to eliminate the Nationals, who owned baseball’s best record.

Thus have three of the top four seeds already been dismissed. Presumably this is the way baseball wants it. Wild! Wacky! Great TV! But I’m not sure greatness has much to do with postseason baseball anymore. It isn’t just that the best team doesn’t always win; it’s that the best team almost never wins.

After his 94-68 Braves were eliminated by the 88-74 Cardinals in the play-in game, manager Fredi Gonzalez said: “You’ve got to judge a team over the 162-game season.” And you do, or at least you should. Trouble is, MLB doesn’t hand out a trophy after the 162nd game. The big trophy goes to team that wins 11 (or 12 now, in the case of the wild card) postseason games, and that race to 11 (or 12) is more a function of fortune than skill.

The Oakland general manager Billy Beane, whose success at building good teams on a shoestring was chronicled by Michael Lewis in “Moneyball,” has seen his Oakland A’s reach the playoffs six times. Only once has Beane’s team survived Round 1. Five times it has been eliminated in the fifth game of the best-of-five Division Series, the latest coming Thursday night. As Beane famously said in “Moneyball”: “My [stuff] doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is [fickle] luck.”

Before we write that off as a loser’s lament, let’s note that a famous winner might agree. Tony La Russa won two World Series with St. Louis, but he had six Cardinal teams that won more games than his Series winners of 2006 (83-78) and 2011 (90-72). Including his tenure with the White Sox and the pre-Beane A’s, La Russa managed nine teams that won 95 or more games. Eight of those did not win the World Series.

In a year that has seen all four Division Series go the distance, it might sound silly to quibble with the system. But you’d like to think all this sound and fury leads to something meaningful, as opposed to noise for noise’s sake. You’d like to think excellence would, in the end, find its reward, but recent history suggests it won’t. The 2011 Cardinals were crowned champions of baseball, but even the reddest of Redbird fans would be reluctant to describe that as a great team.

Instead it was a pretty good team that got hot at the right time, which has become the way of October. Of the past 16 Series winners, nine won fewer regular-season games than the 2012 Braves. Of the 11 National League teams to win 100 games in the wild-card era, not one took the World Series. But the Marlins, who have yet to finish first in their division, have done it twice.

By Mark Bradley

136 comments Add your comment

gtt

October 12th, 2012
1:05 pm

gtt

October 12th, 2012
1:05 pm

Darn, too quick.

dtanner

October 12th, 2012
1:06 pm

dtanner

October 12th, 2012
1:07 pm

DAMN! not first

gtt

October 12th, 2012
1:11 pm

I hate the new format and don’t apologize for the fact the reason is my beloved Braves lost to the #$%%^#%$$% Cardinals.

Weyman C. Wannamaker Jr. (A Great American)

October 12th, 2012
1:11 pm

It don’t mean a thing… if you ain’t got that swing. :-)

y3ll0wjacket

October 12th, 2012
1:14 pm

Not a fan of the one-game format, but as a fan, I’d be happy if my team got in and at least had the chance. It does make for compelling TV — I’m enjoying all the games. But there is not much room for a traditionalist anymore. If the dang Braves could just get hot and win a couple of these postseason shootouts I’d feel better about it.

Drew

October 12th, 2012
1:24 pm

Mark, I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove here: that great teams don’t win or that there are two kinds of great teams- those who can win in the regular season and those that win in the postseason? At the end of the day, whoever wins it all was always the great team. The rest just had window dressing.

[...] League Championship Series on Thursday, winning a third straight game at Great American Ball …Baseball's postseason: It's fun, but what does it all mean?Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Giants join short list of postseason road killersMLB.comBetter [...]

[...] League Championship Series on Thursday, winning a third straight game at Great American Ball …Baseball's postseason: It's fun, but what does it all mean?Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog)Giants join short list of postseason road killersMLB.comBetter [...]

Stinger 2

October 12th, 2012
1:28 pm

Mark: The answer to your question (What does it mean) is very simple and easy.
It means a lot more $$$$$ to MLB, to the owners, the media Networks and , I believe, to a lesser extent to the players To the fans who attend the games, it obviously means alot less $$$$ to spend elsewhere.

go-bravos

October 12th, 2012
1:43 pm

The format doesn’t really change anything for the Braves because they are just happy to get to the playoffs. The Braves just want to play the 163rd game and put their ridiculous banner up in left field for being 1 and done. Seems like all sports teams in GA are just happy to get there and not dedicated to winning Championships.

BigGTMike

October 12th, 2012
1:50 pm

With all the resting of players and other strategies going on, it’s no longer a matter of the best rising to the top over 162. The strategy has become do just enough to have a chance to get there and the best rise in late September through October. Or in the Braves case, be relatively mediocre but do just enough to get there and then have nothing left.

BravesFan79

October 12th, 2012
1:50 pm

No 100 win NL team has won the WS since the wildcard? wow unbelievable. It would be easier for me to say “screw the wild card” like i used to when the Marlins could only come in 2nd at best, but now the Braves are owned by some crappy media company who is cheap, and the wild card is our best shot most years.

al j

October 12th, 2012
1:51 pm

Maybe college football should be reading this.

Hankie Aron

October 12th, 2012
1:56 pm

Drew- I disagree with your assessment and you’re missing Mark’s point. A great team is 1 who wins at least 90 games or more over a 162 game grueling season. A team that gets hot and wins 11 or 12 games in a boiler cooker postseason is just the hot team at the moment. These wild cards have so diluted the regular season.

“it’s a sprint, not a marathon”

Bob

October 12th, 2012
1:57 pm

Mark I’m not one to quibble, but the Cardinals did not win the World Series in 2010, they did so in 2011. The 2010 champ was the esteemable SF Giants.

Hankie Aron

October 12th, 2012
2:01 pm

There has to be some semblance that the World Series winner is truly the best team instead of the hot team. Otherwise as a fan I feel cheated and the World Series was watered down like this one will probably be. Like Stinger said though, it’s about money. More playoff participants= more playoff games= more playoff money.

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Hankie Aron

October 12th, 2012
2:04 pm

I was thinking the same thing Bob.

Rickster

October 12th, 2012
2:05 pm

Your conclusions about overall records and ultimate team proficiencies don’t take into account the disparity among the divisions. A good team in a weak division can win a hundred games while a better team in a tougher division may struggle to make the postseason. The only way to see which team is better is for them to play each other, preferably in a series.
I don’t like the new wild card format because of the one game playoff. Baseball is too prone to anomalies for a single game to be a valid decision-maker over the results of a 162 game season.

Retired HS bball coach

October 12th, 2012
2:07 pm

@Mark, this is a contention I have always made in support of Bobby Cox…if we had still been only league CHAMPIONS in the World Series…how many WS Championships would Bobby’s Braves had won. My answer would be several. Things are NOT set up to reward the BEST TEAM. Like so much of our 21st century world it is all about the $$$$.

Najeh Davenpoop

October 12th, 2012
2:10 pm

“But I’m not sure greatness has much to do with postseason baseball anymore. It isn’t just that the best team doesn’t always win; it’s that the best team almost never wins.”

So what? This is true about March Madness too. Why does everything have to be a narrative for you sportswriters? People watch sports for the entertainment value, and expanding the playoff field increases the entertainment value. I agree that a play-in game isn’t ideal after a 162 game season, but if they made that a 3 game series it would be fine.

Najeh Davenpoop

October 12th, 2012
2:10 pm

Put it this way — if people just wanted to see the best team win, then nobody would be complaining about the BCS.

Stinger 2

October 12th, 2012
2:16 pm

BigGTMike: You said the Braves were mediocre. What by baseball standards (wins and losses) is your definition of that word? The Braves won 94 regular season games
and only four other MLB teams won more. I call those results very good if not great.

Michael

October 12th, 2012
2:16 pm

Baseball’s problem of rarely ever crowning the best team as its champion essentially boil down to this: The playoff format is exactly opposite of the season format. In other words, baseball has by far the longest regular season of any of the major professional sports; twice as long (in number of games played) than basketball and hockey, ten times longer than football. But yet the first two rounds of its playoff series are 1 game and 3-5 games, less than the first round of both basketball and hockey. The other 3 major pro sports do a good job of setting up their playoffs to compliment the nature of their seasons, which allows for the best teams of the regular season to rise to the top of the playoffs simply by continuing to do what they have been doing. Baseball hasn’t got a clue when it comes to that, and until they figure that out, most people will largely continue to ignore their postseason.

Mark

October 12th, 2012
2:17 pm

Down in Arlington, ohn the other hand, they’re saying to themselves that you need to judge by the results of a 160-game season!

The A’s and the Dodgers have shown us that you can’t really buy a ring, even if you can buy a lot of wins (and thus a season). And what do you say to the Giants 1993 season where – with 103 wins – they didn’t make the playoffs?

I realize you’ve gotta fill up the page, but this was poor stuff…

Chris

October 12th, 2012
2:19 pm

I agree that this is probably to make more money, but these have been exciting games, so I’m not complaining. Better than fixing the outcomes. Would you rather watch blowouts and sweeps? Also, complaints that it being about making money are a little late. Since when has it not been about making money? I’m pretty sure they started charging for tickets about a century ago.

Mario

October 12th, 2012
2:24 pm

You compare baseball to basketball, but the nature of the sports is so incredibly different that the comparison is almost pointless. In basketball the better team generally wins. That’s how a number one seed finishes the season with a .758 winning % and the last place team manages only a .103 winning percentage. Baseball on the other hand resides almost as if by design in the range where a playoff team wins roughly 4 of 7 games on the year and last place teams lose 4 of 7 games on the year.

Any day, anything can happen in baseball. Cy Young winners can serve up home runs to back-up infielders. Triple Crown winners can be struck out by pitchers who might have been on the proverbial trash heap last week.

Claiming the new system has no method contradicts your example of the 1954 World Series. Baseball has returned to a system where winning the division has significant impact, lessening the chances that Wild Card teams can stroll into the playoffs with no benefit given teams who finished in first place. Chipper and Braves fans have a problem with one game playoffs, then win your division next time. Doesn’t that only reinforce the fact that 162 games matter?

Which teams still in the playoffs don’t deserve their shot at the World Series right now? The teams with the best records in baseball (Nationals and Yankees), the teams with the MVP favorites for their leagues (Giants and Tigers), the defending World Champions (Cardinals) or the surprise team of the year that finished only 2 games shy of the best record in their league (Orioles).

NCBravesFan

October 12th, 2012
2:40 pm

Couldn’t agree more, Mark. That particular genie is out of the bottle and it’s not going back in unfortunately.

It would help if the regular season was shortened by a few games and the Division Series/LCS/WS were all stretched to seven games. If they’re going to keep the two WC format going forward, they should ideally make those five game series at a minimum.

GFF

October 12th, 2012
2:40 pm

Very true…..

Stuart

October 12th, 2012
3:02 pm

Good observation Mark; very true. MLB is losing sight of what makes a champion and what makes MLB history. Instead, it has its sights focused on $$$ and little else.

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doc

October 12th, 2012
4:16 pm

money babee, follow the money.

mark really is the nfl any better when teams near extinction in regular season get to championship level or super bowls as in the last several years? regular season is not weighted enough in favor of the season long performers.

a problem in the other direction is like the nba where the lakers have been in 31 of the last 66 championship finals i think i heard recently.

Shug

October 12th, 2012
4:42 pm

Nice article Mr. Bradley.

I’m in the minority, but I’ve felt the same way about NCAA basketball for the past 30 years. It’s MARCH MADNESS! but it rarely identifies the season’s best team. Villanova over Georgetown in ‘85 was a great story, but it really just showed that it’s improbable for a decent team to lose every single time it plays a superior opponent. NCAA Div. I football (with its polls) selects more deserving champions than the b’ball tourney.

Skeezix

October 12th, 2012
4:43 pm

I agree–it bothers me the way the current playoff system works. I don’t like it. I really don’t like the play in game.

PMC

October 12th, 2012
4:52 pm

It means the old baseball system of building a team to win 162 is completely over.

Teams that can’t manufacture runs when they need to (Timely Hitting) are not going to go far when it counts.

Baseball is a fun thing to go do on random day in the summer, but it’s really not interesting until the playoffs, just like the NBA.

GermanBravesFan

October 12th, 2012
4:53 pm

Where’s Clusters to put some perspective into this?

Mark Bradley

October 12th, 2012
4:54 pm

I’d submit that there’s a little difference between a collegiate single-elimination tournament and a postseason that features best-of-five or best-of-seven series.

And I think the best team wins the NCAA tournament more often than the best team wins the World Series. Think about it: Kentucky 2012, Florida 2007, North Carolina 2005, UConn 2004, Maryland 2002, Duke 2001, Michigan State 2000.

gtt

October 12th, 2012
4:58 pm

Tanners take first and second.

Mark Bradley

October 12th, 2012
4:59 pm

Kudos to gtt, belated though these are.

Maness

October 12th, 2012
5:16 pm

In America, only the NFL “needs” playoffs … i.e. the number_of_teams/number_of_games ratio. Baseball, hockey, and basketball could all play a multi-round round robin (or variation) and give the BIG TROPHY to the team with the best record … as they should. As they famously said in England last season (concerning THE PREMIER LEAGUE, which has no playoff — best record = championship!) after so many American sports teams who DID NOT have the best record won their championships … THE LEAGUE DOES NOT LIE.

Darryl Blackberry

October 12th, 2012
5:49 pm

The postseason has become something of a joke, and has been ever since ‘95, ironically. I guess it’s to be expected with the advent of expansion. Baseball wants every team to have a chance at glory, no matter how much that glory is ultimately diminished by the process itself…

JASon

October 12th, 2012
8:06 pm

“I’m not sure greatness has much to do with postseason baseball anymore.”

Greatness is winning when it matters. No one cares about your stupid regular season record. A great team is one that is a little better than average during 162 games, then plays every out like it is their last during the postseason. No one cares about your stupid regular season record.

Hillbilly D

October 12th, 2012
8:08 pm

What does it mean?

It means the Lords of Baseball are all about $$$ and really don’t give a rat’s ass about the game and its traditions. But what do you expect from a sport run by the likes of Bud the Dud, whose major accomplishment is making Bowie Kuhn look semi-competent..

Sonny Clusters

October 12th, 2012
8:27 pm

Here we are, GBF. We was looking at that sports coat Craig Sager is wearing and it reminds us of the cloth upholstery in a 53 Plymouth. Now, Clusters are controversial this time of year because we start out early saying the team has no playoff credentials and when they get eliminated by a team with the acumen to play in the post-season it defines the organization. All hat, no cattle. Let’s say you was always competing for “salesman of the year” but every time you got close you would forget your pen or lose your order pad while the other guy was writing order after order. Or say you was in the running for beautiful baby but when the judges came to see you you was wearing Braves pajamas with a hole in the knee. These are the kinds of things along with resting/coasting before the playoffs and not being able to re-engage and play competitive baseball when the uh, chips are down that cause post-season failure. A culture has developed and it is one of touting themselves as champions when there is nothing in the mix that would define them that way. Do the best teams win? We’d say a team that can play their best when all the marbles are on the table and pressure the other (maybe stronger) team to throw the ball away and play some its worst baseball while on the big stage deserves to win and the other one deserves to lose. Those turtlenecks they kept showing on television last week got very tight there at the end.

Sonny Clusters

October 12th, 2012
8:27 pm

Here we are, GBF. We was looking at that sports coat Craig Sager is wearing and it reminds us of the cloth upholstery in a 53 Plymouth. Now, Clusters are controversial this time of year because we start out early saying the team has no playoff credentials and when they get eliminated by a team with the acumen to play in the post-season it defines the organization. All hat, no cattle. Let’s say you was always competing for “salesman of the year” but every time you got close you would forget your pen or lose your order pad while the other guy was writing order after order. Or say you was in the running for beautiful baby but when the judges came to see you you was wearing Braves pajamas with a hole in the knee. These are the kinds of things along with resting/coasting before the playoffs and not being able to re-engage and play competitive baseball when the uh, chips are down that cause post-season failure. A culture has developed and it is one of touting themselves as champions when there is nothing in the mix that would define them that way. Do the best teams win? We’d say a team that can play their best when all the marbles are on the table and pressure the other (maybe stronger) team to throw the ball away and play some its worst baseball while on the big stage deserves to win and the other one deserves to lose. Those turtlenecks they kept showing on television last week got very tight there at the end.

Sonny Clusters

October 12th, 2012
8:28 pm

So powerful it posted twice.

BamaFaninGa

October 12th, 2012
8:42 pm

What it means is that the Braves are NOT in the playoffs AGAIN! Thanks to an ageing 3rd baseman who should have retired years ago, the Braves are at home watching the playoffs on their tv instead of participating in them.

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