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