The chaos of the division series round is the system working
By Tyler Kepner
It was Saturday morning in Seattle, in the visitors’ dugout of an empty ballpark that was ready to rock. James Click, the general manager of the Houston Astros, stood in the sunshine and considered a simple question: Who was lined up to start Game 4 on Sunday?
The expectation, Click said, was that there would be no fourth game. The plan was for the Astros to spoil the Mariners’ first home playoff game in 21 years and sweep their way into the American League Championship Series. That is what great teams do, and while it took 18 innings for it to happen, that is what the Astros did.
“These guys, they know not to panic,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said that night, after his team’s 1-0 victory. “They don’t get too excited. They don’t get too down. It means a lot. Once you’ve been through it and then you go through it again and again and again, then you sort of expect excellence, and that’s what this team expects out of itself.”
On the National League side of the 2022 playoffs, the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Diego Padres barged into the NLCS, combining to dump three teams with 100 victories and three division winners. The Padres had 89 regular-season wins, two more than the Phillies, making this the first LCS ever in which neither team won 90 games in a full season.
Then again, the 2014 World Series did feature such a matchup: The 88-win San Francisco Giants beat the 89-win Kansas City Royals. That was the second all-wild-card World Series — after the Angels’ win over the Giants in 2002 — and both were seven-game thrillers. Nobody dwelled on the teams’ imperfect paths.
It is possible to overdo it with playoffs; had the players’ union accepted the team owners’ proposal of seven playoff teams per league, every club with a winning record would have qualified for the 2022 Major League Baseball postseason. But playoffs, on principle, are unfair to the very best teams: They’re really a sped-up, second-chance tournament to crown a champion.
The Phillies, especially, have no reason to apologize. All three seasons in franchise history with 100 regular-season victories (1976, 1977 and 2011) ended with a loss in a best-of-five playoff round. It happens sometimes. It’s a feature of the system, not a bug.
Billy Beane, the longtime architect of the Oakland Athletics, put this into perspective a few years ago in an interview behind the batting cage before a playoff game.
“It’s interesting,” Beane said, in a comment I used for “The Grandest Stage,” my new book exploring World Series history. “In the Premier League, if Manchester City wins the league, they win the title. Thirty-eight matches, they win, and they don’t have a tournament.
“But we love tournaments. It’s like the NCAA. We like the NCAA tournament because we love the thought that Princeton can knock Georgetown out in the first round — and sometimes they do.
“More often than not, it’s going to work in our favor. As a smaller team, us and the Rays would prefer that randomness to determine it, because a team like the Dodgers, Astros or Yankees is usually going to be more powerful. So the more teams you add, the more random it’s going to be.”
That randomness is healthy for the sport. The 1950s are often romanticized as a golden era, but that is largely because of the lens through which it is viewed: From the 1949 opener through the 1957 opener, New York teams won 47 World Series games in a row. That could not have been much fun for the rest of the country.
It is still possible to collect multiple championships with the same core group of players — Joe Torre’s Yankees won four and Bruce Bochy’s Giants won three — but what’s wrong with fans in lots of cities having a chance to fly a flag from their front porch?
Since 2000, when the Yankees became the last repeat champion, 12 franchises have won their first title or ended a drought of at least a quarter-century: the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, the 2002 Angels, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the 2005 Chicago White Sox, the 2008 Phillies, the 2010 Giants, the 2015 Royals, the 2016 Chicago Cubs, the 2017 Astros, the 2019 Washington Nationals, the 2020 Dodgers and the 2021 Atlanta Braves.
The Yankees and the Dodgers generate extraordinary revenue and almost always outspend their rivals. Those built-in advantages help them reach the postseason almost every year. The playoff system is the best way to check their supremacy and keep fans in other markets interested.
It is still very hard to win, and money is a huge factor; with payrolls that rank among the top five in the majors, the Padres and the Phillies are only relative underdogs. The New York Mets and the Dodgers could not capitalize on their postseason advantages — extra rest for the Dodgers and home-field edge for both — and San Diego prevailed. The Phillies did the same to St. Louis and Atlanta.
Did the Dodgers and the Braves get stale by waiting five days between the end of the regular season and the start of their division series? Maybe, but how does that explain the Astros’ sweeping the Mariners?
There is still a standard-bearer on display this October, and it is easy to find. Many fans will never forgive the Astros for their sign-stealing scheme in 2017, the year they won their only championship. But they are the dominant team of this era, with a cast that has changed greatly since their tainted title season.
The Padres have gone 24 years since their last appearance in an LCS. The Phillies have gone a dozen. The Astros are an annual visitor, having clinched a sixth consecutive appearance. The Yankees and the Cleveland Guardians have extended their division series to a winner-take-all finale Monday night.
Unpredictability, affirmation of greatness, series that stretch to the limit — this is why we watch, and why these playoffs should be something to celebrate.