Two better batches of Braves have since failed to win a round. After their latest exit, the eminent Joe Sheehan wrote in his newsletter: “(The question) I get nearly the most is whether Contender X can really win the World Series. My answer, now rote, annoys everyone: Any team good enough to make the playoffs can win the World Series … That’s maybe the only certainty we have.”
Fun with numbers: Sheehan listed this postseason’s qualifiers and presented “what you get when you scale every playoff team’s season-long record down to five games.” For each of the 12, the result was “3-2.”
These Braves went 104-58, a winning percentage of .642. So: 5 X .642 = 3.21. Rounded down, that’s three wins, two losses. The worst-by-record playoff participant is 84-win Arizona. Rounded up, its five-game expectancy is … three wins, two losses.
Last week, Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs offered a chart of the biggest upset by winning percentage over the 120 years of baseball postseasons. Of the top 10, six have come since 2019. You’ll be happy to know the 2023 Braves-Phillies NLDS is tied for ninth place with, of all things, the 2022 Braves-Phillies NLDS.
But wait. The Braves’ 2021 NLCS victory over the 106-win Dodgers is, percentage-wise, the fourth-biggest upset. That’s three massive surprises for the local club over three postseasons. Why does anything still surprise us?
Wrote Jaffe: “(T)he expanded playoffs has created a growing disconnect between the regular season and the postseason.”
Sheehan: “The postseason is a crapshoot not because one team gets lucky, or another ‘chokes,’ but because over a very small number of baseball games, it’s not unusual for any given team to outplay another.”
It’s fashionable to label the Phillies as “built” for postseason. Bryce Harper, a great player who has been great the past two Octobers, says so himself. Still, his Nationals didn’t win a playoff series in four tries; in three of those four, he had a sub-.760 OPS. Was he not yet built for postseason?
As fate would have it, rival execs voiced the same sentiment after the Braves-Phillies series. Asked how planning for October works, Philly president Dave Dombrowski told the Wall Street Journal: “It’s hard to identify specifically. If it was (easy), everyone would do it.”
Speaking a day later, Anthopoulos said: “I don’t think there’s a formula, right? Because then, whether it’s the Phillies or any other team, they’d be winning the World Series each year, right?”
(For those suggesting the Phillies have cracked the code, they did lose the 2022 World Series. And they haven’t won this one yet.)
The vagaries of playoff baseball come as a delight to an 88-win team hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy. If you’re a 100-win team getting bounced early, the sport seems unfair. It might be. These MLB semifinals include no team with more than 90 wins; over a non-strike/non-COVID season, that’s a first. If Houston doesn’t rally in the ALCS, two wild cards will contest the World Series; that has happened twice.
MLB gives no prize for pre-October excellence. It honors individuals – MVP, Cy Young – but not a team’s work. The NLCS and ALCS champs get trophies for winning seven or nine games. The 2023 Braves, Orioles and Dodgers won 100-plus and got nothing. (Like Betsy Ross, division winners sew their own flags.)
By expanding the playoffs but keeping Round 2 as a best-of-five, the sport is, now more than ever, running on parallel tracks. Oakland GM Billy Beane was quoted by Michael Lewis in “Moneyball” as saying, “My stuff doesn’t work in the playoffs.” Two decades later, it’s hard to know what does.
Except luck. But you can’t plan for luck. It happens, or it doesn’t. That’s not a satisfying explanation, I know. It seems, however, something like the truth.
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