Embrace the chaos of the 2022 MLB postseason. Enjoy the upsets, the unlikely heroes, and seeing 100-win teams going down in a October inferno.
Your attitude on this topic probably depends on your personal rooting interests. So I wouldn’t expect much cherish-the-postseason sentiment from fans of the Dodgers, Braves, Mets and Cardinals. Their teams were expected to win but got knocked out early. The Yankees could be next; they’ll have to fend off the Guardians in Monday’s decisive ALDS Game 5.
The losing hurts. Especially when you’re expected to go far into the postseason and emerge with the World Series Trophy.
The Dodgers are the perfect example of October Madness and the obvious disconnect between the steady march-routine of regular-season baseball and the raucous, random nature of postseason ball.
Over the last 10 seasons the Dodgers have won more regular-season games than any team in the majors and have a winning percentage (.613) that’s 48 points better than the No. 2 team, the Yankees. The Dodgers have made it to the postseason in all 10 years, getting there nine times as the NL West champion.
This season the Dodgers won 111 games, the fourth-most in a season in baseball history. They led the majors in runs scored, fewest runs allowed and had MLB’s best run differential by a team in 83 years.
And now they’re …. gone. Bounced out of the best-of-five NLDS by San Diego in four games. The Dodgers finished 22 games ahead of the Padres in the NL West standings this year and won 14 of 19 games in the season series between the teams.
In the final days of the regular season, when asked about the pressure of expectations put on the Dodgers, manager Dave Roberts said this: “If the Dodgers don’t win this season, there’s a subset that’s going to feel that we choked, we aren’t a good team, it was a lost season, that it doesn’t matter.”
Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman added: “I just don’t see the world (as) that black and white. It’s absolutely our ultimate goal, to win a championship. In October, you need really talented players. You also need good fortune.”
The Dodgers collapsed in a one-and-done series for multiple reasons: a frayed rotation, a raggedy bullpen, off bullpen choices by Roberts and the Dodgers’ analytics people who script the relief-pitcher plans in advance of the game. (So stupid.) There was shaky defense by shortstop Trea Turner and too many quiet bats – especially Mookie Betts, Justin Turner, Will Smith, Gavin Lux, Chris Taylor, Trayce Thompson and Cody Bellinger. At one point in the series the Dodgers went 0 for 20 with runners in scoring position.
The Padres bullpen — handled brilliantly by manager Bob Melvin — chewed up the Dodger bats through16 scoreless innings of relief, allowing just six hits and striking out 20.
“We just didn’t hit, man,” Betts said. “That’s on us. That’s on the hitters’ side. We didn’t execute any type of plan or anything. During the season we did.”
(The Cardinals know all about that.)
The Padres won on mostly-good starting pitching, their crazy-good fireproof bullpen, timely hitting, and the October surprise provided by center fielder Trent Grisham. He had an awful .626 OPS during the regular season but has been San Diego’s best hitter in the postseason, batting .381 with three homers and a 1.328 OPS in seven games.
We shouldn’t be stunned by Grisham’s out-of-nowhere heroics, or Harrison Bader becoming the Yankees’ postseason Home Run King so far in 2022. These star-is-born moments are hardly abnormal in postseason baseball. And there’s nothing abnormal about this:
— The three NL division champs – Dodgers, Braves, Cardinals – were shoved out of the playoffs without much of a hassle.
— Three 100-win teams in the NL: Dodgers (111), Braves (101) and Mets (101) are out of the tournament. And the 99-win AL East kingpin Yankees must defeat Cleveland tonight to stay alive in the tournament.
— Through Sunday, teams with the lesser regular-season record had gone 12-11 against their more successful regular-season opponents – and had won four of seven series. It would be five of eight series if the Guardians prevail over the Yankees.
— The Phillies finished third in the NL East with 87 wins but are still playing. The teams that finished ahead of them (Braves, Mets) each won 14 more regular season games than Philadelphia … and they’re out.
With so many betting-favorite teams getting tossed out of the competition early on, there’s some growling over the new 12-team postseason format.
The main gripe is how division winners that received first-round byes – Braves, Dodgers, Yankees, Astros – had to sit around and wait for several days until opening play in the division–round stage. They supposedly collected rust and dust, lost competitive sharpness, and generally became lax.
Well, that’s their problem. If they aren’t ready to go, then why should we feel sorry for them? Houston sat around … and then swept the Mariners in three straight close games. The Yankees are being pushed by Cleveland, but their .177 batting average in the first four games can happen at any time during the regular season or playoffs. It’s baseball, mangs.
And we can trace the demise of three power teams – Dodgers, Braves and Mets – to substandard starting pitching, or bullpen blowups, small-sample emptiness from highly regarded hitters, or managers making bone-headed decisions at the most untimely moments.
Much of the damage was self-inflicted and had nothing to do with the schedule that gave the better teams any number of built-in advantages – like having the home-field cushion and the luxury of going into the division round with homefield set rotation and rested bullpen.
The “bye” teams have an edge that should make a positive difference in the next round: a team that sits out the wild-card round can use their No. 1 starting pitcher on full rest – twice – in the division round. And unless weather-related postponements become a factor, a team that advances out of wild-card play won’t be able to go with its best starter twice in the division round.
That didn’t help the Braves against a confident Phillies outfit because manager Brian Snitker made some puzzling choices for his starting pitchers, including a puzzling call to begin the series with a flu-weakened Max Fried in Game 1. Fried was terrible, and an easy target, and Snitker compounded his wrong choice by staying with Fried for too long. Snitker went with Spencer Strider straight off the IL in Game 3, and then started an injured Charlie Morton on in Game 4. But the format had nothing to do with that; Snitker defaulted on the advantage with his personnel choices. Blame him — and a .180 team batting average — and not the schedule.
And in the Mets’ case, if so much was predicated on the dominance of starting pitchers Max Scherzer and Jacob de Grom, it was a mini-disaster when Scherzer got shredded by the Padres for four homers and seven earned runs in Game 1 of the wild-card round. In a best of three series, it’s a helluva blow to have your ace lose Game 1. The percentage of probability of a full Mets’ recovery was lowered substantially. Again: not the format. Just a horrible start by an ace.
And teams screw up. That’s baseball. The Cardinals won the NL Central, closed the regular season on a Wednesday and went right into postseason play on Friday. They weren’t sitting around, with cobwebs draped over them. The Cards had their preferred rotation set up, and the bullpen was fresh. They had two MVP candidates (Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado) plus a red–hot franchise icon (Albert Pujols.) But the offense crashed against the Phillies – three runs and a .185 batting average in two games.
Closer Ryan Helsley jammed a finger on Tuesday and was physically good to go on Friday in Game 1 with the Cards leading 2-0. But manager Oli Marmol overdid it by pushing Helsley into a second inning of work, a risky decision that blew up when Helsley’s finger stiffened during a long ninth inning. Helsley’s control went haywire, he was absolutely toast, and Marmol failed to react in time. Not only that but the Cardinals’ acclaimed defense failed in the ninth inning of that debacle, a 6-3 loss. The series was over. Oh, the Cardinals could have stayed alive by winning Game 2, but the aftershock of Game 1 was too much to overcome. The Cardinals were dazed and non-competitive offensively in the 2-0 loss that terminated their season. The pressure paralyzed STL hitters who didn’t know what to do to change everything. It was not a good look for the Redbirds.
Every winning team has a story and reasons that explain their success. Every losing team has a story and reasons that explain their failure. So let’s just call it for what it is: you either get the job done, handle the pressure and win – or yield too easily, crack under pressure, and lose.
There’s no reason to whine about the new postseason schedule. First of all, it’s silly to base a judgment of the new format on the results of only one postseason. Let’s see how it plays out over the next several seasons.
And second, surprising results are nothing new. This trend has been going on for a long time now. This notion that the best teams are getting a raw deal with the new setup … please. Stop it.
More often than not, the best regular-season teams aren’t the best postseason teams. The postseason tournament is a separate competition that determines the champion. It’s no different than the men’s NCAA basketball tournament, the Stanley Cup playoffs or other team sports I could mention.
— In the MLB wild-card era, which began in 1995, a total of 31 teams have won at least 100 regular–season games. (It’s 32 counting this year’s Houston team, but the Astros are still playing.) Of the 31 ball clubs that won 100-plus games, only five won the World Series. And only six others made it to the World Series before losing.
— In this 21st century of ours, 15 different teams have won at least one World Series. And 21 other NL or AL teams have won at least one league pennant.
— No team has won the World Series in consecutive seasons since the 1998-1999-2000 Yankees. No NL team has won back-to-back World Series since Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in 1975-76. And as Jayson Stark (The Athletic) noted, before that no NL team repeated since the 1921-22 New York Giants.
Baseball has many problems. But the number of teams that have a shot at playing deep-October baseball is impressive and should be applauded instead of condemned.
During the regular season huge-market teams have every advantage that an owner, GM or manager could want including massive payrolls and frequent access to the best and most expensive players. The big clubs can paper over their flaws with additional investments – via trades for players with heavy contracts. There are exceptions, but lower-payroll clubs can’t expect to stay with the big clubs over the course of 162 games.
The postseason provides the underdogs with an opportunity to generate quick and devastating lightning strikes in a short competition. In a two-game, five-game or even seven-game series there will be instances of poor starting pitching, freezing bats, bullpen mishaps, baserunning blunders and sloppy defense. And that creates instant emergencies that aren’t easy to fix on the fly.
In the regular season, even the best of the best teams go through unimpressive, uncharacteristic stretches of play. How do you explain the Dodgers going 1-5 against the Pirates and 3-3 vs. the Nationals this season? Or the Yankees going 9-20 over a 29-game sputtering, summer stretch? The Astros had a 2-7 stretch in April and a 2-5 stretch in June. The Braves were 23-27 at the end of May. It wasn’t anything hideous, but the Mets stalled during parts of August and again in September.
Ah, but during the regular season the big-boy clubs have time to recover and get past their troubles. Not in October. In a short postseason series, you don’t have much time to rebound. You can’t survive a lousy start (or two), the bullpen detonations, a muscular bat turned weak, or a couple of stupid decisions by the manager. And before you know it, the season is over and you’re on the way home and you’re still trying to figure out what happened. In a short postseason series, a good-great team’s regular-season ecosystem can be destroyed in a hurry.
If the best regular-season teams consistently owned the postseason, how much fun would that be? Not much.
As J.J. Cooper wrote at Baseball America:
“If baseball focused even more heavily on the 162-game season to determine champions, much of what we focus on right now would be rendered pointless. If you are worried about teams failing to try under the present system, imagine what it would be like in the AL or NL West without a multi-tiered playoff system and wild cards?
“At the end of July, the Dodgers led the National League West by 12 games. The division race was over, and if the focus was the regular season, it was time for the Padres to fold up and go home. But with wild cards to chase, San Diego added Juan Soto, Josh Hader, Josh Bell and more.
“That did nothing to help them catch the Dodgers—the Padres finished 22 games back. But it did allow San Diego to prevail in a five-game series where randomness played a much larger role.
“The Phillies kept adding to their team at the trade deadline as well, even though on Aug. 2, Philadelphia was 10 games out in the NL East. The Mariners added Luis Castillo, even though they trailed the Astros by 11 games.
“This is the point of wild cards and expanded playoffs. Big spending teams have plenty of ways to buy success during the regular season, but they can much more easily be eliminated in a short postseason series. If the focus is the regular season, success becomes much more a matter of who has the biggest payroll. If the playoffs are expanded, more teams have a reason to keep trying, and fanbases maintain hope.”
As Jayson Stark pointed out: Tom Brady has won seven Super Bowls since any baseball team last won back-to-back World Series. LeBron James has played in 10 NBA Finals since any baseball team last won back-to-back World Series. Baseball’s stretch of 22 seasons without a repeat champion is easily the longest in any of the four major professional sports.
Why is that a bad thing? It isn’t. Dynasties can be great. They’re rich with histories, and inspirational in setting the bar for future generations.
But I’ve really come to appreciate baseball’s unpredictable, often stunning, postseasons. This is healthy for the sport. And good for fans. Unless, of course, their favorite team loses and it’s time to blame the format.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.