We’re about a week into what has been an entertaining playoffs, full of emerging phenoms like Evan Carter and underrated stars shining on the big stage, like Pablo Lopez.
Instead, due to some unexpected losses early in the Division Series round, the baseball world seems to be focused on another topic. All anyone seems to want to talk about is days off, time off, rust and the inability of baseball’s elite athletes to stay sharp. How is baseball going to solve this horrible playoff format problem, almost everyone wonders – the media and fans, not so much the players or coaches?
It’s a lot of noise, and when you boil the conversation down to its essence, you get this: People are upset that baseball isn’t coddling its best teams enough.
That’s it. This is the basic argument. Phrase it however you want, this is the “problem” we talk about in sport.
The Braves have won 104 games, but overcoming a five-day hiatus is too much to reasonably ask even of a historically epic offense, right? The Dodgers won 100 games, but future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw showed all the sharpness of a worn-out piece of leather because they had a bye in the wild-card round . The Orioles’ incredible 100-loss-to-100-win run was derailed by excessive rest.
Leave me alone.
Ask the Rays or Brewers if they would have preferred to play a Wild Card series or get a second-round bye. Tampa Bay won 99 games in the regular season, but certainly looked like the sloppy Devil Rays of old against the Rangers. Milwaukee won the NL Central title but lost several points in both games as they were ousted by the Diamondbacks.
What was their excuse? They weren’t brilliant either, but both teams went into the playoffs with the same rest as everyone else. Both teams had their aces lined up to start the first game. It didn’t matter.
Sometimes you just have to play better.
Don’t we remember last year when the Mets won 101 games but lost the NL East tiebreaker to the Braves so they had to play a Wild Card Series? They lost this best-of-three to the 89-win Padres, and Mets fans complained that the Braves got the bye.
It’s October. Play better. Sorry.
I can’t help but think about quote from Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own”: “It’s supposed to be difficult. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the difficulty that makes things great.
Tough is what makes October great in baseball.
Seriously, isn’t it a little crazy that we’re here, complaining about the fact that baseball doesn’t coddle its best teams enough, not making it easy enough for them to progress? They can already skip a turn. They already have a few more days to heal and set up their rotation and bullpens. They will already have the opportunity to play more home games in October. The deck is already stacked.
How many benefits do they need? Honestly, the next step would be to give the top two seeds a 1-0 advantage in each playoff series, or have them start each game with a 3-0 lead before the first pitch. This sounds like baseball blasphemy, but the powers that be have already decided to magically put runners on second in extra innings, so nothing is really sacred.
Want to move forward in October? Play better.
Look at how the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles lost. The Dodgers lost because Kershaw was terrible against a divisional foe. He made his last regular season start on September 30, meaning he had six days between starts. Kershaw had a 2.23 ERA over the final two months of the season; his days off between departures in August and September: 5, 6, 5, 6, 10, 6, 6. Huh.
The Braves, with 104 wins, were shut out in Game 1 by the Phillies, with 90 wins. The gap between these two teams, however, is not comparable to what these records seem to indicate. Over the final 105 games of the season, the Braves won 71, the Phillies 65. From July 25 through the end of the regular season, the Braves won 40, the Phillies 37. And there you have it: the Phillies have built a game plan – and a pitching list – specifically to target Atlanta’s lineup if they meet in the playoffs, as detailed in this fantastic piece by Matt Gelb in The Athletic.
The Orioles are a fantastic story, but they also have a roster full of talented youngsters with little playoff experience. And remember, the Rangers were neck and neck with the O’s for the best record in the AL for most of the season, before a slump knocked them out of that race. Now they’re playing like the offensive juggernaut they’ve been for most of the year. Yes, the Orioles are the #1 seed in the AL and they’re in big trouble, but it’s not like they’re losing to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County here, folks.
So yes, the three baseball teams with more than 100 wins are in trouble. Their playoff lives hang in the balance, a stunning turn of events after regular seasons spent in pursuit of excellence.
But that’s not the format’s fault. Excessive rest is not the root of the problem.
The teams that play the best in the playoffs will advance. As has always been the case for October baseball. More coddling of the format is not the solution. To open the Division Series round, the Braves, Dodgers and Orioles haven’t played like the best teams in baseball, and so they are behind in their series. It’s so simple.
Play better, move forward. Don’t play nice, go home.