How upset should we be that the sixth seed from the NL playoff bracket (the Philadelphia Phillies) has advanced to the World Series? Probably not as mad as fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, but those fans would be excused for wondering what was the point of that long regular season. The reality of baseball is that the worst team in the league can get hot for 10 days and win three series, regardless of who they are facing and whether they are at home or on the road. That likely means there is no way to have twelve teams in the playoffs and not end up with a fluky outcome more often than not.
The upside of this is that teams like the Dodgers, regardless of how dominant they are in the regular season, will find it virtually impossible to anticipate where they will be vulnerable come October. That introduces an element of randomness that should diminish the advantages of huge payrolls. The flip side is that sheer competence is likely to take a back seat to luck or streakiness, much as happens in the NCAA basketball tournament. Some fans feel that the Cinderella element in the college tournament make it the best event in sports. But there is no doubt that, between the inclusiveness of the format and the randomness of the outcomes, the regular season is diminished when it comes to determining a national champion.
College sports have proved willing to make that tradeoff because it maximizes revenues. Baseball, though, has long prided itself on how the grind of the 162-game season weeds out inferior teams. Is that still the case if the team with the 11th-best record in MLB wins the World Series?
Clearly, MLB has been tweaking the playoff format to find the sweet spot between maintaining interest for as many teams as possible (like the Phillies) while still rewarding full-season excellence.
The first-round bye for the top two division winners should have been a step in that direction, but both such teams in the NL lost in the first round to teams with far inferior records, which suggests that the benefits of a bye might be diminished by the rust that results.
The reality is that there is probably no such sweet spot, for the very reason stated above: The randomness of small samples of games that is unique to baseball. That brings us back to our original dilemma; without the expanded playoff format, the Phillies would likely have punted the season when they were eight games under .500 on May 30. There’s no way, though, to give the regular season meaning for the Phillies and other teams like them who stumbled out of the gate, without creating the possibility that one of those teams will win the World Series.
The reality is that this season was more or less a best-case scenario. The Phillies, after all, won 87 games. In 2021, the third NL wild card spot would have gone to Cincinnati, the winner of 83 games. Even worse, in 2017 only five AL teams posted winning records, which would have meant a playoff spot for the 80-82 Royals.
With the more balanced schedule taking effect next year, this sort of outcome will be even more likely. Cleveland, for example, was essentially a .500 team outside its own division this year. With only 52 intra-division games next year, the Guardians might have a much worse record, but still win their division. Plus, with more interleague games, it becomes more likely for one league to not have enough teams with winning records to fill six playoff slots, making a scenario like the 2017 Royals making the playoffs almost inevitable.
And, sooner or later, one of those 80-82 teams will win the World Series. That’s the “beauty” of baseball.