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Life is unfair, but the MLB playoff format is fine

Or “Major League Baseball should NOT adopt a Presidents’ trophy for the best record in the league”

Dodgers defeat the Rockies in their final game of the season
It was all high fives - until it wasn’t.
Photo by David Crane/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

[When you have the opportunity to reference “The Princess Bride,” one is best served to do it every single time.]

Introduction

Generally, no one on the Dodgers side covered themselves in glory during the 2022 NLDS, myself included. I defaulted to snark when presented with the Dodgers' anemic play against the Padres on Twitter. I even broke my own rule and purchased a trial of YouTubeTV so I could watch the games live. That decision turned out to be a poor one.

In my defense, those were some mean geese and foie gras is amazing. Yes, I know how it is made; I don’t care.

In any event, I did find it amusing that the two fanbases were arguing over who got to claim said loose goose with the Padres ultimately prevailing. I would have led chants of “Loose Goose” in San Diego, but that might just only make me happy. In any event, the Padres’ goose is cooked, but I also have to ask if someone prepared the liver properly.

A writer’s worst nightmare

It was not my finest hour and I freely admit that. But I did not post anything that would cover me in lasting ridicule. Admittedly, my biggest fear when publishing essays for the site is that I come up with something so bonkers, it goes viral for a bad reason, leading to infamy and having to wear that infamy going forward.

Some of us though were not so lucky. The morning before the Dodgers were eliminated by the Padres, Paul Thornton of the Los Angeles Times wrote an article that will probably and properly follow him for a while. The tweet promoting the article did him no favors.

Now to be kind to Mr. Thorton, the tweet cites a single paragraph of the article, which meanders from topic to topic, in an almost-stream of consciousness type fashion describing how well the 2022 Dodgers played and what Dodger fans have gone through, especially sans cable access. In the most charitable light, it reads as agita by a fan who is afraid that his team is about to be eliminated in ignominious fashion — which is fair enough.

As we all know, the Dodgers shattered the 139-year-old franchise record, by having the best pitching in baseball (by allowing the fewest runs in baseball) and by having the best offense in baseball (by scoring the most runs in baseball). In my view, Mr. Thorton is on solid ground until the literal next sentence of his essay when he detours into the absurd, only to return to maudlin post-traumatic stress afterward, but the damage to his credibility is done:

If there ever was a case for canceling the playoffs and awarding a championship because one team was so clearly better than all the others, our 2022 Los Angeles Dodgers would be it. For the love of St. Vincent Scully, they won 22 more games than the second-place team in their division, which just isn’t done.

And that gets at the source of our angst as fans, the reason why so much of L.A. is collectively freaking out right now, lurching between paroxysms of elation and disappointment. The Dodgers’ success over a grinding six-month season risks being tossed aside if they lose a best-of-five series to that second-place team, the San Diego Padres. It’s akin to winning a 26.2-mile marathon by an hour, then having to beat the runners-up at a 100-meter sprint to be declared champion.

If I were being snarky, I would say: “Tell me you do not understand how the MLB playoff works, without admitting that you do not understand how the MLB playoffs works.” But I will be charitable. It is not as if I do not understand where he is coming from; I just categorically disagree with him. And most of the internet did too.

The Dodgers had every postseason benefit available to them. It did not help

The amount of ridicule that these paragraphs from the article and tweet generated frankly was justified. Normally, I do not pay attention to what our sister site, McCovey Chronicles, has to say about anything. That remark is not a slight, if the Giants are not playing the Dodgers, they could be on the moon for as little as I care. Honestly, the ridicule generated was understated considering the gravity of the faux pas. It’s not every day you can tar a fanbase with someone else’s article, but there you are.

I make this assertion considering how ridiculously wrong the premise in the paragraphs from the article is. For starters, the Dodgers received every reward they were entitled to under the rules of the postseason based on their regular season performance:

  • The team got to skip the wild card series.
  • The team would have home-field advantage for as long as the Dodgers were in the playoffs.
  • The Dodgers could rest their players and decide their roster based on who won the 4 (New York Mets) vs. 5 (San Diego Padres) matchup.

No, the brackets would not be re-seeded after the Wild Card, but that fact was known well before the playoffs started. Personally, as someone who has to coordinate last-minute travel, especially during the playoffs, the stability of having binary options is helpful for planning. Plus, I understand the argument that fans like to chart out exactly what a team’s postseason route through the tournament will be.

Moreover, Mr. Thornton’s argument conveniently forgets even recent Dodgers’ history. It is not as if the 2017 team was a slouch, even though the final margin of division victory was 11 games (which is smaller than you might remember, thanks to a 12-17 month of September, punctuated by an eleven-game losing streak). That team nearly won it all for reasons we try not to talk about.

The 2019 team had a final divisional victory mark of twenty-one games...before Dave Roberts overmanaged his bullpen to bungle a 2-1 series lead in the Division Series into a five-game loss to the Washington Nationals. That team was special and fun (remember all those walk-offs) and it was done within a week.

Do I need to go on?

If Mr. Thornton (or you) does not like playoff baseball, he should outright say he does not like playoff baseball. That statement is a fair one. The dichotomy of success between the regular season and the postseason, especially when managed by Roberts will be discussed at a later date.

The winner of each league has not directly advanced to the World Series since 1969 when the first Championship Series was held. And, yes, there have been more rounds of playoffs added since. If you wish to debate the merits of those additions, that is fine. But the playoff horse is out of the playoff barn and it is never going back, partly due to owner greed, partly to incentivize more interest in the postseason. A bloated postseason favors mediocrity, so I am hopeful that this expansion is the last postseason expansion we have for a good while.

Yes, the 2022 regular season Dodgers were a fun treat to behold winning in ways that we had not become accustomed to...provided that you were not looking for a one-run victory (16-15) or an extra-inning victory (6-9 in extra innings).

Yes, the baseball regular season is a marathon, a half-year-long grind in which when the leaves finally start to change, the cream of the crop is cut from the chaff and a tournament is had to declare a champion of the League. Yes, you can be successful in the regular season marathon and have all that success wiped away by one mistake (2015), poor managerial decisions (2019), or the team not hitting or being outplayed (2022) in less than a week. That’s playoff baseball; it is pain and misery for the unprepared or unlucky and it is a rapturous delight for those who progress within the tournament. It is a feature, not a bug.

The more rounds of playoffs you have, the more likely you are going to get an upset. I do not follow college basketball, but I am fully aware that this assertion is a feature and not a bug of the college basketball postseason tournament. Heck, even in the college baseball tournament, the brackets will surprise you and an unlikely champion will emerge from time to time. Case in point, 14 years ago the Fresno State Bulldogs, the equivalent of a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament, clawed its way to the school’s only national championship in a men’s sport.

And as much as we would not like to discuss it, Cinderella runs are part of tournament play. Need I remind everyone about the 1988 Dodgers, who should have been steamrolled by both the Mets and Athletics on paper? There are countless other examples involving other teams, some from the north, including the current NL pennant holder: the Philadelphia Phillies.

What have you done for me lately? Baseball doesn’t need a Presidents’ Trophy

The above statement is the ultimate cruelty of an early postseason exit — no one really cares what you did to get there.

Is anyone talking about Paul Goldschmidt’s very good year? No. Why? He did bupkus in the playoffs.

Is anyone talking about Aaron Judge’s historic regular season right now? No. Why? He did bupkus in the playoffs.

And so on and so on and so on. Regular season accomplishments are fine and dandy, but world champions are crowned in the fall, and you either win or go home. Freddie Freeman said it best on September 28, after the 107th win, which broke the franchise record:

“Once Oct. 11 hits, no one’s going to care how many wins you had in the regular season,” Freeman said. “That’s the big thing. We’re here, we’re in the regular season, we might as well get as many wins as we possibly can. You’ve got to play good baseball from start to finish to be able to accomplish something like this and we’ve been doing it.”

[emphasis added.]

The Dodgers, for all of their accomplishments, did not play good baseball from start to finish starting on October 12 and by October 16, they were done.

What Mr. Thorton is describing in his essay is something that I know quite well in my dalliances with professional hockey: The Presidents’ Trophy, the award given to the team with the best regular season record. No hockey fan alive would equate that award with winning Lord Stanley’s Cup. And for the record, the Florida Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy in the 2021-22 season...for all the good that did them. They were thrashed and swept in the second round by the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, who were dethroned by the Colorado Avalanche in an entertaining Stanley Cup Final.

If baseball wants to institute something like that award, fine. I have been to museums of other teams and I have seen the dearth of actual awards in some of them. If you want a laugh, visit the San Diego Padres’ museum. I do not say this suggestion to be mean. For a single room, it is quite nice.

Inside the Padres Hall of Fame. Petco Park. September 11, 2022.
Inside the Padres Hall of Fame. Petco Park. September 11, 2022.
Michael Elizondo / TrueBlueLA

But when you have nothing to truly celebrate, you take what you can get and maybe you glom on to the success of others, even on a tangential basis. I would expect the recent NLDS success to get its own corner in the Padres’ museum.

I do not want the Dodgers to fill up the trophy cases inside Dodger Stadium with awards that ultimately are not championship awards. If other teams want to post banners related to playoff appearances and the like, that is on them. You can put up as much bronze as you like; it does not shimmer as brightly as gold.

If Mr. Thornton was right...

Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four
Must be nice.
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

I loathe to say the following but if we were to follow Mr. Thornton’s reasoning, there has been one team in these playoffs that has played to its potential in both the regular and postseason: the Houston Astros.

Houston is 8-1 this postseason. A top seed should play like one. That statement applies to all sports. There’s something romantic about upsets because we know they are not supposed to happen. We remember David, as in versus Goliath, because Goliath undoubtedly squashed a whole bunch of little guys along the way.

As of this essay, the outcome of the 2022 World Series is not known. But it seems to me that there’s one team that lived up to the hype this October and unfortunately, for a lot of people involved, that team was in Houston. That said, I do not think that anyone is seeking to give Houston a title by acclimation. If the Astros run the table, they deserve to be the champion. (Provided that trash cans are not involved...again.)

That setup is how this postseason is: be the first to win 11 (or 13, depending on circumstance) games, and you are remembered forever. If that romp serves as a cap to a successful campaign, all the better. But on the flip slide, if you cannot win those 11 (or 13) games, you better ask yourself why and hope you did not earn a nickname, like The One-Win team.