December 2, 2022

Rosenthal: Too early to cite new format as reason for MLB playoff upsets


The question is going to be asked, and I’m not sure there’s an answer, at least not in the first year of a new one, extended post-season format.

Are wild-card qualifiers still having it too easy?

The new format, with two sets of best-of-three wildcards replacing the single knockout game that existed from 2012 to 2021, was meant to be more onerous for wildcard teams. Over time, it might turn out that way. But so far, no.

Which means one thing: the format is going to be scrutinized, even if everyone has had seven months to prepare, even if the losers have played too badly to complain.

Three of the four wildcard series ended with the lower seeds triumphing, despite playing every game on the road. Now in the Division Series, the top seeds are a combined 6-8. Both NL series ended in upsets, the 87 wins Phillies knock down the 101-win brave and the victory of 89 padres eliminating 111-win Dodgers.

In the AL, the 106 wins Astros swept all 90 wins sailorsbut only after Yordan Alvarez bailed them out twice with home runs and Jeremy Pena hit a shot in the 18th inning in Game 3. The only streak between the division champions is also upside down, with the 92 win Guardians tops 99 wins Yankeestwo games against one.

All this upheaval is rather dramatic and, depending on your rooting interests, quite compelling. As opposed to the NFL and NBA The playoffs, which usually yield predictable results, playoff baseball has an NCAA basketball tournament vibe where anything can happen.

Still, for a sport keen to honor the teams that sail best through the 162-game regular season, will a National League championship series between the fifth and sixth seeds really be desirable? The No. 6 upstart Phillies wouldn’t even have qualified for the playoffs under the old format. Still, they made the NLCS when three 100-win teams, the DishesBraves and Dodgers, didn’t.

Only four clubs with 100 victories since 1999 have won the World Series: the Yankees in 2009, the Cubs in 2016, the Astros in 2017 and the Red Sox in 2018. Maybe A executive Billy Beane was right when he called the playoffs a “crapshoot” in “Moneyball,” adding, “My s— doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is luck. Then again, nearly 20 years after the book was published, isn’t it time for at least one of those smart guys leading a team to figure out how to crack the October code?

The Padres’ victory over the Dodgers marked the largest regular-season win differential for one club advancing over another in the playoffs since the 1906 World Series, when the 93 wins White socks beat the Cubs’ 116 wins. The Dodgers, for all their regular-season power, remain the posters of modern playoff disappointment. They reached the playoffs 10 straight years, but their only World Series title came after the shortened 2020 regular season.

The new, expanded format is an easy target for critics – include more teams and play back-to-back short series, and you’re inviting the kind of chaos the sport is experiencing. But Braves manager Brian Snitker refused to buy into a reporter’s idea that the DS would be fairer if they were the best of the seven.

“As far as I know, the Division Series has been five games for a long time,” Snitker said. “You know what, I think the system is fine.”

Again, this is the first year of the new format, too early to judge. Snitker and his players acknowledged that the Braves had been outplayed. They refused to blame the team’s lackluster performance on the five-day layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of the Division Series. And just so no one forgets, the threat of an underdog getting hot has been around since the league introduced the wild card in 1995 and even the extra game in 2012.

Under the previous format, and excluding the unusual 2020 season, the winners of the qualifying matches went 9-9 against the top seeds in the Division Series. The 2014 World Series was a confrontation between two wildcard teams, with the victory of 88 giants defeat all 89 wins Royals.

Padres manager Bob Melvin, when asked if wildcard teams gain an advantage by entering the playoffs in “playoff mode,” said, “It’s always been like this where teams that come in through the joker are not only playing with intensity until the end, but they are also playing well to enter. And there’s probably something to say that when you’re playing well and you have a lot of confidence, you get into the playoffs, then there’s not as much expectation of you, so maybe that’s a good way to proceed. Still, you have to play another trick. Obviously, everyone aspires to win the division, to have some free time. But there could be a little something to this (wildcard advantage). “

Ah, the dismissal. Its effect on the top seeds will certainly cause some discussion, but as Melvin indicated, the downtime is intended to benefit those clubs, giving their pitching teams a chance to rest and some of their injured players a chance to regain health. The pause in the new format is longer than it was in the old, but not by much; the league previously staggered the debuts of the AL and NL Division Series, giving a league’s division champions three days off and the other four.

So, big problem or not?

“I mean, if you want to use that as an excuse, then you can,” Dodgers Mookie Bets said. “But it’s definitely an excuse… Nobody cares.” Nobody really cares at the end of the day.

The Braves, too, did not want to participate in such discussions.

I asked two of their stars, Dansby Swanson and Matt Olson, the impact not only of the layoff, but also of the Mets’ season-long pursuit by the Braves for the NL East title. A year ago, the Dodgers burned out in the playoffs after failing in their epic run with the Giants for the NL West title. The Dodgers had to go the wild card route while the Braves didn’t, but the regular season record may have been similar.

Snitker said before the series that his position players practiced batting several times during their layoff, headed bases and performed defensive drills. He likened the workouts to a spring training atmosphere, saying, “It’s been good. It was really good.

But was it?

“I’m sure you could probably point your finger at things,” Olson said. “I feel like we all felt rested and ready for the series. It’s not like we underestimated this team. We all know the kind of talent they have. They just had hot and stayed hot during the series. And we kind of struggled to get things done.

Matt Olson hits in the first inning against the Phillies. (Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports)

Swanson added: “I really think they have completely outdone us. I don’t know the reason. I don’t know if it’s because of the things you said. That could be it. I think it’s kind of a learning experience for everyone, the situation on how to manage free time a little better… I don’t know. I don’t want to invent anything. It all sounds like an excuse. At the end of the day, they surpassed us.

Heck, even if one accepts the apologies as valid, the four lowest seeds in each league face a greater handicap – the need to play an extra round. Three of the four wildcard series only required two games, so the toll of the pitching staff may not have been as large as expected. Still, the Phillies, Guardians and Mariners opened the DS with their No. 3 starters. The Padres opened with their No. 4.

And yet, the Phillies rotation was still in better shape than the Braves, who started a weakened flu Max fried in game 1; Spencer Strider in his first appearance in 26 days in Game 3; and discoloration, almost 39 years old charlie morton in Game 4. Similarly, a Padres rotation with Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove was perhaps better prepared for a five-game series than the Dodgers, who opted to start a not-fully-stretched series Tony Gonsolin in game 3.

The Dodgers entered the playoffs believing their 13-man staff was the strongest they had assembled in Andrew Friedman’s eight years as president of baseball operations. But depth offers a greater advantage in a best-of-seven than in a best-of-five. The Padres possess top-notch talent not only in their rotation, but also in their bullpen with Josh Hader, Robert Suarez and co.

The Phillies, meanwhile, had Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola starting games 2 and 3, and a bullpen strong enough for manager Rob Thomson to maneuver with confidence. They also became healthy at the right time. Wheeler was out with a right forearm tightness Aug. 25-Sept. 21, reliever Seranthony Dominguez with right triceps pain from August 21 to September 11.

The Braves had some bad luck with Fried at less than full power, but they didn’t exactly perform at peak efficiency. Snitker failed to fire Strider fast enough in Game 3. Ronald Acuna Jr. was a mess in right field in Game 4. Swanson finished the series 2 for 16, austin riley 1 for 15, Michael Harris II 1 for 14.

“I think all credit goes to the Phillies,” Snitker said. “They came here, got hot at the right time and played a hell of a series.”

It’s baseball. Post-season baseball. And if the new format makes October even less predictable, then let’s see the smart guys, with all their models and algorithms, finally come up with solutions.

The answer is always the same: play better.

(Mookie Betts top photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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