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If the MLB Playoffs Are Random, Why Do We Watch?

This postseason has reaffirmed that a short series can’t actually determine which of two baseball teams is better. But if that’s the case, what meaning does October baseball really hold?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s upset season in Major League Baseball, and people are upset. Although the New York Yankees’ ALDS Game 5 victory over the Cleveland Guardians on Tuesday staved off one potential underdog win, four of the top six regular-season teams—all but America’s sweethearts, the Yanks and the Astros—have been eliminated from the postseason, while two of the bottom three teams in the playoff field remain. Of the eight matchups so far, only three—Guardians vs. Rays, Astros vs. Mariners, and Yankees vs. Guardians—have gone to the team with more regular-season wins. The third Yankees-Astros ALCS in six years—and the sixth straight Astros LCS appearance, an AL record—is a faceoff of favorites, but the Senior Circuit side of the bracket is chaos. There, the two NL playoff teams with the fewest regular-season wins (the 87-win Phillies and the 89-win Padres) are meeting in the NLCS, while the four clubs with the most (the 111-win Dodgers, the 101-win Braves and Mets, and the 93-win Cardinals) have headed home.

This exodus of super teams probably isn’t the new playoff format’s fault; if anything, it’s an artifact of MLB’s historically stratified standings, which have served up more hundred-win teams to be beaten, as well as these playoffs’ low scoring environment, which makes comebacks and upsets more likely. Although the league’s playoff field expanded from 10 to 12 teams this season, the best-of-three wild-card round that sent the Mets and Cardinals packing was less underdog-friendly than the one-game play-ins wild-card teams faced before, and the best-of-five division series format that did in the modern-record-run-differential Dodgers and defending-champion Braves was nothing new. Even so, the early exits of the NL’s elite have sparked a new round of an old discussion.

On the surface, this conversation concerns the specifics of MLB’s playoff format, and whether its provisions for home-field advantage and (for the top two seeds in each league) first-round byes sufficiently reward superior regular-season teams. On a deeper, almost existential level, though, the conversation circles a stickier subject: the inherent inability of baseball’s playoffs to determine the best teams—and why we watch them anyway. Now as ever, investing one’s hopes in an MLB team’s playoff fortunes requires a cognitive dissonance, or a willful forgetting of the fact that in baseball, the title typically doesn’t go to the best team. To catch playoff fever in October, you have to take the baseball blue pill and believe whatever you want to believe about what winning means.

It’s difficult to convey how capricious the MLB playoffs are; few fans really want to know how deep the rabbit hole goes. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently invoked Billy Beane’s classic “crapshoot” and “my shit doesn’t work in the playoffs” lines from Moneyball. In the next sentence, though, he added, “Then again, nearly 20 years after the book’s publication, isn’t it time for at least one of those smart guys running a team to figure out how to crack the October code?” Given 20 years or 200, the playoffs, as currently constituted, can’t be cracked; the structure of the sport won’t allow it. At best, the coins clubs are flipping can be weighted a tad, and the odds of victory can be bumped up by a few percentage points.

That’s a hard truth to swallow, prone as we are to a self-serving bias toward attributing success solely to our own efforts. Teams that advance often look like they couldn’t have been beaten. Yet at this time of year, just being better isn’t enough. It’s almost unheard of for a playoff team to be a 70–30 favorite in any given game; 60–40 favorites in a series (roughly this postseason’s pre-series odds for the Mets over the Padres, the Astros over the Mariners, and the Dodgers over the Padres) is about as lopsided as October baseball gets.

In the NBA playoffs, one 2017 study suggests, the better team advances in a best-of-seven series about 80 percent of the time. To achieve that same success rate in MLB—in light of the far greater number of games it takes for a baseball team’s record to reflect its true talent—would require an obviously unfeasible best-of-75 series. We can lengthen single-elimination wild-card games to a best of three, as MLB did this season, or we could stretch the best-of-five division series to a best of seven and re-seed teams after the wild-card round, as the players proposed last year. But there’s no button to push or dial to twirl that would reliably result in the better baseball team winning, not when best of 75 is the standard. There are only so many ways to unbalance the scales, because baseball is built for upsets.

In moderation, that tends to be a good thing. Maybe basketball shouldn’t be the baseline; the NBA playoffs, perhaps, are too predictable. Upsets are exciting! However, they’re also disconcerting—not only for fans of teams that succumb to inferior regular-season squads, but for anyone who wants postseason success to signify strength and skill. Some number of upsets, it seems, is a selling point. But too many upsets calls into question the accuracy of the Sorting Hat that separates the also-rans from the champions. If the favorites always won, we would be bored. If the favorites never won, we would wonder what the October contests were telling us—or, at least, whether teams were wasting their time jockeying for position for the preceding six months. Between the two extremes, there’s an upset sweet spot. For some people, the Mets, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Braves being bodied by the Padres and Phillies pushed the sport past that sweet spot and toward the “too random” side of the spectrum.

Those losses also provoked some extreme (and instructive) reactions. On one end of the take continuum were the local columnists, sports-talk radio hosts, and fans who fulminated about great teams being failures or disgraces—chokers, quitters, incompetents—because they were outplayed for a few days. A mindset that says the postseason is supreme—one MLB has fostered by inviting more and more teams to the tournament—explains how Aaron Judge could be greeted with a vote-of-confidence column and easily audible boos an 0-fer or two into a playoff run that followed a 62-homer regular season. Or, for that matter, why it was reported that the Mets wouldn’t fire their manager or GM for losing two games after winning 101, or that the Dodgers wouldn’t dismiss the manager who lost three after winning 111.

At the other extreme were the more serene, philosophical, and stoic statheads, who—while appreciating the performances that elevated certain teams over others—made time for a refrain of the small-sample-size song. “The reality of the playoffs is that three- and five- and seven-game series aren’t enough to figure out which team is actually better,” wrote Russell A. Carleton of Baseball Prospectus. “They’re just three (or five, or seven) games.” Carleton, a psychologist, added that the second-guessing, post-hoc analysis, and often-fruitless searches for hidden deficiencies or advantages that follow a playoff loss are mostly a means “of mentally trying to bring order to chaos when none exists.”

BP cofounder Joe Sheehan sounded a similar note in his newsletter. “When a good team beats another good team in three of four, it doesn’t mean anything,” Sheehan wrote. “The Padres played better than the Dodgers did. The Phillies played better than the Braves did. We have to be able to stop there, and not look for larger truths. There aren’t any to be found in 36 innings of baseball.”

The nerds, of course, are correct. (If anything, Sheehan may have overstated the on-field significance of a playoff victory, in that it’s not always even clear that the victors did outplay the losers; sometimes teams advance despite getting outscored in a series, because they clustered their runs more efficiently, or luckily.) Winning the most games in October doesn’t tell us that much more about a team’s underlying prowess than winning the most games in June, and losing two out of three in the wild card round or getting swept in the Division Series doesn’t reveal a fatal flaw any more than losing or getting swept in one of the 50-plus series that make up the regular season, most of which pass without panic or fanfare.

But most fans can’t, as Sheehan suggests, “stop there”—not if they want the playoffs to seem exciting. How can a championship mean very much if the failure to obtain one means nothing? Maybe a title doesn’t have to mean everything, but the kind of thinking that makes it seem like a series of fortunate coin flips—however statistically correct—is incompatible with what MLB wants its end-of-season blowout to be. It’s hard to care about a coin flip’s outcome unless something more meaningful depends on it. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Sheehan—like me—is a self-described “regular-season guy.”)

Is it possible to be overjoyed about winning without being just as dejected about losing? A friend recently suggested it is, likening winning a World Series to winning the lottery. A person who plays the lotto could rejoice about a big win without being down in the dumps about a loss, because just as in the playoffs, the odds are always against cashing in. But I don’t think a lotto triumph is quite the same.

Big lotto winners get something tangible: many millions of dollars and the things those dollars can buy. Fans of playoff winners get intangible bragging rights and a sense of secondhand pride and accomplishment—both of which depend on the premise that the postseason not only means something, but means a whole heck of a lot. Without that, one might as well brag about sweeping the Pirates some weekend in May. A critical mass must buy in to baseball’s playoff fiction; that’s the source of its power. If we could wave a wand and inculcate the strict, sabermetric, small-sample mindset in everyone who watches October baseball, the sport’s still-robust TV ratings would probably tank. The stakes would seem meager if we stopped suspending disbelief.

There’s nothing inherently worthwhile or valuable about being good at something as arbitrary as throwing, hitting, and catching a small sphere of cork and yarn, covered in cowhide. But millions of humans have collectively decided that they find those activities entertaining, and thus that they care about determining who can do them best. That’s what the regular season settles. The postseason doesn’t settle anything—unless we all pretend it does.

We may be better off enjoying the mirage than dreading the desert. Perhaps the point of sports, as my former podcast cohost Sam Miller once suggested, is not truly to determine the best team, but to distract ourselves from our foreknowledge of death (or if that’s too morbid for you, then from Mondays and mortgage payments). In order to distract ourselves successfully, though, we need to preserve the illusion that the point is to pick a worthy winner. “If you lose even the illusion,” Sam said, “then it becomes problematic.” If we fixate too much on how easily any playoff outcome could have gone the other way, the illusion is lost. Then we’re Wile E. Coyote, suddenly subject to gravity again because we made the mistake of looking down.

As silly as it seems to pass judgment on a team based on a single series, as if baseball were a form of old-time trial by combat, the impulse to do so is an inevitable byproduct of pumping up the postseason—the other side of the coin that elicits joy and delirium when it lands the way we want it to. We could even put a positive spin on it. A columnist who condemns a club based on an early October exit may be riling up reactionary fans for clicks, but they’re also keeping kayfabe about the playoffs being differentiators of teams’ true talent, clutchness, and character. The power of MLB’s postseason depends on disproportionate reactions. Replacing those blistering takes with shrugs would be both sensible and, in the long run, deadly to the playoffs’ appeal.

We could, theoretically, replace them with a healthier respect for the regular season. We could strip out the playoffs entirely, à la European soccer (sort of), and set our sights on more modest goals than being (or appearing to be) the absolute best. (We could even tolerate ties!) We could treat the playoffs as “a neat bit of entertainment,” as Carleton advises, handing out trophies after 162 games, playing the rest for fun, and reveling in the simple pleasure of fending off the offseason for a few more days.

Realistically, though, I’m not sure most American fans could (or would) do any of those things. I’m usually a “Why not both?” guy, not an either/or-er—Aaron Judge and Shohei Ohtani, House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power. In the great regular season/postseason debate, though, it’s hard not to lean one way or the other, or to try to talk yourself into thinking they’re both designed to do the same thing.

Maybe it’s a feature that most fans think the playoffs prove which team is best, because that misconception makes them more excited. It also enables them to have their hearts broken—but maybe the potential for peaks of joy and nadirs of devastation, rather than rolling hills of mild happiness and shallow valleys of slight disappointment, is what makes this pastime special. Tearfully winning the World Series and spraying champagne still seems to trump posting a great run differential, just as winning the Super Bowl beats being DVOA Champs. Fans bond with the baseball players they’ve spent the season parasocializing with; they want them to win even if it’s a fluke. Plus, a poker game may be a closer comp than a coin flip; the role of chance is important, but there is some skill involved.

This postseason’s upsets will skip the penultimate round, at least: Each league’s championship series reps are pretty evenly matched, and no combination of pennant winners would be a big surprise (if anything in the postseason could qualify as one). When the World Series rolls around, though, there will be another underdog, and possibly another (slightly) unlikely loss to savor or lament.

“The great thing about baseball is the unpredictability, and the tough thing about it is the same thing,” said Dave Roberts shortly after the Dodgers’ defeat. Roberts, a manager who’s had his fair share of playoff agony and made more than his share of October miscues, nonetheless predicted a title in March. Once upon a time, when the teams with the best records in their respective leagues went straight to the World Series, the Dodgers would have been sitting pretty, pennant-wise. But when he declared his intentions, FanGraphs gave his team a 13.8 percent chance of making him appear prescient.

Roberts must have known the numbers didn’t support his assurance, but he still said what he said—and the baseball world was entertained then and primed to gloat or celebrate several months down the road. So what if it took considerable, self-imposed naïveté to believe it? As The New Yorker’s late, legendary Roger Angell once explained, “Naïveté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

A less celebrated wordsmith, Padres starter Joe Musgrove, put it this way: “These guys dominated us all year long, but we got hot at the right time. It’s a good feeling.” Not all fans get a good feeling in October. But it’s what we all want, and why we all watch for one winner to emerge, whether or not we know better. May the best a team win.