Of all the non-competitive nonsense of the last few years, the blatant tanking was not the most odious. Teams such as the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates did not hide their strategy. They were not trying to win, and they were so good at being bad that one player would not have made a difference.
No, the most distasteful strategy went something like this: We could spend some prospects or dollars in trying to win a wild-card spot, but all that for a one-game playoff? Lose, and we’re done. Win, and we face the Dodgers, and then we’re all but done.
Let’s deconstruct that: We are in position to make the playoffs, and one player could make a difference, but why bother? We’re probably not going to last very long in the playoffs even if we get there, and then we’re out the prospects or dollars.
Fans want hope and faith and entertainment, not risk management. For all the lockout-induced talk of a draft lottery and revenue sharing and the luxury tax, the single greatest step toward competitive balance in the new collective bargaining agreement is this: Two more spots in the postseason tournament.
In each of the last eight years, a different team has emerged as the champion. Now, the champion must survive a 12-team tournament instead of a 10-team tournament, and even the best teams over a 162-game season could be eliminated by losing three times in five games.
For fan bases outside Los Angeles and New York, the Goliath-like payrolls of the Dodgers, Yankees and Mets can be frustrating. But that should not obscure the more pertinent truth that payrolls, and for that matter records, guarantee nothing once the postseason starts.
The Dodgers have a 99.6% chance of making the playoffs, according to the odds posted Wednesday on Baseball Prospectus. They have an 18.1% chance of winning the World Series.
In other words: In a statistical simulation, play out this season 10 times, and a team not named the Dodgers wins the World Series eight times. In the real world, the Dodgers have made nine consecutive postseason appearances, and a team not named the Dodgers has won eight times.
“Just because you’re the best team doesn’t mean you’re the team that always wins,” Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich said.
No one holds a parade for the team with the best record in the regular season, or with the highest payroll. (Also, no one holds a parade for the team that got the most bang for its payroll buck. The point of the exercise is to win the World Series.)
Over the last 20 years, the team with the highest payroll has won the World Series two times — and missed the playoffs entirely three times.
The team with the best record in the regular season has won the World Series five times — but a wild-card team has won six times. Now, there are two more wild-card spots.
“Once you get into the playoffs, it’s really who’s hot, who’s healthy, who’s playing well,” Yelich said. “You just never know what can happen.”
The Dodgers won 106 games last year. Their new first baseman, Freddie Freeman, played for the team that eliminated the Dodgers.
“Just look at the Braves,” Freeman said. “We won 88 games, but we were the hottest team going into the playoffs.”
The Braves did not have a record above .500 on any day last July, but they were close enough to warrant trading for outfielders Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Soler and Adam Duvall that month. In November, that 88-win team had a parade.
“I think adding two more teams helps,” Freeman said. “It will keep more fan bases in it.
“Two more teams in, and that’s potentially six to eight more teams that are on the bubble that might actually go for it at the deadline, and trade for a guy that’s making $10 million.”
Angels first baseman Jared Walsh pointed to the Brewers, who have made four consecutive postseason appearances, as a team that has proven that pennant contention does not require a stratospheric payroll.
“It used to be, like, the Yankees have a $200-whatever million payroll, but I think the game has done a pretty good job of staying competitive,” said Walsh, the Angels’ player representative. “That’s what we want.”
Pitcher Brent Suter, the Brewers’ player representative, said what the players wanted was to incentivize competition for higher-payroll and lower-payroll teams.
At the lower end, teams can compete for two more tickets into the playoffs. The excuse of “why bother if we could lose in one game?” is gone, since the one-game wild-card playoff is no more. Every first-round series is best-of-three.
At the higher end, teams can compete for the two first-round byes in each league, and with that the opportunity to avoid that best-of-three series.
“I hope it was enough to give the small- and mid-market teams some ammo, and to give some added incentive to the big-market teams to go at it every year,” Suter said. “For every team to try to win every year is what we were trying to do.”
The owners proposed a 14-team postseason, which Suter said might have incentivized “a race to the middle” by devaluing the regular season and admitting .500 teams into the playoffs too often.
“Fourteen would have been a bit much,” Freeman said. “We would have turned into basketball.”
And, from a local angle, one more playoff team in the American League gives the Angels one more chance to get Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani into the postseason. The Angels could not get into the 16-team pandemic playoffs of 2020, but spring is about hope and faith, and better pitching.
“I think the playoff format this year is going to be super interesting, with a couple more teams,” Walsh said. “Hopefully, we sneak in there and go on another run.”