Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 16, 2022

An October That Seems A Bit Too Random

Baseball is a game of random outcomes.  While that statement can be made with some degree of accuracy about all our major team sports, it is especially true of the Great Game, where the description of just one possible product of a single interaction between pitcher and batter – the ball is put in play – covers myriad specific results, the details of and reactions to which yield a wide range of potential outcomes.  That inherent randomness is, of course, a very large part of the sport’s appeal.  While at a high level the contestants, whether entire teams or individuals, may appear mismatched, on any one pitch, or in a single at-bat, or at a particular game, pedigree and prior performance can be subsumed by the moment.  The words that have appeared in this space so often over the years remain true.  There is always a reason why they actually play the games.

Randomness is the basis for the longest season.  The goal of competition is to identify the best teams in the sport, and it takes many games across multiple months to ensure that the standings reflect the relative quality of all the franchises.  Suppose this season had been only 31 games long, roughly a month’s worth of contests.  The New York Yankees would have been far and away the best team in the majors, based on the franchise’s stunning record of 25-6, compiled from May 31 through July 2.  Unless the club was really the abject worst in the sport, based on the 10-21 mark it ran up from July 31 through September 3. 

Not all teams experience such wild swings of fortune over periods that long, but many players do.  That’s why fans know not to take too seriously results based on small sample sizes, whether the numbers produced are Hall of Fame worthy or indicative of someone who should be shipped back to Single-A ball.

Thus, MLB’s great conundrum.  For after the very large number of contests needed to expunge randomness from the standings and statistics, after each team has completed its 162-game schedule, 2,430 games in all, comes the postseason, a tournament that, like all such playoff formats, is built around short series and small sample sizes. 

As this is written, three of the four Division Series have been concluded.  The list may be complete by the time many readers get to this point, if the Cleveland Guardians turn aside the visiting Yankees Sunday night.  If that doesn’t happen, the teams will be headed back to the Bronx, with New York needing to win a second straight elimination game Monday evening.  Whether or not that happens, we already know that the NLCS will be contested between two Wild Card teams, specifically the squads seeded fifth and sixth in this year’s expanded playoff bracket.  Both the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies had to win a best-of-three Wild Card round played entirely in each team’s opponent’s stadium, and then prevail in a best-of-five Division Series that began with two more games on the road.

That each accomplished the feat is a testament to both clubs.  The Padres, after an 89-73 season, downed the 101-win Mets in three games at Citi Field, and then vanquished their NL West rivals and longtime tormentors, the Dodgers, critically earning a split in the first two games at Chavez Ravine.  For L.A., the NLDS loss in four games brought an abrupt halt to a franchise-record 111-win season.  For their part the Phillies, after finishing third in the NL East, 14 games behind Atlanta and the Mets, won back-to-back contests in St. Louis to advance out of the Wild Card round, before taking down defending champion Atlanta in four games.  As with San Diego, the Phillies were able to springboard off a crucial split of the opening two games at Truist Park.

Taken together, these results mean that of the four franchises that entered the playoffs on the strength of triple-digit regular season wins, only the 106-56 Houston Astros remain.  The Dodgers, clearly the class of the Great Game from Opening Day until October, along with Mets and Atlanta, are out.  And while the Astros swept the Seattle Mariners, that series could easily have unfolded very differently.  Houston trailed Game 1 until the very end, and the final contest went 18 innings, with an adverse result for the Astros just one swing away throughout all those extra frames.  If the Guardians finish off the 99-63 Yankees, the team with the fifth best regular season record will also have been dismissed.

As is true in April, when one’s team sweeps its opening series and a personal hero goes 6-12 with two home runs (or, god forbid, the opposite happens), fans should not be quick to draw conclusions from such small samples.  Maybe questionable managerial decisions derailed favorites.  Certainly L.A.’s Dave Roberts is under scrutiny for his bullpen calls in Saturday’s crucial Game 4 against the Padres, as is New York’s Aaron Boone for his more predictable ineptitude in Game 3 against the Guardians.  Or perhaps it’s just a good year for underdogs.

Still, since this is the first year with this particular 12-team postseason format, it’s fair to look closely at the results.  MLB’s challenge has always been to create a playoff structure that keeps the regular season results meaningful.  Otherwise, why should fans pay either attention or their money from April through September?  Under this format, the regular season incentives are the requirement that lower-seeded Wild Card teams play on the road, and the top two teams in each league receiving a bye through the first round.  But the first did not appear to be meaningful, and the byes looked to have generated more rust than rest.

In assessing something that only happens once a season, a sample of one is the smallest possible.  Maybe this time next year fans will be talking about all the top seeds advancing and the woeful performance of the Wild Cards.  Maybe what has happened so far in this postseason is just because baseball is a game of random outcomes.  But as one looks at the carnage of higher seeds along the still unfolding road to this season’s World Series, one can’t help but think that MLB, and the Players Association, have some work to do.

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