If you defeat 60 percent of your opponents and post the best record in baseball, logic dictates that the playoffs — contested against teams you’ve defeated during the regular season — should be no different. Recent history, however, suggests otherwise.
What seems like order will turn into utter randomness once the playoffs begin on Friday. Records become merely factors to determine seeding.
Since the wild card was added to the Major League Baseball postseason in 1995, only three teams with the best record in baseball have won the World Series, the last time by the 103-win New York Yankees in 2009. Five wild-card teams have won the World Series, most recently last year by the St. Louis Cardinals, who clinched a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season.
“That proves just how even and exciting the postseason is,” said former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who also won a World Series in 2006 with the lowest winning percentage of the eight playoff teams. “As it was always explained to me, if you’re good enough to get in, you’re good enough to win. How many people bet that we were going to beat the Phillies last year, winning the wild card on the last day? And we did.”
The Washington Nationals have had a stranglehold on the National League East division since June 3 and two weeks ago guaranteed the first playoff berth for a Washington team since 1933. On July 30, they entered territory unseen here since 1933 when they claimed the best record in baseball and they have held it almost exclusively since. They are tied with the Cincinnati Reds for the best record in baseball but hold the top seed by virtue of winning the season series between the teams.
And if the Nationals maintain it through the season’s end on Wednesday, they will earn the top seed and have home-field advantage through the World Series.
While owning the best record in baseball may be a good indicator of who was the best team from April to October, after that it helps predict nothing.
There is a discernible difference between the first-place Nationals and the last-place Miami Marlins. But between the playoff-bound San Francisco Giants and Reds, winners of their respective divisions? Those differences can be flattened out in a five- or seven-game playoff series. Managers align their pitching rotations, typically using four starters, to take advantage of matchups just for the postseason. Closers are called on for two-inning saves. Off-days are scheduled in between games in the series. Lineups are tinkered with to pair hitters’ strengths against pitchers’ weaknesses.
“I don’t think [having the best record] matters,” said Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth, who was a member of the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies, who finished with the best mark but fell to the eventual champion Giants in the NLCS in six games. “Once you get in, all bets are off. It doesn’t matter how you got there but that you got there. And from there, it’s just baseball.”
In the 17 years since the wild-card format began, 20 teams have finished with or tied for the best record. Three of them — the ’09 Yankees, ’07 Boston Red Sox and 1998 Yankees — won the World Series. Four of them — the ’04 Cardinals, ’03 Yankees, ’99 Atlanta Braves and ’95 Cleveland Indians — reached the World Series and lost. Seven of those 20 teams were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
A team’s record, however, also is a result of its schedule and strength of division. Based on run differential, the difference between runs scored versus runs allowed, the Nationals (+133) and Tampa Bay Rays (+116) are the best teams in their respective leagues. But only three times in the past decade has run differential accurately predicted the World Series matchups: ’07, ’04 and ’02.
The most telling example of a front-running team failing in the playoffs is the 2001 Seattle Mariners, who tied a 95-year major league record with 116 wins. They led the majors in run differential and were one of the greatest teams in baseball history.
But they barely escaped the division series, needing a deciding Game 5 to topple the Indians. The Yankees, who carried the second-best record in the majors, defeated them in the ALCS in five games behind the pitching of Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
“Because it’s a short series, the margin of who’s better is such a small one it could come down to in each game, you could have an unlikely hero, a fluke play. It could swing on that,” La Russa said. “. . . If you look at our stats last year, we didn’t have a defensively strong season and we ended up winning 11 games [in the playoffs] because we were playing better defense later. Any team that is good enough to get to October, is good enough to win a best of five or best of seven.”
In 1997, Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, then the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, famously filled his lineup with backup players Jeff Reboulet, Jerome Walton and Geronimo Berroa over better hitters Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff because right-handers fared better against the Mariners’ dominant ace Randy Johnson. The result: two wins against him in a week and a playoff series victory.
“The important thing is just getting in,” Werth said. “That’s all you can control. You’ve got to get hot, you’ve gotta be lucky, things gotta go your way. It’s not easy, that’s for sure.”
For weeks, Johnson contended that he cared little about obtaining the best record and that winning the division was his biggest priority. The sooner the better, he said, so he could begin lining up his rotation. But as the Nationals neared that goal on Monday, Johnson admitted that he wanted the top seed because it would allow him to take advantage of Gio Gonzalez starting Sunday on regular rest against the wild-card winner.
“I’d like to play Sunday,” Johnson said. “That would be Gio’s game. Whoever that is, I don’t care. I’d like to start with my 21-game winner. How all that happens, there’s a lot of things that have to get in line.”