The Postseason Is Both Great and Terrible

The 2016 regular season has come to an end, and tomorrow, the postseason begins. The Blue Jays and Orioles square off for a winner-take-all game to determine who advances to play the Rangers in the ALDS, and then on Wednesday, the Giants and Mets do the same to see who gets to try to take down the Cubs. Both games look like they could be a lot of fun, with lots of homers possible in the AL Wild Card game, and lots of strikeouts likely in the NL match-up, which will feature Noah Syndergaard and Madison Bumgarner.

I know the play-in games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a fan of this format. The Wild Card games are some of the best drama baseball provides, and starting off the postseason with a couple of elimination games allows the playoffs to get off to a very exciting start.

It is, of course, a wild and dramatic change from MLB’s regular season. That six month marathon tests teams on their depth, on how well they can mix and match different pieces when injuries strike, on whether they have enough good role players throughout the roster to make up for the inevitable slumps from the star players. The postseason is much more of a sprint, a three week attempt to have a couple key guys get hot and carry the team to 11 or 12 wins in 15 to 20 games. Rotations shrink, bullpen usage goes up dramatically, and one player really can make a dramatic difference in a team’s results.

Postseason baseball is a very different game than regular season baseball. And because of that, it is both great and terrible at the same time.

The drama is great. The games themselves are often as exciting as baseball gets, filled with big moments that we’ll remember for a lifetime. The history of baseball is heavily written during the postseason, and our childhood fandom is cemented by iconic images of October baseball.

But the postseason is also terrible at doing the thing that it’s theoretically supposed to do; determine the best team in baseball in that season. Tournaments, in general, reward short bursts of performance, and level the playing field between unequal competitors in such a way that anyone in the tournament is capable of winning, regardless of the relative strength of their roster. Because home field advantage is a smaller reward in baseball than in other sports, the best teams really don’t have a dramatic edge over lesser squads, and because of the fact that there is already a small spread in talent between teams, baseball’s postseason allows for any outcome to be reasonably expected.

That anything-can-happen reality makes every game count, but it also should make it difficult to draw conclusions based on what happens. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop a lot of people from doing just that, and that’s when the postseason is at its worth.

Over the next few weeks, you’re going to hear that a winning team simply showed more heart, or that a losing team (or specific player on a losing team) couldn’t handle the pressure of the situation. You’re going to be told that these games are a test of the character of the individuals playing in it, and that we can come to some conclusion about the moral fiber of those involved by how they perform on the field. We’re all going to hear that what teams did for the last six months doesn’t matter, and that we should judge them solely on what happens over the next six weeks.

Every bit of that is garbage. The postseason is not a test of character for the individuals involved, the teams themselves, or the managers leading the charge. It is not a place where we find out what people are made of, or a proving ground for someone’s mental strength. It’s a three week tournament on a level playing field between teams that are fairly evenly matched up, and one where a single bounce here or there can change the entire outcome.

The Kansas City Royals went on a remarkable run last year, but none of it happens if Carlos Correa fields a fairly routine ground ball in the Wild Card game. But for that one play, everything in last year’s postseason is different. We’re going to see the same thing this year. The eventual champion is going to catch a break somewhere along the way, have something go in their favor that was out of their control, and benefit greatly from something that just as easily could have gone against them.

That’s part of what makes the postseason great. The importance of every play is dramatically enhanced, and we root like crazy for our team to be the one to play well enough to turn that break into a parade. But in reality, no one controls their own destiny in the postseason. No one can will themselves to a championship. No one can reach the ultimate goal without some help along the way.

And so, let’s enjoy the postseason for what is great about it. The drama, the strategy, the tension of every at-bat; these things make postseason baseball so much fun to watch.

But when we’re confronted with the terrible aspects of the postseason, often driven by those who are looking for simple hero/villain stories to tell, let’s remember that the postseason is useless at determining the character of the individuals involved. It is a great treat to watch the best teams in baseball square off with history on the line, but it is a terrible thing to make judgments about their character based on the results of what happens.

When we’re told that some player or team won because of some inner personal strength that the loser just didn’t have, let’s reject that narrative out of hand. We can enjoy the postseason for what it is without turning it into something it is not. It’s a great chance to watch dramatic baseball, but a terrible way to conclude anything about those involved.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
7 years ago

-Cubs fans

7 years ago
Reply to  crew87

From June 20th to July 9th the Cubs went 5-15. I’ve concluded they lack ‘intestinal fortitude’.

output gap
7 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

The term you are looking for is “The Will To Win”.

7 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

Teams can strengthen their Intestinal fortitude with a diet high in moral fiber.

7 years ago
Reply to  NoHayBanda

In Chicago the phrase is “testicular fortitude.” At least according to our now incarcerated former governor.