Ringolsby: Expanded MLB Postseason Rewards Survivors, Not Best Teams
The Dodgers pretty much had the National League West title wrapped up by the all-star break.
Heck, the four other teams in the division—D-backs, Giants, Rockies and Padres—were scrambling to stay above .500. The Dodgers? They were battling the Yankees for the best record in baseball.
They were looking at claiming their seventh consecutive division title.
Or is it?
It’s one thing to suffer long droughts between winning World Series championships.
Hey, there are seven teams that have never even won a single World Series—the Brewers, Mariners, Nationals, Padres, Rangers, Rays and Rockies. The Mariners and Nationals, in fact, have never even played in a World Series.
But for all the success the Dodgers have enjoyed in the regular season, they haven’t won a World Series since 1988.
How long ago is that? Well, Peter Ueberroth was still the commissioner of baseball back then. The D-backs, Marlins, Rays and Rockies had not even been given consideration, much less added to the roster of Major League Baseball teams. Twitter wasn’t even a concept, much less a reality.
Oh, the Dodgers have had their opportunities. They have made 12 trips to the postseason since 1988, winning 10 division titles and claiming two NL wild card invitations to the postseason since that last World Series title.
But until 2017 and 2018, the Dodgers hadn’t even been in a World Series, much less won a World Series. Four times they bowed out in the NL Championship Series.
Now, that’s not to pick on the Dodgers.
But what it does show is the Dodgers, like those Braves teams that won only one World Series championship during a stretch of 14 consecutive postseason appearances, have fallen victim to the strains created by baseball expansion.
That’s right: expansion—not only of the major leagues, but of the postseason.
The World Series trophy no longer belongs to the best team in baseball that particular season.
It goes to the survivor.
And every time baseball expands, the battle for survival becomes more difficult.
Think about it. Prior to the first expansion in 1961, a team could play a maximum of 161 games. That’s 154 in the regular season and seven more in the postseason.
That has grown over time to the point where today, a team could find itself playing 182 games. That’s 162 in the regular season and as many as 20 in the postseason, counting one Wild Card Game, a maximum of five games in the Division Series and a maximum of seven games each in the Championship Series and World Series.
Consider that since the advent of the wild card in 1995, a wild card entrant has won the World Series six times. The Marlins, created out of the 1993 expansion along with the Rockies, have never won a division title. The Marlins, however, have won two World Series championships, in 1997 and 2003.
The 2002 Angels, 2004 Red Sox, 2011 Cardinals and 2014 Giants have also followed the wild card path to a World Series title.
Baseball has long prided itself on the fact its championship goes to the team that can survive the grind.
And that may be true, but surviving the grind no longer means being the best team of that year. It means being the team capable of surviving the postseason gauntlet.
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Consider the plight of the Dodgers in the 32 seasons and 90 postseason games since that 1988 World Series celebration.
In total, the Dodgers have won eight postseason series between 1989 and 2018, but never the big one.
Before the expansion of the postseason, the team with the best regular season record won held a 35-27 edge in the World Series. In three years, the two pennant winners had identical regular season records.
In 1969, MLB added one round of playoffs, a best-of-five League Championship Series. In the 26 years between the inception of the LCS and the creation of the wild card in 1995, the team with the best record in baseball won the World Series seven times—including the Reds in back-to-back seasons 1975 and ’76.
With the addition of the wild card in 1995, the team with the best record would win four of the next 18 World Series, lose in the World Series four times and not even advance to the World Series 10 times.
And in the seven years since the addition of a second wild card in 2012, just three times has a team with the best record won a World Series—the Red Sox in 2013 and 2018 and the Cubs in 2016.
The bottom line: The World Series is no longer about the best team winning.
It has become baseball’s version of “Survivor."
The introduction of divisions and league playoffs in 1969 made winning the World Series dramatically more difficult for the top regular season teams. Just 13 teams in 49 postseasons (27 percent) have finished with the top regular season record and then won the World Series. Prior to 1969, the top teams’ success rate was 57 percent.
Here are the 13 teams of the division era to win the regular season and postseason in the same year.