Hoornstra: Making sense of MLB’s postseason rollercoaster is a fool’s game

After one playoff game two years ago, a reporter asked Dodgers pitcher Brusdar Graterol to compare the experience of pitching in October to being on a roller coaster. Graterol, perhaps having never ridden a roller coaster to that point in his life, said he did not understand the analogy.

At this point, Graterol can skip the amusement park lines. This postseason has been just as breathtaking and no less of a thrill ride.

The up-and-down nature of sports is what makes it fun for fans. Ironically, the job of an athlete (and his coaches, manager, and general manager) is to keep his emotional ups and downs to a minimum. For six months, win or lose, baseball fans ingest a steady stream of sanguine assessments from players, managers and general managers. It’s enough to make a fan wonder whether they’re even riding the same coaster.

Here’s the thing: They’re not. They’re enjoying the same theme park as the rest of us, but the experience in the front office, the dugout, and the clubhouse is different from the experience in the stands.

We can safely ignore this dichotomy during the regular season. The flow of a baseball season – day after day, game after game – serves to reduce every detached quote to background noise. Then the calendar turns to October. The volume turns up. There isn’t always going to be a game tomorrow.

That was the case on Tuesday when Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman addressed the media for the first time since their season ended with a National League Division Series loss to the San Diego Padres.

“I don’t believe the best team wins the World Series every year,” Friedman said. “I think the hottest team wins the World Series every year.”

That’s the kind of thought that can sound like nails on a chalkboard to the most rabid fan – those for whom the only adequate form of “accountability” for failure to win a championship is losing one’s job. But is it even controversial?

The answer depends on who you ask.

There’s a pervasive, institutional bias against believing the best team isn’t always the last team standing. It’s all around us. Every championship banner ever hung in an arena denotes the year in which a championship was won. It does not denote the month, or the week, or whatever length of time the team was “hot enough to win.” You only get the year.

A banner in Busch Stadium, for example, tells us the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2006 World Series. Were they the best baseball team in 2006 or merely the hottest team at the end? The banner doesn’t note that the Cardinals won a mere 83 games in the regular season, but it is materially no different from, say, the 2019 championship banner hanging in Boston’s Fenway Park. That year, the Red Sox were baseball’s best team by record in spring training, the regular season, and the postseason.

Flags fly forever. Only one team throws a parade at the end of the season. Only one team gets invited to the White House. They all give the president a replica jersey, whether they were the best team or merely the hottest. This is what fans see: the best team is the hottest team at the end.

The Atlanta Braves were the hottest team in October 2021. In 2022, Atlanta won 101 games in the regular season, yet was eliminated in four games by the Philadelphia Phillies, a wild-card team that won 87 games.

“It’s a five-game series,” Atlanta general manager Alex Anthopolous said in a postmortem Zoom with reporters. “That’s just the way it goes. That’s just the way it is.”

Is he right? Or is he detached from the reality of the rollercoaster? Might he be both?

If it seems like it’s been going that way a lot lately, that’s fair. The Dodgers and Braves were the National League’s best teams during the regular season, yet both were eliminated after one round of postseason play. Regardless of what the parades and banners and White House visits would have you believe, these early exits are a feature, not a bug, of baseball’s playoff system.

It felt as if MLB introduced a new bug this year in the form of a best-of-three wild-card round. While the Dodgers were playing intrasquad games before an empty stadium, the Padres were playing three intense contests against the 101-win Mets. In theory, MLB could have expanded its postseason this year by making the division series round a best-of-seven affair, rather than a best-of-five. It did not.

Historically, fans at Petco Park have been equally kind to the Dodgers and the hometown Padres. Prior to the NLDS, the Padres restricted online ticket sales to residents of San Diego County and the immediate surroundings; Los Angeles County residents were excluded. The environment was, shall we say, not as kind.

An astute reader pointed out another institutional obstacle facing the 111-win Dodgers: as a byproduct of the lockout that delayed the start of the regular season, the Colorado Rockies played six meaningless games at Dodger Stadium for the final six games of the regular season. The Dodgers lost three of the six. This is the opposite of scheduling adversity, the opposite of the Padres’ September journey to the postseason.

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I asked Friedman if it felt as if there were more undesirable factors out of his control this year compared to years past.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it boils down to us not getting hits in those situations (with runners in scoring position against the Padres). Whether any of that led to it, I don’t necessarily think so. I think it speaks to the difficulty in trying to answer that. I don’t know the answer.”

If sports is your vocation, that degree of rationality is an asset – if not an emotional necessity to surviving a rollercoaster season.

If sports represent your escape from the rationality of everyday life, maybe imposing logic upon a system largely dictated by luck is dissatisfying. Blame the GM. Blame the manager. Blame the lockout, the geofencing, the wild-card round. Blame the players, if you believe they have any bearing on the outcome.

It’s all part of the rollercoaster.

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