The 100-win Los Angeles Dodgers were unceremoniously swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks last week in the NLDS. L.A. won eight of 13 meetings against the D’Backs during the regular season, outscoring them by 25 runs head-to-head. However, Arizona flipped the script this postseason, scoring 19 runs to the Dodgers’ six. Last year, Los Angeles suffered a similar fate in the second round of the playoffs. After a league-leading 111-win season, they fell to the 89-win Padres in four games. Los Angeles had a bye in the first round both years.
Across the country, Atlanta felt good heading into the postseason after leading MLB with 104 wins and a +231 run differential. Yet after four games, their season was over. The 90-win Philadelphia Phillies sent them packing in the NLDS for the second consecutive year. Like the Dodgers, Atlanta entered both series after a first-round bye.
Meanwhile, after their bye, the Baltimore Orioles, owners of the best record in the A.L. this season, were swept by the Texas Rangers in the ALDS. It’s easier to forgive the Orioles than the Dodgers or Atlanta. They’re a young team that hadn’t seen the playoffs since 2016. Atlanta and Los Angeles, on the other hand, had won two of the last three World Series. Yet, one still has to wonder if the new playoff format, which features a bye for the top two seeds in each league, is flawed.
Five of the eight seeds with a first-round bye have lost their first series badly. The two Dodger teams, two Atlanta teams, and this year’s Orioles team were a combined 517-293 in the regular season but could muster only three victories in the five divisional series. However, three teams have won coming off the bye. The Yankees beat the Guardians in five games last season, and the Astros have thrived in the new format, winning six of their seven games. Perhaps Dave Roberts and Brian Snitker should give Dusty Baker a call this offseason and pick his brain on how to prepare after the layoff.
So, is this format flawed? Or is it simply a fluke resulting from an extremely small sample size? Certainly, MLB didn’t foresee their best teams only winning 37.5% of the divisional series matchups over the first two seasons. After all, the bye was designed to be an advantage. It was meant to give the best teams some extra rest and enter the fray with pitching staffs ready to roll. The bye has been an enormous benefit in the NFL, where roughly 75% of teams have secured a playoff victory since its inception.
However, baseball isn’t football. Football relies heavily on preparation and health, especially after a long, physical season. The extra week off provides a much-needed respite. Baseball, on the other hand, is a game of momentum and timing. It’s why streaks and slumps are so much a part of the game’s vernacular. It’s why Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak and Orel Hershiser’s 59-inning scoreless streak are so memorable and why Jason Giambi donned a golden thong while in an extended slump. Time off isn’t always a good thing.
Hitters seem to struggle more than pitchers after the layoff, which makes sense. Hitting requires timing, and even the slightest break can interrupt that. Let’s take the three players likely to finish in 1-2-3 in the NL MVP voting this season: Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, and Freddie Freeman. Fresh off exceptional offensive seasons, these were the stats they produced in the playoffs:
Yes, it’s a small sample size, but let’s also consider each of the five eliminated team’s offensive production:
Again, it’s a small sample size, but yeesh! You can point to superior pitching, and it’s arguable that getting shut down by Zac Gallen, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola, and maybe Nathan Eovaldi and Merrill Kelly is understandable. But the victors all relied heavily upon their bullpens in these series, which ranked 6th (PHI), 18th (ARI), and 24th (TEX) in bullpen ERA in the regular season. OK, maybe the Phillies’ relievers are pretty good, but Atlanta wasn’t able to break through against any of the pitchers this year except Jeff Hoffman.
The other side of the equation is momentum. Momentum is a powerful force in sports, perhaps none more than baseball. For the most part, the teams playing in the Wild Card round had to fight to get there, playing meaningful games throughout September. Those that advanced had momentum at their backs and faced teams that hadn’t played meaningful games in several weeks and no games for five days, thanks to the bye. Eliminating the bye wouldn’t solve this issue entirely, but at least it wouldn’t exacerbate it.
In the end, this entire notion may prove false. Perhaps the top teams will sweep the Divisional Round next year, and this will all be forgotten. If the trend continues, though, MLB may be forced to re-evaluate their postseason schedule. You can’t have your top teams bowing out early every year, and you really don’t want teams tanking to avoid the first-round bye! Upsets are fun and exciting, but not when they become the norm. The regular season needs to count for something.
The guess here is that MLB will be more likely to expand the playoff field to eight teams per league than contract. There’s too much money to be made to go backward. That may sound ludicrous from a competitive standpoint, but the NBA now gives ten teams per conference a crack at the postseason. Whatever the case, let’s hope that we get to see some long, competitive playoff series in the future. There’s nothing more exciting than a series-clinching game where the winner moves on and the loser goes home.