Reflections on the 2021 MLB Baseball Playoffs

October 26, 2021

Unlike the other three major professional sports played in the United States, baseball as it was traditionally played changes the most influential position in each successive game. That would be the starting pitcher, who throws more innings than do relievers. In recent world series match-ups excluding the pandemic-abbreviated season of 2020, the 2019 series included regular season winners of 21, 20 and 18 games. The world series of 2018 featured a 17-game winner and a 16-game winner from the regular season. In the world series of 2017, one pitcher had won 18 regular season games, and another had been a 16-game winner. There were two 18-game winners and one 19-game winner on the teams that met in the 2016 world series. In order to go deep into games, starting pitchers need to master an assortment of pitches, while pitchers trained to relieve need just one or two options and are instructed not to pace themselves but go as hard as they can for as long as they can.

A big part of the world series has been the lure of seeing big-time pitchers from the American League face counterparts from the National League — Sandy Koufax against Jim Kaat, Whitey Ford versus Don Newcombe, Bob Gibson against Jim Lonborg, or Tom Seaver versus Catfish Hunter, for instance. Alas, starting pitching has been de-emphasized in the modern analytics-driven game, and consequently the most regular season wins from 162 total games played by a starting pitcher on either squad meeting in the 2021 world series that begins tonight is just 14.

The shift from reliance on one pitcher going six or more innings followed by no, one, or two relievers to a strategy that uses many pitchers each game is that fewer runs will be scored because there is better control of batter-pitcher match-ups and none of the pitchers need to be concerned about conserving their effort, either by not always throwing as hard as they could or by not showing part of their repertoire until later in the game.

Under the new strategy, one might expect low-scoring, tight games especially in the playoffs. On the contrary, in the 15 American League post-season games so far, only three have resulted in a run-differential of less than four. The last five games in the Houston-Boston American League championship series ended in blowout scores of 5-9, 3-12, 9-2, 9-1, and 5-0. In four of the fifteen American League games over all levels of playoffs, the winning team scored at least ten runs, and the average combined run total in those 15 games was 11.

Here’s one possible reason why greater reliance on relievers isn’t resulting in fewer runs scored. Whether playing baseball, another sport, or doing any job for that matter, people have good days and days when they are off their mark. At the professional baseball level, one might expect a pitcher to have his “A” game more times than not. However, when rolling out 5-8 pitchers every game, there’s much greater likelihood of one of them having an off-day than when using one 1-3 pitchers.

So what’s really going on here? It’s easy to suspect that a strategy that greatly expands the number of pitchers used each game seems to be more out holding down costs than containing the number of runs scored. Many more players can be trained to throw in reliever roles than perform as starters. Reliever careers are generally shorter, and they are not paid as much as top-line starters. It’s something for the players to keep in mind when they negotiate a new contract after the current one expires on December 1st.

In a separate move to maximize ball club profits, post-season play has been layered more heavily to permit more cities to be represented and to increase the total number of post-season games to be played. True, this proliferation of post-season games is a phenomenon in all sports, but baseball rather uniquely requires a lot of observations to separate the best teams from the rest of the pack. Very few, if any, teams in any year will win more than 100 games, and very few will fail to win at least 60 games. The super bowl, NBA finals and Stanley Cup finals almost invariably match top tier teams from the regular season.

In baseball until 1969, the world series matched the single teams with the most wins from the American League and National League. Not only had those opponents not met prior to the world series, none of their opponents had played any of the opponents of the other team,. In the regular season, the American and National Leagues operated as wholly different universes. In this year’s match-up, by contrast, the 88 regular season wins of the Atlanta Braves were exceeded by 12 of the other 29 teams in major league baseball, including three clubs with 100 or more wins. None of those three (Tampa Rays, San Francisco Giants, and the Los Angeles Dodgers) are still standing. Atlanta’s opponent, the Houston Astros with 95 wins, were exceeded or matched by a total of four other teams.

Another anomaly related to changes to the game of baseball is that this year’s world series pits teams from the two weakest divisions during the 2021 regular season. The strongest division was the American League East, whose teams collectively won 44 more games than they lost. Next was the National League West, whose teams won 27 more games than they lost. The American League West also won more than it lost, but that margin was by a mere six games. Three divisions lost more than half their games. The National League Central Division lost ten more game than it won, and the American League Central Division in which the Houston Astros play collectively lost 16 more games than it won. The Atlanta Braves won the National League Eastern Division and was the only team among five in the division to win more than half its games. Collectively, the NL East suffered 51 more losses than wins this year, making it the weakest of the six divisions by a huge margin.

Atlanta and Houston in part got to where they did by playing softer competition than did teams in the other four divisions. Once inside the playoff bracket, the slate is cleared, and different criteria come into play. It takes different skills to succeed in regular season and postseason baseball. Regular season results are a better measure than the world series of which teams are most successful in those dimensions that are unique to the game of baseball. Defining the winner of the world series as the one and only champion for any particular year overstates the accomplishment.

Copyright 2021, Larry Greenberg. All rights reserved. No secondary distribution without express permission.

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