Playoff thoughts, 2020

Fortunately, the Rays recovered just in time to save MLB from an embarrassment that was a risk of the overly expanded playoffs this year–a sub-.500 team making the World Series. The Astros had only the 8th best record in the league, and after losing the first three nearly came back to beat the team with the best record. This should serve as a warning against lowering the bar to entry into the postseason too much!

For the first time since 2004, both League Championship Series are seven games. If the Dodgers win today, the World Series will showcase each league’s top regular-season winner. 

The only other time both league series went seven was 2003 (the best-of-7 format was introduced in 1985). So, in a strange year for baseball (and pretty much everything), we baseball fans get a real treat. Given that the Braves had the third best record in the NL, their winning would not be the travesty that almost played out in the AL. But it is still surprising how the Dodgers have failed to take charge of the series after their dominance in the (short) regular season. If they win today, it will be a comeback from a 3-1 games deficit. While far more common than extending a series to 6 or 7 games after losing the first three, such a comeback is also fairly uncommon.

The Rays got off to a good start in the ALCS by winning the first three. They then became the first team, also since 2004, to lose at least the next two games after starting off 3-0. And so they are, of course, the first ever to win 3, lose 3, then win Game 7.

The previous times a baseball postseason series went at least six games after a team took a 3-0 lead it either ended in six (Padres over Braves in 1998 and Braves over Mets in 1999) or the team that came back and tied the series went on to complete the “delayed sweep” (Red Sox over Yankees in the very memorable 2004 ALCS).

The in-series progression of team wins in post-season series always has fascinated me, and the rare series where a team wins the first three but then has difficulty completing the sweep are especially fascinating.

In both 2004 and 2020, the team needing the 4-game winning streak was rather “lucky” in the sense of winning close game after having lost those first three. In 2020, the Rays had outscored the Astros 11-5, and then the Astros 3-game mid-series winning streak was made up of close wins (4-3 twice, then 7-4). Game 7 was also close (4-2 Rays). In 2004, the in-series turnaround through the first six was even more remarkable: The Yankees had outscored the Red Sox 32-16 (!) and then the Red Sox mid-series comeback consisted of two extra-inning wins (6-4 in 12 and 5-4 in 14) and another close one (4-2) before a blowout (10-3) in Game 7. That really was a series for the ages.

The 1999 NCLS was a good one, too, in that it was close all the way through at game level, despite how one team nearly swept. After the first three games the Braves had outscored the Mets only 9-5. Given that to win three games you need to outscore your opponents by at least three runs, this was about as close as it could be. Thus the initial three games were not even close to being dominated by a single team, despite the 3-game lead. Then all the remaining games were decided by just one run; the concluding Game 6 took 11 innings.

The 1998 series was the first time a series needed six or more games after a 3-0 lead It had, like 2020, a moderate run differential in the first three, with the Padres outscoring the Braves 10-3. The remaining scores were then Braves 8-3 and 7-6, before the Padres won 5-0 in Game 6. Rather remarkably, given the many years of best-of-7 series in baseball, what did not happen till 1998 then happened again the very next year. And again five years after that, and then not again till this year. Baseball needed a good postseason after the delayed start of its regular season. And it got it.

Would it be too much to ask that the 2020 World Series follow the lead of the two LCS and also go seven games? That has never happened, but in a year of unprecedented things, why not?

3 thoughts on “Playoff thoughts, 2020

  1. The Good: No off days in the first three rounds. For a sport that plays six or seven days a week, having playoff series with so many off days skewed things. Playing five in five or seven in seven provides, at least to me, an accurate test of who has the better team. Not the better #1 and #2 starter, set up man and closer.

    The Bad: 16 teams, way too many. The only way I could accept 16 was if they split the season, and had the two wild cards come from the teams with the best full season record. And then gave any team winning its division in both halves a bye into the second round.

    The Ugly: The DH and the not very clearly distanced crowds in Texas.

    • I agree with all of that, except for the idea of a split season. I hope MLB never does that again.

      (I am sort of indifferent on the DH; on balance I’d get rid of it, but it does not bother me all that much.)

      I do rather like that the World Series, alone among postseason series of 2020, will remain in the traditional format of off days between “sets” (2-3-2, but obviously this year all in the same ballpark).

      • Back in the 50s, MLB considered off days optional in the World Series. But the TV people, if I remember correctly, wanted the split and the off days were locked in.

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