Your Annual Reminder that Baseball is Needlessly Cruel

Let’s start with a story. The Dodgers and the Cubs squared off in last year’s NLCS for the right to play in the World Series. The Cubs took Game 1, making Game 2 a must-win for my hometown Dodgers. Game 2 marked another milestone in my life: this was the first time I would watch a Dodgers playoff game with my significant other.

LA pulled ahead 1-0 in the second inning, and neither team mustered a scoring threat until the seventh. A walk and an error put two Cubs on base with no outs, and the pressure was on.

It is important to clarify a key point before moving forward. I am not sane when it comes to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I regularly claim that the two most prominent voices from my youth were my father’s and that of legendary announcer Vin Scully. Two years ago, I found a journal in my childhood bedroom within which 5-year-old Aron had scrawled, “The Dodgers are reelly gud this year. I feel like this is our year.” It was not. When Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday committed a late-inning error that handed the Dodgers a victory in the 2009 playoffs, I literally ran to the local bar and offered anyone who would agree to cheers the Dodgers with me a free drink. It was an expensive evening. When Juan Uribe hit a go-ahead seventh-inning home run against the Braves in the 2013 NLDS, I flipped my coffee table and broke two plates. This list could go on for a very, very long time. I’m out of my mind.

Back to the game! Up until the seventh inning, I had kept my mania fairly under wraps (by my extremely low standards). That ended quickly. My girlfriend, who was leaned up against me, put her hand on mine as a gesture of love and reassurance. “Do NOT touch me right now,” I curtly responded (single file, ladies!). She leaned the other direction. With 2 outs, Cubs infielder Javier Báez lined a deep drive to center field. When the ball settled in centerfielder Joc Pederson’s glove to end the inning, I pumped my fist as hard as I could in celebration. I also pumped my fist as hard as I could directly into my girlfriend’s shoulder.

Miraculously, I still have a girlfriend (check back on November 1st!). Unfortunately, the postseason did not end well for the Dodgers. While they would win Game 2, the Cubs would win the NLCS and move on to capture their first championship in over 100 years. I would move on to another year of hope mixed with dread mixed with faith mixed with nihilism mixed with anxiety. Playoff baseball! It’s the best!

Making matters all the worse, baseball playoffs are the most erratic and unpredictable of any major sport. A 2013 study by the Harvard Sports Analytics Collective analyzed the four major US sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) and found the following:

MLB most consistently produces champions most disparate from their regular season performance. What is remarkable is just how bad the MLB playoffs really are. Owing to the length of its 162 game season, one might think that regular season performance would actually be a fairly good indicator – better, for example, than in the NFL where strength of schedule can have a huge impact – of the overall quality of a team. Given this fairly reasonable assumption, if you chose the eight best regular season teams, or even eight of the top ten because you require four from each league, and then just asked each team to draw straws to determine the World Series, the average winning team would be better determined than by the current system. Only three times [from 1995-2013] has the best team from the regular season ended up winning the World Series.

The 2001 Mariners own the best win-loss record in league history… and failed to reach the World Series. The 90s-era Braves rattled off an astounding 14 consecutive division titles… but left empty handed 13 times. More than any other sport, baseball doesn’t reward the best team. It’s a cruel game.

In hindsight, being emotionally invested in a system that rewards the most successful participant less often than random chance may not be the best call. Baseball even tried to warn us this year – check out this moment from the first game of the 2017 playoffs:

That’s playoff baseball for you – you do everything right, and end up getting drilled in the groin. But guess what? No one ever said fandom was rational (if you’ve read this far, you know mine definitely isn’t). I’m not going anywhere!. As a wise 5-year-old once said, “The Dodgers are reelly gud this year. I feel like this is our year.”

Welcome to October.

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