Somewhere out there in the Fields of Business there's presumably a motivational office poster that shows a bald eagle in flight or perhaps a rowing team parting the morning lake waters in partial shadow. It surely reads in bold Baskerville font: "Greatness is the goal."
For those who somehow find meaning in their endeavors, this is no doubt true. It is particularly true in sports at the highest levels. Players and teams should go to great lengths to be their best possible selves, whatever crap such a goal may entail. In the current "private equity" model of sports team ownership, in which winning in tandem with strong profits is less preferred than losing at even stronger profits, the goal of greatness is to be championed in a loud and annoying manner. So, yes, let's encourage greatness, but at the same time let's note that greatness may be less rewarding than ever in baseball, thanks to the peculiarities of the 2020 MLB season.
By that the royal we mean that it's going to be more difficult than ever for the best team from the regular season to run the postseason gauntlet. Even in "normal" years baseball is made to obstruct greatness. As you know, the best starting pitcher almost always assumes the bump only one out of every five days. The best hitter comes to the plate just once every time through the order. The best fielder has very limited control over how many balls are hit to him. The slim margins for error, whether it be the minuscule sweet spot of the bat or the perfect level of finger pressure as a pitcher snaps off a breaking ball, mean that even the greatest players go through periods of befuddling struggle. Look at the way the best and worst team winning percentages of MLB in a given season are so much more compressed than those in the NFL or NBA. That's baseball. Hi, baseball.
So what happens when you take the somewhat muted level of clarity that the 162-game regular season provides and cram it into the vastly smaller sample size of the postseason? Very often, it's madness. Consider the following True Internet Facts:
- Of the 115 World Series that have been played, just 51 have been won by the team with the best record in the regular season. To the extent that best regular season record signifies best team, said best team has won the World Series just 44.3 percent of the time.
- From 1969 through 1993, when the postseason consisted of two rounds (i.e., the LCS and the World Series), the best team in the regular season won the World Series just 36 percent of the time.
- Since 1995, when the Division Series first appeared on the scene and gave us a third round of postseason play, the best team in the regular season has won the World Series just 24 percent of the time.
Under no circumstances can this scribe be bothered to run the numbers for the NBA and NFL, but the best regular season team is bound to prevail far more often in those sports than they do in baseball. Take the best team in a divinely weird sport like baseball and put three postseason hurdles in front of it, and that team will trip up upward of 75 percent of the time. In 2020, though, things will be even more difficult for the best of the best.
That's because for this season the postseason had been expanded to 16 teams, which means four rounds. To boot, the first-round series will be a best-of-three affair. The shorter the series, the greater capacity for unexpected outcomes. Yes, the higher-seeded team will get to play all games of the wild-card round at home, but home-field advantage probably doesn't mean as much without fans in the seats. So if history suggests that the regular season's best team has roughly a one in four shot of winning the World Series when facing three postseason rounds, then the odds will be even longer with four postseason rounds -- and longer still when that first round is a best-of-three (a nigh meaningless sample of games in baseball).
This is particularly bad news for the Dodgers. L.A. right now is winning at a deeply impressive .737 clip, which scales to a 119-win pace across the usual 162 games. They also somehow have a plus-94 run differential after just 38 games. The Dodger offense has an OPS of .805. The Dodger pitching staff has permitted an OPS of just .622. That's greatness, and given the strength of the Dodger roster and their dominant recent history everything about this makes sense.
The thing, though, is that this is a perilous year for greatness, for those reasons laid out above. In the Dodgers' case, this is compounded by their dire Holocene playoff fates. As the dirge goes, they've ripped off seven straight NL West titles and counting without winning the World Series.
Maybe -- what with Mookie Betts on the roster, Corey Seager back to peak and then some, and an uncommonly deep rotation at his disposal -- this winds up being manager Dave Roberts' best squad. That would be saying something given that he's helmed a 106- and 104-win team. Paradoxically, even if this is the best Roberts' team, it will also be the one with the worst chance of breaking the Dodgers' 30-plus-year World Series drought. Such is the nature of the 2020 postseason, and such are the burdens of greatness right about now in baseball. "Always take the field against any one team in MLB once the playoffs begin," ancient sacred texts say. That's good advice most years; it's inviolable first principle in 2020.
The lesson? Try in 2020 but don't try. Sure, it feels good to have given one's best, but it feels even better to have watched some TV instead. This year, find a motivational poster that features an eagle watching some TV.