When the baseball playoffs really begin

by Bryan

I’m not a baseball traditionalist. I’m for instant replay. If they ever get around to inventing a floating invisible automatic strike zone, I’ll be for that as well. Without my team involved, though, I find it hard to get excited about the Division Series, because there’s almost no time to build a narrative.

The majority of Division Series come and go like a blur, even those that go to five games. This year’s Yankees/Tigers series will conclude tomorrow night, and while the fans of the two teams have likely been on the edges of their seats, not much has happened in a playoff baseball sense. The teams have played four pretty much average baseball games and they’ve split them.

The statistical revolution has taught us that there’s little difference between picking the winner of a five-game series to move on and the winner of a seven-game series; the seven-game series gives a better chance for the “better” team to win, but the 162-game season is a much better way of determining that. To that end, statisticians accuse writers of making stuff up about the postseason by calling postseason performances “clutch,” and exalting the players who perform in the “clutch” as having some sort of supernatural ability to do so. I’ve written about this tension before. I believe it’s perfectly acceptable to say someone who performs well in a big playoff game has performed well in the “clutch,” because it otherwise trivializes the postseason, which I think trivializes the game itself. Players play, on the emotional side, both for the love of it and for the idea that they might win the World Series one day. Until we can separate out those discrete elements, I’m okay with creating narratives based on postseason performance—or, to put it a better way, using postseason performance as a jumping-off point for narratives about the people who play the game. Many stathead writers are not journalists, and journalists are taught that anyone’s story is interesting if told well. The postseason just hands journalists the stories. The journalists should not be reckless in telling the stories, but they are legitimate.

My problem is that with rare exceptions, the Division Series seems less like a round of any consequence and more like a bridge from the regular season to the playoffs. It feels incredibly arbitrary in a way the five-game NBA first-round series didn’t used to feel. It doesn’t feel like the playoffs. It creates winners without creating stories. Rather than expand the playoffs to five games, I wish they’d expand the Division Series to best-of-seven.