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What Happened to the Top Playoff Teams?

Yordan Alvarez playing for the Houston Astros; CC by license 2.0

For as long as baseball has played 162 games in their regular seasons, winning 100 ballgames represented a threshold of greatness. 100-win clubs were special, they had proven themselves to be elite. In 2023, three teams managed to surpass the benchmark of greatness: the Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Dodgers. Stunningly, the three teams managed to go 1 for 10 in the Divisional Series and all three will watch the remainder of the 2023 MLB Season from home. In recent days, many around baseball have offered theories as to how three seemingly loaded teams could all be bounced so early.

While the elimination of the Orioles, Braves, and Dodgers, came as a surprise to the baseball world, perhaps it shouldn’t have. A year ago, in the first year of the 12-team postseason structure, three of the league’s four 100-win teams went home after the Division Series, with the fourth going on to capture a World Championship. Recalling last year’s epic collapses by 75% of the league’s 100-win clubs, many have turned to the league’s expanded postseason structure as a potential cause. We examined the expanded postseason structure in depth a month ago.

Many people have pointed to the byes given to the top two seeds in each league as a potential reason for the flat performances of top teams in the divisional round. Due to the bye, the top teams end up with 5 days off between their final regular season contest and opening the divisional round. When asked if the bye affected his club, Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts said, “Certainly, not ideal. I think anyone that’s picked up a baseball bat understands that baseball is a rhythm sport. But when you’re mired in it, you’re in it and you can’t let that bleed into your thought process. You’ve got to make the best of whatever circumstance, and we clearly didn’t.” The issue with the layoff argument is that the downtime between the regular season and divisional round is merely one day longer than the All-Star break. As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports said, “If the bye is that big of a deal, give the top teams the choice between the bye and playing the Wild Card Series. I think we all know how that would go.”

FanGraphs studied the effects of a layoff between games by looking at the historical results of MLB postseason contests where one team had not played in 4 or more days and the other had played within the last 2 days. Including this year, 35 such games have occurred. The team with more rest has won 24 of them. The teams with more rest would have only been expected to win 19 of the 35 games based on the expected win percentage.

If the bye is not the problem, then what is? One common thread among all three teams was a stunning lack of production from star players. Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna Jr. and Matt Olson; Baltimore’s Cedric Mullins and Adley Rutschman; and Los Angeles’ Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman combined for 608 regular season runs batted in. In the postseason, they failed to drive in a solitary run. Freeman and Betts went a combined 1 for 21 in the Dodgers’ 3 game series, and Betts said, “I did absolutely nothing to help us win.” In any sport, the truth is when stars fail to show up, teams usually go home. The Dodgers, Orioles, and Braves found that out the hard way.

While the prevailing sentiment expressed by fans and pundits alike is that these three upsets were entirely unpredictable, there is reason to believe the supposed edge held by these three clubs over their opponents was much smaller than their records may have indicated. First, take the Atlanta Braves and the victorious Philadelphia Phillies. The Braves finished the regular season with a 14-game lead over the Phillies in the National League East. However, the Phillies were merely 2 games worse than the Braves after the All-Star break, suggesting that the two teams that would meet in the NLDS were actually evenly matched.

While the Baltimore Orioles won 11 more ballgames than the Texas Rangers, there was reason to believe that the Rangers were a stronger or equal ballclub. When using Pythagorean win-loss, which is based on run differential, the Rangers actually possessed a 3-game advantage over the Orioles. Furthermore, the Orioles starting pitching staff has been a source of concern for many followers of the club for the past two seasons. The Orioles did not sufficiently address this shortcoming of their roster as they only acquired serviceable veteran arms while failing to acquire the kind of starting pitcher who can alter a postseason series, and in turn, the trajectory of a franchise.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Dodgers entered their series with the Arizona Diamondbacks with a pitching rotation held together with hope and a prayer. Clayton Kershaw, the longtime Dodgers ace, again led the team’s postseason staff. While the aging Kershaw is one of the greatest ever to toe the rubber and showed runs of dominance this season, he was forced to get by in a way that was not conducive to the postseason environment. Kershaw’s average fastball velocity had dipped into the 10th percentile. Furthermore, Kershaw was forced to rely much more heavily on his slider, throwing it 43.4% of the time. Overall, Kershaw allowed sweet spot contact and hard-hit balls at a rate higher than the league average despite pitching to a sub 3.00 ERA. While Kershaw was receiving favorable outcomes during the regular season, there should have been reason to believe that his performance may not translate into October. Kershaw was joined in Dodgers rotation by rookie Bobby Miller, and veteran Lance Lynn who allowed more home runs than any other pitcher in Major League Baseball in 2023. Overall, the three of them combined to pitch to a 25.07 ERA in the NLDS.

Pitching was far from the only issue plaguing the Dodgers, Orioles, and Braves. The Dodgers and Braves, two of the league’s top regular season offenses, only managed to produce 2 runs per game in the postseason. As Zach Kram of the Ringer pointed out, “Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman, and Matt Olson—the likely top four finishers for the NL MVP award—batted a combined .137/.241/.157 in the playoffs, with only a single extra-base hit in 51 at-bats.” The collective offensive failure of these four star players dealt a devastating blow to their teams.

All told, there are plenty of reasons why all of baseball’s 100-win clubs in 2023 will watch the remainder of the postseason from the couch. They may have been rusty from an elongated break, although the date suggests otherwise. They may not have been the quality of the team indicated by their record. They may have relied upon pitching staffs with fundamental flaws. They may have been let down by stunning no-show performances from undisputed great players. They may have simply played three bad games at the worst time imaginable. The shortest, simplest, and perhaps most accurate explanation for what happened is an old adage of the game: that’s baseball. Baseball is unpredictable. No matter the analytics, statistics, computer models, or any other attempt to predict outcomes, one fact will remain: Baseball can be random. Baseball is a game of inches. The smallest margins separate a long fly out from a home run, a base hit from a line out, and a win from a loss. It’s why we all watch. It’s why the game is fun. It’s what makes baseball America’s pastime.


Baseball Savant

Baseball Reference

Bleacher Report

CBS Sports


NBC Sports


The Ringer


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