Since 1990, MLB’s winningest team has won the World Series just seven times.
The two teams tied for the most single-season wins in MLB history — the 1906 Chicago Cubs and 2001 Seattle Mariners — both had losing playoff records. The 2006 title-winning St. Louis Cardinals had a winning percentage of .516, just above average. And as recently as 2021, the Atlanta Braves — with the 12th-most regular season wins — won the World Series.
The postseason is home to the unpredictable, where healthy rosters and timely performances reign supreme. If anything is to blame for MLB’s best getting bounced this year — the Orioles (101-61), Braves (104-58) and Los Angeles Dodgers (100-62) combined to go 1-9 in the divisional round — it’s the randomness of the playoffs and those teams falling flat for a few days in October, not the five-day break each of them received.
“It’s a round bat and a round ball and a round Earth that we live in, and sometimes, the ball just doesn’t bounce your way,” Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Thursday.
If the best teams were guaranteed to advance, the postseason would have little mystique. And that unknown, both beloved and despised come autumn, reared its head again this year, leaving the league’s three 100-win teams in its wake.
In other words: That’s baseball.
The Braves and Dodgers lost to divisional foes whom they finished at least 14 games ahead of in the regular season. The Orioles were surprisingly swept for the first time since May 2022.
“Still irritated, still frustrated, still pissed,” manager Brandon Hyde said Thursday.
In the 2001 book “Curve Ball,” an analysis of chance in baseball, authors Jim Albert and Jay Bennett simulated 1,000 seasons, finding that the “best” team won the World Series 21% of the time.
“The cream won’t generally rise to the top,” the authors wrote.
Anything can happen in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series and postseason baseball is so revered for the improbability of it all. It’s what makes October heroes: No one could have expected Tito Landrum, who retired with 13 career home runs, to belt the Orioles to victory in the 1983 American League Championship Series.
The playoffs are so gripping because of it. If one team is expected to beat another 55% of the time, the worse club will still win a seven-game series four times out of 10, mathematician Leonard Mlodinow wrote in his 2009 book, “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives.”
The sheer chance of it offers a reminder that just because the Orioles, Braves and Dodgers won 100 games does not mean they were shoo-ins for the next round. It’s a challenge for any team, no matter how good, to win a postseason series.
Over the past two years, since MLB adopted a new playoff system that gave four teams byes through the first round, only three of those eight clubs have advanced past the division series. Some have pointed to rust as the culprit: In a departure from routine, these teams had five days off, which could have a detrimental effect.
The argument holds water. A team successfully churning along all season in a rhythm suddenly changes its schedule. Such a variable could hurt a well-oiled group.
For a team accustomed to playing each day, five days off is a long time. “I don’t think it helps,” Hyde said. “Let’s put it that way.”
But the bye still provides an advantage as those top teams skip the wild-card round. Sure, only three of eight teams (38%) that received byes over the past two years have reached the championship series, but a lower percentage of wild-card teams (5 of 16, or 31%) have done the same, since they must win twice as many series.
Plus, just because the bye-receiving teams fell short this season doesn’t mean they will in future. It’s only been two years, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters Thursday in Philadelphia.
“That is absolutely too small a sample to draw any inferences,” David Berri, a sports and economics professor at Southern Utah University, wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
Before the season ended, many saw the break as a bonus. Orioles outfielder Aaron Hicks noted one big advantage: A team can restart its rotation while other teams might enter a division series with tired arms.
Elias said Thursday he had monitored how other top seeds were faring but shied against using the bye “as an excuse.”
“I do not believe that was the difference between us winning or getting swept in the ALDS the way we did,” he said. “I don’t have a big opinion about it.”
Perhaps the intermission threw the Orioles off a bit. But it was their starting pitchers — players accustomed to several days off between outings — who turned in the poorest performances. Twice, an Orioles starter did not complete the second inning.
Before ALDS Game 2, outfielder Anthony Santander said he didn’t think the playoff format had caused the Orioles problems. Backup catcher James McCann pointed to the Tampa Bay Rays, who held the second-best AL record but were eliminated from the postseason before the divisional round, as evidence of a potential flaw in the system. But he didn’t cite the five-day layoff as an issue while speaking to reporters before Game 3.
“As far as, is there a reason we’re down 0-2? Is it because we had the days off? I don’t think so,” he said. “We easily could have had guys banged up and that [could have given] us time for them to get healthy. I think that’s just a way to change the narrative and that’s not what we’re going to do.”
It’s easy to point to a pattern and blame a new system. But it’s not yet apparent that the format is at fault.
Perhaps next year, the Orioles will win fewer regular-season games but advance farther in the playoffs. That’s baseball.