A common gripe, as Major League Baseball’s postseason ballooned in recent years, has been that the lowered standard of admission would devalue and de-intensify the regular season. Gotta-have-it games, tough managerial decisions, final-out bursts of euphoria or despair — for the best teams, the teams that really matter, these sorts of things would be consigned to October, the six preceding months a mere formality.
Last weekend in Atlanta, those worries were proven overblown, as the Braves and New York Mets entered a three-game series with the National League East — and a bye into the divisional round of the playoffs — on the line. The baseball was as nerve-shredding as anyone could want, each in the massing pile of Braves homers transferring a season’s worth of tension from one dugout to the other. As Atlanta swept the series, the importance of the outcome assuaged any doubts about September baseball still having the capacity to matter.
In fact, for a Mets team that led its division all but seven days of the calendar (one of those, unluckily, being the last one), it mattered maybe a little too much. Manager Buck Showalter and his players say what they have to, and the sentiments are true: They are one of a dozen teams left, with 101-win quality to lean on and everything still to play for. But if the expanded Wild Card round offers solace to a quality team like New York, in the sense that it no longer has to sweat a one-game dice roll, it also threatens to undermine a playoff run before it starts, by arithmetic or attrition .
The most meaningful number is also the most obvious. Four playoff series are harder to win than three. Before their first game against Atlanta on Friday night, when the Mets clung to their lead, the team’s chances of winning the World Series sat at 10 percent, per FiveThirtyEight’s playoff odds. After the capper, they shrunk to 5 percent. Stylistically and qualitatively, the Mets changed very little over that weekend; they remain a contact-rich club headlined by a couple heart-of-the-order thumpers and a pair of still-fearsome aces in Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer. Now, they are that same team with one more matchup separating it from a title.
Deeper numbers bear out the slim solace of “just getting in.” Since the introduction of the Wild Card round in 2012 — the first time in MLB postseason history that one championship-seeking team might have to play more series than another — only three participating teams have even reached the World Series. This is despite the fact that the best Wild Card teams have tended to be significantly better during the regular season than the worst division winners.
We can see this if we reconstruct the current six-teams-per-league seeding format going back to the first postseason of MLB’s wild-card era (1995). Over that span, the average No. 4 seed — ie, the highest-ranked non-division winner in each league — has a winning percentage of .574, while the average No. 3 seed — the worst division winner — sits at just . 561. Digging further, the best wild card usually has more in common, by Pythagorean record and runs scored and allowed per game, with the second-seeded division winner than the worst division winner does.
MLB’s No. 4 seeds are usually more like No. 2s than No. 3s
Average records and scoring statistics by hypothetical seed number in each league for MLB teams, 1995-2021
This means many seasons under the current system will produce a wild card team like the Mets, a team whose numbers look more like the bye-winners than the rest of the opening-series hoi polloi. Since 1995, 56 percent of leagues produced a No. 4 seed better than the No. 3 by winning percentage; 22 percent produced a No. 4 better than the No. 2! (Sometimes there have even been two wild card teams as good as the bye-earning No. 2 seed.) In a game as absurd and fluke-ridden as postseason baseball, being the better team is not worth nearly as much as getting a head start within the format itself.
The Mets’ purported silver lining, of course, is that instead of playing in the old Wild Card system, wherein one bad night can undo a season’s worth of work, they now get a best-of-three set against the Padres, with all of the games at home, to show their stuff. Any uptick in sample size, however meager, offers a truer read on things and therefore benefits a team with a plus-166 regular-season run differential matching up against one that managed a little more than a quarter of that. But if the Mets use deGrom and Scherzer to win that series, it will leave their pitching rotation woefully unoptimized while their potential second-round opponent, the Los Angeles Dodgers, sets theirs. As ESPN’s David Schoenfield wrote, if New York’s two aces open the Wild Card round, they would be unable to make three combined starts on regular rest during a five-game divisional series. Starting pitching represents the Mets’ best shot at counteracting the Dodgers’ all-fronts dominance, but barring short-rest heroics, the bulk of the series will have Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker dealing with Mookie Betts, Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman.
Unlike in years past, there is no real injustice here. The 2022 Mets are not the 2021 Dodgers, whose reward for 106 wins — the second-most in baseball and in their division — was to host the Cardinals in a winner-take-all game. New York finished this season with a record worse than or equal to three of the four teams skipping the opening round. The sadness of their season’s end, with a once-10.5-game lead evaporating in the last week, is not a fluke of MLB’s goofy bylaws but the byproduct of good old-fashioned baseball heartbreak. (As an aside, it also wasn’t a collapse, by any reasonable measure. The Mets played .624 ball — a 101-win pace per 162 — since July 1; the Braves simply held to a higher level, at .667 — or a scorching 108-win pace.)
Despite the disappointment of an excellent season suddenly yielding no more benefits than have been tossed to the Cleveland Guardians, the Mets have publicly thought positive. “I am proud of everything they have done,” Showalter said of his players after the Braves sweep. “This is not conditional. It’s unconditional, the support, and if I know these guys they will rebound and make somebody feel their pain.”
If the Mets don’t cash in their winningest season since 1986 with a matching championship, the particulars will be to blame: the untimely cooling of this or that bat, a slider or changeup left a few inches too high. But if September can’t seal the fate of a World Series hopeful, it can help it along. Baseball is a treacherous game rife with bad breaks. The less of it you have to play before you get your trophy, the better.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.