I got into a debate on social media the other day as to whether or not being in the World Series meant the teams facing off were the best teams in baseball. I think that are not, clearly, and not just because my team didn’t make it past the NLDS.
Back in the olden days, there was the National Association of Professional Baseball Clubs (aka, The National League). At the end of the season (except for a few years of experimentation and the four years the American Association was in existence), the team at the top of the standings at the end of the year was known to be the best team. I’d say those years, starting in 1871 and ending in the early 1900’s when the American League came into existence, were the only ones where the question could be answered with simplicity and authority. After that, it becomes progressively murkier.
In 1903, the first World Series was held between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the team that would become the Boston Red Sox. The series went to Boston. From about then to 1969, you could still reasonably argue that the winner of the World Series was the best team in baseball since the two teams that played were simply the ones at the top of the standings at the end of their seasons and, since they played in different leagues, they hadn’t faced each other all year. But in ’69 came divisions and the Divisional Series. The two best teams in each division at the end of the season played for the Pennant and the right to represent the league in the World Series.
Here’s where it starts to get less clear. It is possible the best teams in each league weren’t the ones to win each division. The two best could easily be in one division while the winner of the other division could actually be worse than the second best team in the other. This was all made even more complicated in 1994 when the leagues, laden with expansion teams that probably shouldn’t have been added in the first place, split into three divisions and the dreaded Wild Card was created.
The Wild Card was the team with the best non-division winning record. On paper, that might make things fairer since that non-winning record could still be better than the other two division winners. But in 2012 the waters were further muddied with the addition of second wild card team in each league who had to play a single game (a single game!) against the other Wild Card team to see who got the right to play in the rest of the postseason. A play-in game, not a play-off game.
How this has played out in 2014 is as follows. The Kansas City Royals could not maintain a lead in the American League Central division over the Detroit Tigers but, since they beat the Oakland Athletics in their single play-in game, they’ve been able to play well enough to make it to the World Series. Similarly, the San Francisco Giants had but could not maintain their hold on the National League West division but, since they beat the Pirates in their play-in game, were given the opportunity to make their way to the World Series.
In the Royals case, their record against the Tigers was 5-13. The Tigers totally owned them all year long. In the case of the Giants, their record against their divisional champion Los Angeles Dodgers wasn’t quite so lopsided at 9-10, but they only managed to beat the Dodgers twice in nine attempts after the All-Star break. Neither the Giants nor the Royals faced these apparently better, more dominant teams in the playoffs because both of them fell in the first round to the Cardinals and the Orioles respectively. Further complicating this picture is the relatively recent addition of Interleague Play to the MLB season. The Royals played the Dodgers three time and lost twice.
My position isn’t that either of these Wild Card teams don’t deserve to be in the World Series. They got there according to the rules and the winner will rightfully be crowned the World Champion. But neither of these teams were able to actually win when they had to to take their divisions over the long, hard slough of the regular season. Both (especially the Royals) were dominated by divisional rivals that neither had to face in the payoffs. They are good teams, but how anyone can say that just because they made it to the World Series makes them the best is genuinely beyond me.
The best teams in baseball are those with the best W-L records at the end of 162-game season. This season, that would mean the Los Angeles Angels with the best overall record of any MLB team in the AL and the Washington Nationals over in the NL. The MLB Postseason, with all it’s twists and turns and obfuscating play-in games, isn’t what it used to be with regard to determining the best team. It’s like another little season where only the top teams play that lasts a month at the end of the regular season.
Just because the Giants or Royals can win the most games against four teams in twenty games doesn’t make up for the fact that they couldn’t win the most against thirty over 162. Again, they do deserve to be in the World Series. They just don’t deserve to call themselves the best teams in the game just because they got there.