Note: this is the last post I'll be putting up for a little while, as I'm taking a quick trip back East through next Monday. I'll still try to put up the playoff game threads, but if I can't get to a computer, you guys know the drill.
I was talking to my Red Sox fan brother last night about the playoffs. How Boston matches up with Cleveland, whether CC Sabathia is better than Josh Beckett, why the Diamondbacks are still alive, all the usual stuff. None of that is anything extraordinary, but we did talk a little about something that really got me thinking. In baseball, what does October actually prove?
In theory, the MLB playoffs are all about crowning the best team in the league. They're no different than any other tournament in that regard, where the last team left standing - the one team to defeat all of its competition - is said to be the best. But the older I've grown and the more baseball I've watched, the more I've come to believe that this isn't really true at all. St. Louis in 2006? Florida in 2003? Arizona in 2001? We're supposed to believe that these were the cream of the crop?
In my opinion, baseball has two main things working against it when it comes to calling the playoff winner the "best", things that you don't see in, say, hockey, where I believe the playoffs do usually accomplish their intent.
(1) Team depth means little in October
(2) Luck (or, if you prefer, non-repeatable skill) is a bigger component of baseball than any other major sport
As far as #1 is concerned, while there are a bunch of things here, you need look no further than playoff rotations. Fourth starters get barely any work, and fifth starters don't see the light of day. Topheavy rotations, like Arizona's in 2001, therefore have a significant built-in October advantage over the deeper, more balanced variety, an advantage that doesn't exist during the summer. Why should this be the case? Why favor a team that puts everything it has in its top two starters and neglects the back of the rotation? Should that really be part of our definition of the "best team in the league"?
With that said, #2 is at least as big an issue, if not bigger. While batters can generally control how well they hit the ball, they have very, very little say in where it goes afterwards. Jeter's double play yesterday, for example, was just a few feet away from being a crucial RBI single, a hit that would've changed the dynamic of the entire series. Was it Jeter's fault that he happened to hit it within the range of an infielder? While you can argue that "he should've timed his swing better," the fact of the matter is that no batter in baseball history has demonstrated the ability to put the ball where he wants. There is no skill involved in rolling grounders through the hole, or making your line drives avoid the left fielder. This isn't like taking a shot in hockey or basketball, or throwing a pass in football, where you can have incredibly good aim with the ball/puck; this is, in large part, random chance. A batter can't even consistently hit a pitch to the same side of the field, much less hit a ball to a specific tiny zone between the defenders.
These randomly-determined outcomes typically balance out over a long enough period of time, but when you're talking about samples as small as three or five or seven games, you can end up with teams advancing for reasons that were by and large out of their hands. And the second you concede that possibility, you have to be willing to consider that World Series winners can be complete and utter flukes.
In a sport like hockey or basketball, you can have your anomalous results in individual games, but once you go to a best-of-seven format, you're eliminating a lot of the noise. There isn't nearly as much room for "luck" in either sport - you end up with series that really do pit one team's talent and ability to adjust up against another's. Not to mention that, in both playoffs, entire teams are playing against each other, and you can't really hide players from action very easily while riding one or two stars. The best player on a basketball team is only one of five on the court, and in hockey even the top line is only on the ice for 20-25 minutes as game. It's depth against depth, just as (I think) it ought to be.
I don't mean to diminish the thrill of watching the October playoffs. The magic's still real, and the suspense is still nerve-wracking. I just think it's important to recognize the difference between chasing a trophy and chasing a title as the best team in the league. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand, and nowhere is this more apparent than it is with baseball. I mean, this year alone, unless Boston wins the Series, we can say with a high degree of certainty that the title went to an underdog. Nobody else - except for the Yankees - really comes close to their level of ability. If someone else wins the Series, they will have been the best team in October, but they won't have been the best team in the league.
Of course, in the end, this isn't much more than a thought exercise, because as much as everyone wants to be called the best, they don't hang banners for having the most wins or the highest run differential. People play sports to get that trophy, and once it's theirs, nothing you can say can ruin the moment. Just ask Mike Eruzione. Sometimes it isn't about being the best. Sometimes it's about being the best story. And that, I think, is what makes October so compelling. So the Cardinals may not have been the best team in baseball last year. Who really cares? Certainly not the Cardinals.