The Colorado Rockies wrapped up the fourth and final National League playoff spot Thursday night when they beat Milwaukee and eliminated the Braves. With all four National League spots accounted for, all that remains to be determined is the order in which they finish, and who plays the Yankees over on the American League side of the bracket.
The Tigers take their 2-game lead and host the Chicago White Sox for the final three games of their season while the Twins welcome Zack Greinke and the Royals to the Metrodome for what could be the final three games in that godforsaken stadium.
Since 2000, eight major league teams have won the nine World Series titles. Hockey isn’t too far behind in parity as seven teams have won the nine Stanley Cups (although one was canceled due to a labor strike), and the NFL has seen seven teams win the ten Super Bowls since 2000. The NBA is by far the worst, with five teams winning championships in the last ten years. The Lakers have four titles, the Spurs three.
So what is it that makes baseball such a crapshoot and how do teams set themselves up for postseason champagne showers? It’s partially the make-up of the playoffs, as baseball allows the lowest percentage of teams into the end of season tournament. There are eight spots for the thirty MLB teams to fight for over the course of the season, or 26.7%. The NFL takes twelve of it’s 32 teams (37.5%), the NHL and the NBA both allow a whopping 16 of their 30 (53.3%) to become eligible for the postseason.
The Major League Baseball playoffs feature the smallest amount of games from major sports that utilize the “series” method in the playoffs. The MLB playoffs however, are the only sport that is drastically changed once the playoffs begin. Because of the drive for primetime TV ratings, instead of playing every day like they do in the regular season, teams will receive an off-day for nearly every game they play.
There are three main areas that World Series champions tend to excel in.
FRONT-LOADED STARTING PITCHING
The change in scheduling shifts the advantage from teams with starting pitching depth to the teams that have front-loaded starting rotations. Because of the off-days, teams can get by in a series, especially a short 5-game one, utilizing only their top three starting pitchers. Baseball is really the only major sport that uses something like a starting rotation.
Over the course of a regular season, you’d want to have five and preferably a few extra quality starting pitchers. If you’ve got that, then you’ll most likely ride their arms right into the playoffs. But once there, your six above-average guys are trumped by the team that has two absolute studs.
Runs are typically at a premium in playoff games, so preventing as many as you can is crucial. Every out in the playoffs is important, and most of the batters are the better ones in the league, so giving up outs by making boneheaded plays just gives those hitters one more chance to scratch out a run.
Defensive fundamentals save runs, and although preventing runs is important in the regular season, it’s more so in October. Knowing which base to throw to, hitting cutoff men executing defensive game plans are of extra import in the playoffs. Good defenses keep your team off the field and gives you a chance to do something at the plate.
Getting a lead in a postseason game is hard enough, but holding onto it is even harder. The last three outs are still just three of twenty-seven outs you need to get in order to win the game, but for some reason, getting them has become the most impossible feat in sports to accomplish.
If you’ve got a guy sitting out in the bullpen that you know is going to jog in, toss a few warm-up pitches and then mow down the other teams 3-4-5 hitters, you can afford to start worrying about other stuff, and there’s plenty for managers to think about.
All it really takes is for a team to get hot for a couple of weeks at the right time and you can walk away with a championship, leaving better all-around teams behind you (2006 Cardinals).
But there really is a way to build for playoff success. Set yourself up with a solid start to the game, play good defense behind your pitchers, take a few timely hits and then have your closer ready to slam the door. With all the off days, a team is only as good as it’s best pitchers.
Offense really takes a back seat in the playoffs as so many great pitchers take the ball so often. That juggernaut offense will get you into the playoffs, but the good pitching beats good hitting mantra is more truth than fiction for a reason.
The NBA and NHL playoffs are too long and have too many teams in them to be any good and there just aren’t enough games in the NFL playoffs. Major League Baseball has a goldmine of a playoff system set up and it’s getting ready to start. And I can’t wait.