If you are a fan of one of the ten teams which will participate in the Major League Baseball postseason of 2021, you don’t need these rankings. You will root for your team, and there’s nothing more to say about that. And that’s the way sports work. Your allegiance is not an intellectual pursuit–it is one rooted in your cultural heritage. But for twenty other fan bases, it’s time to find a bandwagon.
In a way, this is the most liberating way to consume the MLB postseason. You can still enjoy the games, but the losses won’t consume you and the anticipation of games won’t eat away at you. But it’s still more fun to have a preference who wins games. And for those who are now tasked with adopting a new team for a few weeks, or possibly a few hours, I am here to help by ranking the ten MLB playoff teams by likability.
#10. Houston Astros: Even if you, like me, don’t really care all that much about the team’s 2018-19 sign-stealing scandal (on some level, I find the whole thing amusingly haphazard), the Astros ooze despicability. This is a team which stripped itself down to its studs in an effort to rebuild, nominally declaring they would start to spend more once the team got good, but then which let Gerrit Cole and George Springer walk in free agency (the Chicago Cubs are even more egregious in this regard, but they aren’t a playoff team). It is a team built on efficiency with no regard for humanity, most famously exhibited through their pursuit of domestic abuser Roberto Osuna, whom the McKinsey creeps who ran the Astros viewed not as a monster but as a market inefficiency–imagine a version of Moneyball where instead of prizing on-base percentage and unconventional pitching deliveries, Billy Beane went to visit violent psychopaths. And even with Osuna and Brandon Taubman gone, players like Carlos Correa continue to embrace a heel, “nobody believes in us” persona which would be a lot more charming if people were mad at the Astros for bat flips rather than for employing monsters.
#9. New York Yankees: Baseball fans of a certain ilk have largely gotten past being mad at the Yankees for spending so much money–better that it go to the players than to the anonymous suits in the owner’s box, and the real problem is that other teams aren’t spending enough, not with what the Yankees are doing. But while the Yankees are not devoid of fun players, such as their treasure trove of enormous outfielders in Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and deadline acquisition Joey Gallo, the constant presence of Gleyber Torres, who himself seems unobjectionable, is a reminder of their ninth inning pitcher, Aroldis Chapman, whom the Yankees have utilized in an even dirtier way than the Astros with Osuna, buying and selling on him and using his domestic violence history as leverage, but managing to somehow convince the Chicago Cubs to ignore it and give up Gleyber Torres for him in 2016. Also, Anthony Rizzo, in addition to being a medical hazard, is one of the sport’s least watchable players, with his propensity for straight up standing in the strike zone–low level crimes compared to Chapman, but unlikable nonetheless.
#8. Atlanta Braves: There are distinct pros–several fun players, such as Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies, and the joy of bandwagoning a sports market repeatedly tortured and without a major sports championship since 1995 (though you could also squint at a map and bandwagon the Georgia Bulldogs football team). But then you remember everything else. There’s the despicable stadium finesse, building Truist Park with largely public financing after barely two decades at Turner Field. There’s the employment of Marcell Ozuna, whose domestic violence charges can’t really be blamed on the Braves, but it’s also going to be impossible to shake the memories that he’s going to get a championship ring if the Braves win it all. There is, in a post-Washington Football Team and Cleveland Guardians world, the knowledge that a team, in 2021, is still doing the Tomahawk Chop, conceding its highly problematic nature only when a Native American is pitching but otherwise being just fine with it. And thanks to injuries, you won’t even get to enjoy rooting for Ronald Acuña Jr., and being tangentially happy that he’s going to get a ring just isn’t as fun.
#7. Los Angeles Dodgers: It is incredible how quickly the Dodgers went from the most likable juggernaut in sports to being just another gross champion that I want to see go away. Literally minutes after they won their first championship in thirty-two years, a recently COVID-19-positive Justin Turner was out on the field, maskless, celebrating in close proximity to his teammates (while the stadium was outdoors, which helps, this is still very much outside of CDC guidance). A few months after their title, the Dodgers signed Trevor Bauer, a pitcher whose history of punching down and harassing women on social media was well-known well before domestic violence charges ended his season in June (my Goddddddddd are there a lot of these cases revolving around the postseason this year) and who has been widely speculated to have doctored baseballs prior to a league-wide crackdown on the so-called “sticky stuff” not long before Bauer’s administrative leave. In case you thought Bauer’s absence meant the team was devoid of pitching creeps, National League wins leader Julio Urías has a domestic battery arrest to his name as well. Even Max Scherzer, extremely likable as he is, is a walking metaphor for how the Dodgers are able to spend their way out of trouble and seemingly act with impunity.
#6. Boston Red Sox: These aren’t your (old brother’s?) Red Sox–they’re much worse at baseball. The trade which sent Mookie Betts away from Boston last year acts as a perfect metaphor for this team–the trade worked in the sense that they got a pretty good starting outfielder in Alex Verdugo out of it, but it made the team unbelievably tedious. This is a team whose season Wins Above Replacement leader was longtime Dodgers utility man Kiké Hernández and counted on a midseason trade for Kyle Schwarber to acquire even one of the best twenty-six hitters in baseball this season with 450 plate appearances. Also, that Boston’s current championship drought of two years, eight months, and two days is considered long by modern standards simply sickens me. Normally, I wouldn’t say this streak is so long that they can’t get another, but Boston owes back payments of sports pain until I’m eighty.
#5. Tampa Bay Rays: Speaking of which, Tampa has two sports titles in 2021, and had a third barely over a year ago. Tom Brady moved to Florida and took his obnoxious victory energy with him. That said, while I do find the Tampa Bay Lightning perfectly likable, in that their underhanded method of sports gamesmanship is actually radically pro-player (they (legally) cheated the NHL’s strict salary cap in order to keep highly-paid star Nikita Kucherov on Injured Reserve until the playoffs started and thus the salary cap no longer existed), the Rays’ allegiance is primarily to paying players as little as possible. This is a team that won 100 games without star players, with Brandon Lowe and Randy Arozarena being the only 4+ WAR players in the group, and with only Kevin Kiermaier making eight figures. It’s an impressive job by the front office, and I don’t begrudge them from working within the constraints handed to them, but the ownership group, which is trying to get both Tampa and Montréal to build them stadiums for some kind of weird joint custody scenario, should be in jail. They don’t deserve happiness, and the fans, while not to blame for this, have had enough winning for the time being.
#4. San Francisco Giants: On some level, I can’t deny that there is some sense of karmic justice when the best team wins, and whether or not the Giants are the best team in baseball (I don’t think they are), they did have the best results in baseball with 107 wins, and that is the thing that matters. The Giants were baseball’s biggest surprise this season, with longtime Giants Buster Posey and Brandons Crawford and Belt (the latter of whom is now injured) helping to carry the team. And aside from Johnny Cueto, who is borderline irrelevant at this point, the Giants are a mostly likable assortment of players, even if the Kris Bryant team isn’t exactly dripping with charisma. But the downside is simple: they’ve had enough. Since the Giants won their first World Series in San Francisco in 2010, no team has won more titles, and while the seven years separating now from the last title is starting to get far enough removed that I’m not quite sick of them, I also know that they aren’t overdue.
#3. Chicago White Sox: The Chicago White Sox have existed throughout the entirety of Major League Baseball’s history and 2020 and 2021 are the first back-to-back playoff appearances they have ever had. The White Sox are not romanticized in the ways the Cubs or Red Sox were for their losing, but they have a passionate fan base that, while they did win a title in 2005, has a lot of catching up to do. And this year’s club is loaded with fun youngsters like Tim Anderson, Yoán Moncada, and Luis Robert and likable veterans like José Abreu, Yasmani Grandal, and Lance Lynn. Their massive downgrade in manager likability from the pleasant Rick Renteria to the curmudgeonly Tony LaRussa is a tough one to withstand, but if you can spin this in a positive direction–enjoying the culture clash between the hyper-traditionalist LaRussa and dynamic stars like Tim Anderson–this is the team to cheer for in the American League.
#2. Milwaukee Brewers: They have a few less-than-ideal marks in the personnel department–Corbin Burnes, after all, would probably be running away with the National League Cy Young Award if he had just gotten his COVID-19 vaccine and didn’t miss time after contracting it, Hunter Strickland is a crusty unwritten rules snob, and while I don’t really have the energy to stay mad at Josh Hader for his (to be clear, extremely bad) tweets from when he was in high school that came to light three and a half years ago, I can’t really begrudge anyone who does. And yes, Milwaukee just won a championship courtesy of the Bucks, so even though the Brewers don’t have one, the city itself can wait. But other than that, this team borders on perfect on the likability charts. The infield is fun–what kind of monster doesn’t like Willy Adames, Luis Urías, and Kolten Wong? While Jackie Bradley Jr., Lorenzo Cain, and Christian Yelich have each seen better days in the outfield, they have provided countless amounts of joy. Their mascot goes down a freakin’ slide after home runs!
#1. St. Louis Cardinals: While a ten-year championship lull for the team and a 2 1/2 year lull for the city may not be enough for you to fully embrace (certainly, the San Diego Padres whom the Cardinals passed for the NL’s second Wild Card wouldn’t have had this problem, and would’ve been #1 with a bullet had they cracked the postseason), the Cardinals as a team are extraordinarily likable, basically without exception. They are the best defensive team in baseball, and with the exception of right field (where their defense is still perfectly fine), they have a Gold Glove candidate mainstay at every spot on the field. They steal more bases than any other postseason team–not necessarily a mark of efficiency, but a mark of exhileration, for sure. They are led by a battery that is a combined seventy-nine years of age, a fascinating contrast with an outfield which combines (with an extra player, mind you) to just seventy-five. Their manager is not some fancy ex-jock but a baseball lifer who started from the bottom. While this playoff field is littered with legitimately disgusting people, the Cardinals’ roster barely has an arrest sheet, and never for violent crimes, and between Jack Flaherty, one of the sport’s loudest social activists, and the team’s rigorous push to get vaccinated against COVID-19, they are as admirable off the field as they are delightful on it. I understand why fans of the other nine teams won’t root for the Cardinals–I can’t explain anyone else.