The 2022 Los Angeles Dodgers were an unholy juggernaut of baseball dominance–with 111 wins, they defeated their opponents with surgical precision throughout the season, amassing the highest win total of any MLB team since 2001. They lost one of the best free agents of last offseason–shortstop Corey Seager–and replaced him seamlessly with Trea Turner, and then signed Freddie Freeman to boot. They are the closest thing to a perfect baseball team that there is–they spend a ton of money, yes, but they maximize the efficiency of their spending and invest heavily in their player development program. They used money to acquire Freddie Freeman, developed talented players like Will Smith and those that they were able to flip for the likes of Trea Turner, combined player development in the acquisition of Mookie Betts and financial might with the ease of extending Mookie Betts, and even have spun some Devil Magic with the likes of Tyler Anderson and, lest you forget how easily any other team in baseball could’ve had him a few years ago, Max Muncy, or a few years prior to that, Justin Turner.

And then they lost three out of four games to a different good baseball team and now their season is over and we are forced to reckon with two distinct lies–that the Dodgers somehow lack some sort of intestinal fortitude to win a championship (and 2020 doesn’t count) and that the Dodgers finishing 22 games ahead of the San Diego Padres team that defeated them in the National League Division Series is completely irrelevant. On the other side of the National League bracket lies a similar situation, where a Philadelphia Phillies team that won 87 games and finished fourteen games back of the Atlanta Braves, all the way back in third place, defeated the Braves and will now face the Padres in the National League Championship Series.

Five teams in Major League Baseball won 99 or more games this season–so far, three (the Mets, the Braves, the Dodgers) have been eliminated from the postseason while a fourth–the New York Yankees–will fight for its playoff life tonight against the Cleveland Guardians. To compare the playoffs to college basketball’s March Madness is a bit extreme–the worst teams in any given MLB playoff field are still winning professional teams and no upset is nearly as stunning as, say, the University of Maryland Baltimore County defeating the #1 seed Virginia Cavaliers in the first round of the 2018 tournament–but upsets are considerably more common.

For most of Major League Baseball’s history of having a formal postseason, the season went as follows–two separate division-less leagues (consisting of eight teams most of the time, but with a jump to ten in the 1960s) played wholly independent of one another, one team emerged from each league with the best record, and then those teams played in the World Series. There would occasionally be mismatches–the 1927 Yankees, for instance, finished the season with 16 more victories than their World Series opponents, the Pittsburgh Pirates–but by and large this assured a postseason consisting of two very good baseball teams, and the Pirates could at least credibly claim that there was no evidence that, even if the Yankees had won more games, that they had done so in a superior league. But starting in 1969, Major League Baseball split its leagues into divisions and thus league-specific playoffs were born. The first “wild card” teams in baseball came during the lifetimes of most people reading this–in 1995.

The impact of an extended postseason on the competitive landscape and whether a victorious team “deserved” a championship is largely irrelevant to the discussion of why Major League Baseball has blown out its playoffs, which has tripled the percentage of teams involved in them since 1968. The reason why, of course, is that Major League Baseball wants to make money–extra playoff games means extra revenue both from television networks and via ticket sales, and for as much as there is presently an outcry about the bastardization of the regular season, over 64 million people attended MLB games in 2022 despite an ongoing viral pandemic and the fact that a solid third of the league isn’t even trying to field a competitive team.

The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won 83 games, barely held on to win a terrible division after squandering 6 1/2 games worth of breathing room over the course of nine games in late September, and stumbled into a World Series with a roster held together by Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter, and duct tape. Two years earlier, the Cardinals won 105 games on the strength of three MVP Candidates If Barry Bonds Had Just Retired Or Went To The American League Or Something Before The Season and were curb-stomped in the World Series. Ultimately, the Cardinals got the title they deserved, with most of the meaningful contributors from 2004 still on the team by 2006, but this is, for those who do not believe in literal karma, a coincidence. You could easily argue that the 2004 team “deserved” the title and that the 2006 team didn’t. You could argue that the 2006 Cardinals got lucky that the Detroit Tigers forgot how to play defense and you could argue that the 2011 Cardinals got lucky that Ron Washington didn’t opt for a defensive substitution in right field in Game 6 of the World Series, or, heck, you could just argue that the 2011 Phillies were the better team (for a non-Cardinals example of this effect, consider that this Phillies team made it further in the postseason than that one).

Chaos both breathes life into the postseason and gives everything a sense of meaninglessness. I rooted for the Washington Nationals in the 2019 World Series, as the Houston Astros were in the midst of their aggressive heel turn and I like seeing long-suffering fan bases win (side note: go Padres), but it does seem a bit silly that a team that didn’t win its division won the World Series while a Dodgers team that won 106 games had a lousy couple innings in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Nationals and is now viewed as choking. Every Spring, when the NBA and NHL playoffs run parallel, I tend to focus more on the chaos of the NHL playoffs (also, I have more of a vested interest in an NHL team than I do in an NBA team, and that team usually makes the playoffs, so that’s probably a fair side note) in the early rounds, but when the inevitable NBA superpowers make it to the conference and league finals, I tend to find that more engaging that watching, say, the 18th best team in the National Hockey League fluke its way to the finals, as happened in 2021 with the Montréal Canadiens.

Forget that Major League Baseball is never going to turn back the clock on their playoff format–the tournament will only grow longer, and even if some revenue-increasing steps are taken that make a deserving champion more likely (say, making the League Division Series seven games and the Wild Card Series five games), this will only make a marginal difference. Sometimes a deserving champion will emerge, like the 2016 Chicago Cubs or 2018 Boston Red Sox (even if I don’t like admitting they were deserving), and sometimes an 88-win Atlanta Braves team depending on Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler will win a World Series while a 101-win team with Ronald Acuña Jr. back in the fold will not.

Regular season success will never again be rewarded in the ways it was when the World Series was the entirety of the postseason, but the absence of a trophy does not make the regular season meaningless. Dodgers fans should celebrate a 111-win season–as viral as Paul Thornton of the Los Angeles Times went this weekend with a catnip pull quote about how the postseason should just be canceled and the Dodgers crowned champions, the sentiment wasn’t wrong–that fans are witnessing unparalleled success but without the ability to, according to the rules of the game, truly enjoy it, as they cannot declare themselves victors outside of a 60-game season where the championship was defined mostly by a COVID-positive Justin Turner celebrating on the field pre-vaccines. I may have no love lost for Los Angeles sports–have fun watching a point guard who makes $44 million a season coming off the bench and watching your quarterback unable to communicate on the field because visiting fans are the ones actually attending your football games–but the Dodgers are unable to celebrate their tremendous accomplishments because they have bought into the myth that all that does or should matter is resolved over impossibly brief sets of games in October.

Every season, the NHL awards the Presidents’ Trophy to the team which finishes the regular season with the most points in the league. It is considered a secondary trophy to the Stanley Cup, and in St. Louis, it is borderline derided, since the one time the St. Louis Blues won it, they proceeded to lose in the first round of the playoffs. But the Blues still accepted the trophy, and they should have. Just as they were right to accept the Stanley Cup that they won following a season where they finished in third place in their own division. Regular season and postseason success are not competing values–they are both, in their own ways, part of what makes sports fandom great. And in a world that is going to be chaotic whether you want it to be or not, embracing any victory available to you is the way to go.

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