Back in the summer, when the San Francisco Giants made their presence known and the NL West truly became a race, I had a premonition. No, it was not a full-on prediction, nor was I anywhere close to certain it would play out this way. But in the back of my mind, it was one of the scenarios that gained traction every day that the NL West race intensified.
Once Los Angeles and San Francisco engaged in a best-in-the-West/best-in-the-world frenzy, one thing became abundantly clear: MLB’s silly playoff format was going to likely force these two titans to square off in the Division Series, NOT the National League Championship Series that they ultimately would deserve after the Giants won 107 games and the Dodgers won 106, tops in the majors. If that were to happen, the two “other” division winners would face off in a “consolation series,” if you will, with the loser setting up to be a sacrificial lamb to the LA-SF winner. At least, that’s what the masses would have you believe.
But not me.
You see, the 2015 New York Mets were that team in my aforementioned premonition, and they were more than just a poster-child for what the Braves are experiencing right now. They were also proof positive that baseball’s playoff format needs fixing. Specifically, it needs fixing back, to the one rule that was in place prior to the advent of the Wild Card Game in 2012: that two teams from the same division cannot play each other until the LCS. Six years ago, that Mets team finished as the No. 3 seed in the National League despite winning 90 games, the fewest of the five qualifying postseason teams. However, the three teams with the most wins all happened to reside in the NL Central: the Cardinals (100-62), Pirates (98-64), and Cubs (97-65). As it would play out, the three Central teams all played each other and only one advanced to the NLCS. As luck would have it, that team was the wild card Cubs.
On the opposite side of the bracket, the two “other” teams, the Mets and Dodgers (92-70) faced off in a five-game set. New York outlasted LA in that series, and their fortunes allowed them to avoid playing either of the top two teams in the league. With the upstart Cubs advancing as a wild card entrant, New York, winner of the NL East (or is it the NL Least?) also got the benefit of homefield advantage in the NLCS. And wouldn’t you know? They took the first two games at home before going on to sweep the Cubs, who apparently had burned themselves out after winning 12 of 13 prior to the NLCS.
Fast forward six years, and we appear to be in the same boat with the 2021 Braves. Like that Mets team, the Braves were underwhelming for the better part of the first four months of the season. Atlanta was actually a game under .500 at the All-Star break before turning things around. In fact, it was during the penultimate game of the first half that Atlanta lost its superstar outfielder, Ronald Acuña Jr., to a torn ACL. Much like the 2015 Mets, who caught fire after the trade-deadline acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, the Braves also revamped their outfield in Acuña’s absence, leading to a major turnaround. Both teams surged down the stretch to take the underwhelming division. But both teams also hardly felt the need to apologize when they went into October and rose from apparent obscurity to the cream of the crop.
This may add further fuel to the notion of playoff expansion, which I personally don’t care for. That said, there are valid arguments on both sides. You may hear some extra grumbling coming from north of the border, where the 90-win Blue Jays did not even reach a Game 163 tiebreaker, let alone the postseason, while the 88-win Braves not only reached the playoffs, but did so as division champions who ended up with homefield advantage in the NLCS over a team that won 106 games.
It may also continue the narrative that baseball’s postseason is nothing more than a crapshoot, where any random team can just get hot and surge its way to the World Series despite looking like the inferior team on paper. I will counter this argument by saying for every 2015 Mets or potential 2021 Braves (remember, this is still an Atlanta sports team, and it did squander a 3-1 lead to LA last year in this same spot), there are plenty more top-tier teams that won titles as they were “supposed” to, like the 2018 Red Sox (108 wins), 2017 Astros (101 wins), and 2016 Cubs (103 wins).
I don’t want to take anything away from the Braves, just as I don’t want to take anything away from those 2015 Mets, but their paths to October success leave much to be desired. What if Atlanta had been pitted against the Giants in the opening round, and then had to face the Dodgers (even if it still had homefield avantage) after LA advanced past Milwaukee? What if those Mets had squared off against the 100-win Cardinals in the NLDS? Of course we’ll never know and it doesn’t matter now, but ideally we would be able to guard against this scenario in the future.
As the Braves push forward and sit on the brink of their first pennant in 22 years, they may do so as a team that won 18 and 19 fewer regular-season games than the league’s supposed two best teams. Still, they are playing far better than you would expect an 88-win team to play at this time of year, and like their 2015 Mets brethren, the path to success has been a little bit clearer than anticipated.