The 2023 MLB playoffs provided a fascinating case study on the impact of momentum in postseason baseball. In this year’s playoffs, three wildcard teams with 90 wins each faced off against division winners with over 100 wins, and the wildcard teams managed to upset the higher-seeded teams. These outcomes highlight the importance of momentum in baseball, as the teams coming off wildcard victories had the wind at their backs, while the division winners who had a week off seemed to struggle.
Atlanta Braves vs. Philadelphia Phillies
The first game details the Braves’ struggle in Game 1 of the NLDS against the Phillies. The Phillies, who had to fight through the wildcard game, managed to defeat the division-winning Braves 3-0. Spencer Strider had a strong performance on the mound for the Braves, but a costly error and a home run by Bryce Harper proved to be the difference-makers. The Braves’ usually potent offense went cold, failing to provide the necessary run support.
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Arizona Diamondbacks
The second game, the Los Angeles Dodgers, a dominant team during the regular season, faced off against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who earned their wildcard spot. The Diamondbacks made a stunning statement by beating the Dodgers 11-2 in Game 1 of their NLDS. Clayton Kershaw, a renowned pitcher, had a disastrous start, giving up multiple runs in the first inning. Merrill Kelly, the Diamondbacks’ starter, who had a losing record against the Dodgers, managed to secure the win. This game showcased how a wildcard team with momentum can seize an opportunity and shock a higher-seeded opponent.
Baltimore Orioles vs. Texas Rangers
The third game featured the Baltimore Orioles, who hadn’t seen playoff action in seven years, facing the Texas Rangers in the wildcard game. Despite Texas’s less-than-impressive pitching staff, the Orioles struggled to capitalize on their opportunities and made poor swing decisions. In a frustrating 3-2 loss, the Orioles were outplayed by the Rangers, who had momentum from their previous wildcard victory. This game illustrates how even a minor delay, like a week off, can disrupt a team’s rhythm and timing.
Collectively, these games suggest that wildcard teams, having recently experienced high-stakes games, come into their next playoff series with momentum, confidence, and a competitive edge. In contrast, division-winning teams with a bye week might face challenges related to rustiness, timing, and overall performance. These examples provide real-world evidence of how the momentum gained from wildcard victories can play a crucial role in determining the outcomes of postseason matchups, often leading to surprising upsets.
Baseball is a mental game. The 2023 MLB playoffs provided a striking example of why the current wildcard format, which provides the top two teams in both leagues a week off before they face wildcard winners, may need reevaluation. This format puts the division winners at a significant disadvantage. That is why we saw big upsets in three of the four game ones in the divsion series.
1. Loss of Momentum: One of the most evident issues with the current format is the loss of momentum experienced by the division-winning teams. While wildcard teams come into the division series fresh off the excitement of a must-win game, division winners have had a week-long break, which can disrupt their rhythm, timing, and overall momentum, leaving them at a disadvantage.
2. Competitive Disadvantage: In contrast, wildcard teams, having just proven their mettle in a do-or-die game, enter the division series battle-tested and with a psychological edge. This mental strength and competitive advantage can be a game-changer in the playoffs, where one crucial mistake or missed opportunity can lead to an early exit.
3. Rustiness and Timing: The extended layoff faced by division winners can result in rustiness, particularly in the batter’s box, affecting their timing against major league pitching. In the playoffs, where every fraction of a second counts, this timing can make all the difference.
4. Momentum Advantage of Wild Card Teams: The wildcard format consistently showcases that teams coming off wildcard victories carry valuable momentum into the division series. The resilience and confidence gained from recent success create a distinct advantage. In the 2023 playoffs, this momentum was evident as wildcard teams secured surprising upsets against higher-seeded division winners – the Texans, Phillies, and Diamondbacks, shaking the baseball world.
5. History of Wild Card Success: History further supports the argument against the current format. Wild Card Game winners have compiled a remarkable 9–9 record in League Division Series. They’ve gone 4–5 in the ALDS and 5–4 in the NLDS. This is notable considering that division winners often outperform wildcard teams during the regular season.
6. 2022 Expansion of Wild Card: In 2022, MLB introduced a third Wild Card team in each league, creating a best-of-three Wild Card series. The success of these Wild Card winners in the subsequent divisional round underlines the impact of momentum. These wildcard teams outperformed more dominant counterparts and advanced in the playoffs.
7. NBA Comparison: Contrasting the MLB with the NBA, the absence of a Wild Card in the NBA results in lower-seeded teams lacking the momentum enjoyed by MLB Wild Card teams. This distinction is evident in the NBA’s history, where lower-seeded teams rarely win the championship.
In conclusion, the 2023 playoffs underscore the disadvantages of the current wildcard format, with wildcard teams riding on momentum and frequently upsetting division winners. MLB should consider reevaluating this structure to maintain the fairness and excitement of the playoffs. Whether it’s through reducing the length of the bye week or introducing a “play-in” series between division winners and wildcard teams, changes to the wildcard format can lead to more thrilling, unpredictable, and fair postseasons. By addressing the momentum factor, MLB can ensure that the best team ultimately prevails, while creating more excitement for fans.