Does the Best Record In the League Matter?

September 5, 2013 at 11:19 am | Posted in PLAYOFFS | Leave a comment

mattingly_mcgwire_arizona_2013-04-13In the aftermath of yesterday’s “what the hell, let’s start Edinson Volquez and all our backups and wait, did I see Jason Grabowski getting a plate appearance too?” loss to Colorado, I joked that I was going to troll Twitter to see all the grief Don Mattingly would get about it.

As you’d expect, there were dozens, most taking on a form something like this:

While an understandable emotion, from this perspective it’s shockingly short-sighted, complaining about a lineup when the Dodgers are 12.5 games up on Arizona and playing against a non-contender in a stadium they traditionally limp out of. Ten of their next 14 games are against the Reds, who are in the playoff race, and the Diamondbacks, who they still need to officially squash, so I don’t imagine we’re going to be seeing many more lineups like this over the next two weeks, and I absolutely cannot get upset that the starters mostly got a day off yesterday.

Still, the one somewhat valid question that keeps popping up is whether the team squandered a chance to gain on Atlanta for the best record in the National League, especially when the Braves tossed out Kameron Loe (!) yesterday and lost to the Mets, keeping them two games ahead of the Dodgers. While it’s my opinion that having rested players is going to be far more important than the #1 seed and home field advantage — especially because it’s irrelevant in the NLDS and matters only if the Dodgers win the first round and the Braves do as well — it’s still a question worth looking into.

So, does it? The answer in the NL over the last few years is largely “no”. Last year, the Nationals won 98 games and beat out the Reds by one for the top seed. Without Stephen Strasburg, they lost to the wild card Cardinals in five games in the NLDS, as Gio Gonzalez imploded and their offense struggled terribly.

In 2011, the Phillies rolled to 102 wins. They also lost to the wild card Cardinals in five, as Chris Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay in a 1-0 victory in the deciding game. You’ll also notice here that while winning the top seed gets you the chance to face the wild card, it hasn’t really helped either the Nationals or the Phillies over the last two years.

In 2010, the top team (again the Phillies) at least made it out of the first round before losing to the eventual champion Giants in the NLCS. The Phillies had home field advantage, yet split the first two games in Philadelphia, then also lost the deciding Game 6 at home. (That game featured a two inning start from Jonathan Sanchez and relief appearances from Madison Bumgarner & Tim Lincecum. Baseball is weird sometimes.)

In 2009, it was these Dodgers who won 95 games and took the top spot, sweeping the Cardinals in a series best remembered for Matt Holliday trying to catch a liner in the ninth inning of Game 2 with his groin. They fell 4-1 to the Phillies in the NLCS, and that’s all I’m going to say about it.

In 2008, the Cubs had the advantage and lost to the Dodgers in the first round; in 2007 it was the Diamondbacks, who got swept by the red-hot Rockies in the NLCS. In fact, the last time #1 National League team actually won the World Series, it was the Braves way back in 1995.

It just really seems to not matter all that much, especially with the 2-3-2 NLCS format that means that you actually have to survive three games on the road before you even get the benefit of a Game 6 or 7 at home; as you can see above, not all those teams even made it that far.

So sure, I’d like it if the Dodgers got the top seed and were able to open the NLCS at home with Games 1 & 2. But it’s also not nearly as much of a priority to me as making sure that everyone is fully rested and ready to go for the playoffs, because it’s foolish to simply assume that you’re walking over the Pirates or Reds or Cardinals or whomever they welcome to Los Angeles to start the NLDS. Even then, it may not matter because the Braves still need to win too, and even then it may not matter because history has proven that having the home field advantage means little — especially when the Dodgers are the best road team in the league this year.

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