Sorry, the “better” team doesn’t always win

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The Blue Jays got really scary at the end of the season and by the time October rolled around many, including the oddsmakers, figured they’d win the AL pennant. They’re down 2-0. The Cubs won seven more games than the Mets and, having dispatched the 100-win Cardinals, were favored by some to dispatch New York too and win it all. They’re down 2-0.

This has led to a bit of “well, the [losing team] is STILL better” talk. From some Cubs fans. From some Cardinals fans. From some Jays fans. It’s not necessarily strident. That tweet from the Jays fan seems more aimed at self-assurance than smack talk. It’s not necessarily widespread. And it’s certainly not exclusive to fans of certain teams. Indeed, every single year there are at least a small handful of fans of teams that have either been vanquished or who are on their way there who claim that, results of a playoff series be damned, their team is the better team. Lord knows that with the Braves’ many, many playoff failures I have heard it often among my fellow Braves fans. And it’s not just fans. Some analysts, citing sample size, randomness and luck, will say it too in service of some argument or another.

No matter who says it, however, it’s always bound to lead to mocking because the only necessary response to the “yeah, but they’re actually better” argument is “scoreboard.” Or “but you lost, dude.” It’s a pretty comprehensive argument and the more one fights against it, the worse one looks. Sports are about winning and losing and when you’re on the losing side you’re never going to look good and you’ll certainly never win by saying “yeah, but actually . . .” And you probably need to stop.

Not because it’s such a wrongheaded notion. Indeed, there is a lot of truth to the idea that 162 games is a better test of a team’s strength than a winner-take-all game, a best-of-five or a best-of-seven. And, this being sports, there are a lot of people who will forget all of that and claim that, by definition, the team that wins the championship is “the best,” because that’s just how sports and sports fans work. Against that backdrop it’s very tempting to “well, actually . . . ” these people and to talk about team depth and sample sizes and luck and randomness and all of that stuff. Either to stick up for your local nine who had a bad week in the playoffs after six months of dominance or to demonstrate your deep understanding of the dynamics of an extremely complicated sport.

But don’t do that. Really, just don’t do that. If you find yourself poised to claim that the team losing the series is better, bite your tongue and save it. Because when you do that, you’re taking all of the fun out of this stuff.

Sometimes the “best” team doesn’t win in the playoffs. A lot of the time, actually. But when you point that out you’re forgetting that baseball is entertainment, and that’s just as bad if not worse than someone forgetting about sample sizes and the true test of the regular season. Major League Baseball knows that, say, a one-game wild card is gimmicky, but it’s also very, very exciting. Most fans, if pressed, know that a short series can be random, but they’re also stoked with drama and unexpected heroes. The playoffs are a lot of fun, dang it, and either a complaint that the “best” team isn’t really being chosen or a dismissive reference to the playoffs as merely being some random sort of tournament that means nothing makes you sound like a petty killjoy.

If you insist on “but [team] is actually better,” talk, IMMEDIATELY follow it up with the co-observation about how, even if that’s so, it doesn’t matter and they’re simply not executing and/or getting whupped at the moment. Or, better yet, wait to do it after the season is over and do it in service of analyzing the team separate and apart from the playoffs altogether. Let the dust settle a bit.

The point being, don’t take people’s fun away. Don’t dismiss the playoffs in a sour grapes fashion. Don’t make yourself look petty. There’s time for dispassionate analysis later and, during that time, you’ll be able to comfort yourself by remembering the good things your team did and made you feel for six months without the harshed buzz of the playoffs hanging over your head. Save it now, enjoy the spectacle of the playoffs even if your team has been eliminated and let thoughts of who was technically “better” help you get through the cold months a bit easier.

Besides, there will be a much better time for you to employ your clever, longer-view of baseball strengths and weaknesses mindset. Like, say, when some team signs Daniel Murphy for way too much money this winter on the back of his amazing October. Indeed, that may be the only way Cubs and Dodgers fans will every get any enjoyment out of Daniel Murphy whatsoever.