The Athletics have been something of a punching bag over the years because executive vice president and president of baseball operations Billy Beane was famously quoted in Moneyball saying, “My [stuff] doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is […] luck.”
Since 2000, the A’s have reached the playoffs 10 times. They have advanced into the ALCS just once, in 2006, when they were swept out by the Tigers. They’re 1-6 in the Division Series and 0-3 in the AL Wild Card game, accounting for their last three playoff losses (2014, ’18-19). To call their performance in the playoffs disappointing would be an understatement.
The A’s, however, are not the only team whose [stuff] doesn’t work in the playoffs. The Twins, who were just swept out of the ALDS by the Yankees, haven’t reached the ALCS since 2002. They have failed in their last six appearances in the ALDS — mostly against the Yankees — and lost the AL Wild Card game in 2017 as well (to the Yankees).
The Nationals, playing in another NLDS Game 5 tonight, have lost the Division Series four times since 2012, three of which went to a decisive Game 5. Even the Expos hadn’t reached the NLCS since 1981.
The Braves, who fell behind 10-0 after the first inning in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals tonight, haven’t reached the NLCS since 2001. They will have lost in the NLDS eight consecutive times and memorably lost the 2012 NL Wild Card game.
The failures of these teams, in some cases, span decades. They span different front office regimes, coaches, managers, and players. The Twins aren’t 2-16 against the Yankees in the playoffs since 2002 because the Yankees discovered some magic anti-Twins serum and now the Twins quake in their boots every time they face the Yankees in October. The playoffs, to paraphrase Beane, are based a lot on luck. Sometimes an umpire’s call doesn’t go your way, like when Phil Cuzzi called what would have been a Joe Mauer double a foul ball in the 2009 ALDS. Sometimes a bounce doesn’t go your way, like when Juan Soto‘s single took an unexpected hop for Brewers right fielder Trent Grisham, allowing an additional two runs to score, deciding the 2019 NL Wild Card game.
The regular season schedule calls for 162 games because increasing your sample size helps push aside the fog created by randomness. The Division Series only affords us five games max, and the Championship Series and World Series only seven games max. Having such a small sample size means variance will often reign supreme. This is, somewhat, by design. Winning in the playoffs at all is hard. Doing it consistently is even more difficult. While early exits by the Braves and Twins this year will add to their ignominy, it should also increase our respect for teams like the Cardinals, Giants, Yankees, and Red Sox that have had sustained October success over the years.