With Americans distracted by an unprecedented political trainwreck Sunday night, the Texas Rangers were swept out of the playoffs in Canada. Josh Donaldson’s frantic dash home secured the Toronto Blue Jays’ second straight American League Championship Series appearance. The fact that a Rougned Odor’s blunder hammered the final nail in Texas’ coffin was an extra scoop of gravy on the Jays’ poutine.
When forced to perform a self-autopsy, Rangers players pointed to external factors instead of inward with an assertion they were penalized for having a better regular season than the Wild Card-winning Jays.
The views from six feet under are never great. Lashing out without having all the facts to back it up is normal. In the immediate aftermath of a season-ending loss, it’s perhaps unfair to dismiss the feelings of the vanquished.
At the risk of piling dirt on a fresh grave, it’s worth pointing out that this sentiment is not supported by statistics. More importantly, the Texas Rangers wouldn’t be a good representative for the theory if it did have validity.
Since the single-elimination Wild Card game was instituted in 2012, winners are 5-4 in division series (with the San Francisco Giants down 0-2 to the Chicago Cubs, it’s likely to soon be 5-5). Before the round was instituted, Wild Card clubs went 18-16 in division series from 1995-2011. There hasn’t been a sudden surge of success in recent years by teams riding “momentum” from the play-in game. Top seeds have historically had trouble with the first playoff series since the playoffs were expanded.
Momentum is a difficult thing to prove. As such, many believe it doesn’t exist. While I am not in this camp, it’s difficult to understand how the argument stands up to scrutiny. Wild Card Game-winning teams are 5-5 in the first game of division series since 2012, again in line with the 1995-2011 span. As a dynamic and ever-shifting entity, wouldn’t momentum only affect the first game of a division series before getting reset based on the events of Game 1?
The Rangers posted an American League-best 95 wins this year. But they did so with a run differential of +8 and an astounding 36-11 record in one-run games. Their success would be extremely difficult to replicate year in and year out. They were not a dominant side crushing opponents and proving, without question, to be the class of the junior circuit.
The Blue Jays, on the other hand, won 89 games in a more difficult division and had a run differential of +93 with a 21-25 record one one-run contests. Despite the six-game difference in record, it’s difficult to confidently say the Rangers are the superior team between the two. This is not some 110-win club that gathered dust while an 84-win team got hot at the right time and capitalized on a broken system.
Toronto beat Texas because they played better.
The Rangers weren’t at a disadvantage by having Cole Hamels fresh and ready to go for the series opener. Fatigue and frantic rotation shuffling is not what caused him to give up six earned runs in 3 1/3 innings of work. They weren’t at a disadvantage facing Marco Estrada, who went 9-9 on the year and, although effective, won’t be confused with a staff ace anytime soon. They weren’t at a disadvantage when No. 2 starter Yu Darvish allowed five runs in five innings in Game 2 and certainly weren’t while falling in a 5-1 hole in Game 3.
Throw a dart at the box scores and you’re likely to hit a Texas shortcoming. The starting pitchers didn’t deliver and it took 18 innings for the offense to wake up. A throwing error at the worst time sealed a winter of tee times and what-ifs.
Wanting to be fairly rewarded for earning a league’s best record is an understandable desire. But the play-in game was added to address just that. It’s intended to burn a non-division winner’s best pitcher and force them to juggle the rotation. It’s resulted in increasing the importance of winning one’s division. That the reward trickles down to teams with the second- and third-best league records is not a reason for sour grapes.
Championships are not simply handed out. They are earned. In order to win the World Series, the Rangers would have had to beat three quality teams. That they could not even win a game against one suggests they didn’t have the mettle and those 95 wins were a house of cards.
Even still, they were dealt a fair playoff hand. Lamenting a bad beat won’t fix anything.