Baseball’s regular season is often described as a marathon. Six months of nearly uninterrupted, daily competition during which a single win or loss–or even a few of them consecutively–barely registers as noteworthy within the context of a 162-game schedule. It’s part of the sport’s charm, as games feel more like daily rituals than special events. And then the postseason arrives and that entire perspective shifts. Each game suddenly takes on huge importance and each win or loss is analyzed within an inch of its life. That, too, is part of the sport’s charm–to spend so long leisurely cruising down a road only to realize it was a runway and you’re airborne.
Under the current MLB postseason setup the maximum number of games a team can play is 20. This season the Cubs and the Indians played 17 and 15 games, respectively, so their collective postseasons were 10 percent as long as their regular seasons. By comparison, last year’s NBA finalists, the Cavaliers and the Warriors, played 28 percent as many postseason games as regular season games. In the NFL, the Super Bowl teams will have played either 19 or 25 percent as many postseason games as regular season games. Baseball’s regular season is a marathon and then its postseason becomes a relative sprint.
Not surprisingly, the team with the best record over the course of 162 games often is not left standing at the end of the postseason. Many fans have a difficult time reconciling that, myself included, although I’ve come to appreciate that the postseason madness is separate from the regular season routine, like a sweet one-bite dessert following a savory five-course meal. On a basic level, there’s little doubt that whatever is proven about a team–good or bad–over the course of a six-month, 162-game regular season is not the same as what’s proven in the postseason. You might see that difference as a positive or as a negative depending on your point of view, but it’s a difference.
Variance and luck rule the postseason, which is no knock on the team that thrive in what is a dramatically reduced sample of games. Another big factor is that the personnel and approach that makes a team great in a 162-game daily grind may not be the same as what makes a team great in the playoffs. Lineups built on a particular strength–speed or patience or power–can be neutralized by a specific opponent, and a staff stacked with lefties or righties can make runs dry up in a hurry. Rotation depth is of the utmost importance from April to September, but plenty of teams have ridden a three-man rotation–or in the Indians’ case this year, one great starter and two great relievers–deep into October.
All of which is a long way of saying that the “best” team in the regular season is frequently not the “best” team in the postseason, because the task at hand is not the same. And even if it were the same, cutting the sample by 90 percent would change the results anyway. Most of the time, at least. Once in awhile a deep, talented team crosses the finish line of the 162-game marathon well ahead of everyone else and then, just for good measure, out-sprints everyone else too. It’s those teams that are remembered as the all-time greats while other, non-title teams with gaudy regular-season win totals are reduced to secondary status.
This season the Cubs won 103 games, eight more than any other team. They were baseball’s best from April through September, going 53-35 in the first half and 50-23 in the second half. They had by far the best run prevention, as a very good pitching staff combined with elite defense to allow 50 fewer runs than any other team. They scored the third-most runs, leading the majors in True Average thanks to a deep, balanced lineup revolving around MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Their run differential of +252 was tops by 68 runs and ranks as one of the five best of the Wild Card era. Chicago was so obviously the best team that their postseason was set up to be viewed as a failure if it ended with anything short of a title.
It didn’t, although Cubs fans who have all waited their lifetimes for the team’s 108-year title drought to end probably thought it was a little too close for comfort at times. Getting through the National League was pretty straightforward, as the Cubs beat the Giants in the NLDS and the Dodgers in the NLCS while losing just three total games. Getting through the Indians proved much more challenging thanks to Terry Francona’s bold managing and the brilliant pitching of Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller, and Cody Allen. That trio shut out the Cubs in Game 1 and later the Indians took the first two games at Wrigley Field, grabbing a 3-1 series lead that put Chicago on the brink of elimination.
Bryant, Jon Lester, and Aroldis Chapman came up big in Game 5 to keep the season alive, and Bryant, Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, and the rest of the lineup quickly turned Game 6 into a laugher to even the series. Game 7 pitted 176 combined years of championship droughts against one another and somehow lived up to the immense hype and then some, as the Cubs and Indians traded great plays and misplays in a back-and-forth thriller featuring a new hero/goat combo seemingly every inning and a 10th-inning rain delay that would have been deemed too on the nose for any self-respecting movie script.
At three different points Cleveland stormed back after Chicago took the lead and the Indians were on the verge of doing it a fourth time when their magic ran out with the tying run on base and 25th man Michael Martinez at the plate in the 10th inning. Cleveland is a very good team with a Hall of Fame manager who maximized their chances by leaning on elite talent in crucial spots, traditional starter and reliever usage be damned. There is zero question that the Indians would have been deserving champions, but instead the Cubs capped their incredible regular season with a hard-fought playoff run that snapped their century-plus drought and solidified the 2016 team as one of the all-time greats.
They were the best team on Opening Day. They were the best team heading into October. And on November 2 they flew the W as a century of “wait ‘til next years” and silly curses vanished into the rain-soaked night. They won the marathon. They won the sprint. And with a stacked roster overflowing with young talent and a smart, innovative, bold front office buoyed by a big payroll the Cubs are poised to keep their winning window open for a long time.