During a truly strange segment on MLB Network's Hot Stove this week, notorious gabbing Mets homer Keith Hernandez and Hot Stove host Matt Vasgersian had a prolonged conversation about two teams that were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs the last two years: the Atlanta Braves and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The collective amnesia after consecutive autumns of golf for the darlings of the national media seems to be hitting particularly hard heading into spring training. Because this conversation about supposedly the best teams in baseball didn't include the defending World Series champion, or any of the three NL clubs that have unceremoniously toppled LA and Atlanta the past two postseasons.
Instead, the duo dove deep on the Braves and Dodgers alone, with Hernandez allowing half a breath to explain that the Braves have more power than anyone "along with the Rangers, the Dodgers, Houston, and other teams."
Winners of the regular season trophy
The Phillies have been given this treatment for years running now, and while it was all fun and games when they were a fringe Wild Card contender from 2018 to 2021, the past two postseasons have enshrined them among the game's elite.
The running narrative appears to be that the playoffs, despite the trophy that's awarded at the end, don't matter. In reality, playoff baseball is an art all to itself, an art that the Dodgers and the Braves have not mastered the past two years. The goal of any given club, after all, is not to put up as many wins across the year as possible, but to win the World Series.
The talent on those clubs is undeniable, and the core of each did prevail twice. LA won it all in 2020, and Atlanta in 2021. But failing to reach the championship series in consecutive years has to be seen as an enormous disappointment for both clubs.
The 2022 and 2023 Braves, for instance, went hard during the regular season. And during the regular season, it paid off, as they won the division title with 100 plus wins both years. Arguably, the Braves went too hard.
Both years the Braves were shorthanded heading into the postseason, particularly in their rotation. Yet come October, two years in a row, Phillies relievers were throwing harder than they had all year, Zack Wheeler was in vintage form, Aaron Nola had worked out the kinks, and Ranger Suárez was etching his name beside Sandy Koufax.
Not to mention the historic power display put on by Phillies sluggers in consecutive autumns. While some may dismiss it as being hot at the right time, the reality is that the championship teams have always been full of clutch players with something a little different pumping in their blood. There's a special, once-in-a-generation feeling baseball fans get seeing Bryce Harper step to the plate — it's something the world witnessed with Madison Bumgarner, and Derek Jeter, and Reggie Jackson, but not so much with this current crop of Dodgers and Braves.
Forecasting the 2024 postseason
There's no doubt that LA and Atlanta should be in the conversation about the best teams in baseball, but to totally ignore the fact that they haven't shown up in consecutive Octobers is stunning.
And it's not just the Phillies who have reason to be frustrated. The past two World Series winners, Texas and Houston, get but a passing mention. The 100-win Baltimore Orioles, who have now added Corbin Burnes, was not mentioned at all. A New York Yankees team that added Juan Soto and Marcus Stroman was not mentioned at all. The omnipresent Tampa Bay Rays, and even the defending NL Champion Arizona Diamondbacks, who have made several splashy additions, received no consideration.
History tells us that MLB Network will come to eat its words, as many pundits have in consecutive autumns when the reality of Red October descends on their parade. Only 12 times in the last 54 years has the team with the best regular season record gone on to win the World Series. The abbreviated 2020 season's World Series between the Rays and the Ddogers was the only one in recent history that featured two No. 1 seeds.
Baseball is more complicated than payroll, than individual performance, than piling on wins against inferior teams in low-stakes games in June. It's about a team being at its best at the right moment, and no one has proven that like the Phillies.