One thing it’s important to remember sometimes is that most of us who write for this site have no more access or information than the average fan. Pat and Jay, for instance, do interviews and cultivate sources and might actually learn things about the Phillies before the public. I say “might” because they tend not to pass this information on to me, so I know just as little about potential stretch run acquisitions as the average fan, or, stated better, I am privy to no more information.
But despite that, and not knowing which relief pitcher, or outfielder, or other type of player the Phillies might come away with by either trade deadline. But here’s my suspicion: I think the Phillies would enter the playoffs as the overwhelming favorite no matter what moves they make, and while adding Heath Bell or Carlos Beltran would help, for sure, but not as much as you might think. Here’s why: being the best team isn’t enough, and that’s the point: the playoffs are designed to be unfair.
If we wanted fairness in determining our athletic champions, we’d have as large a sample as possible. It goes down to the old aphorism that keeps popping up after big playoff upsets: “If these two teams played 10 times, the team that lost would win 8 or 9 of them.” This is a cliche, but it’s actually instructive as to the way we look at sports–our athletic leaders and fans are willing to sacrifice fairness for excitement. If we were truly interested in awarding the championship to the best team, MLB (and the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLS) would be set up like the Barclay’s Premier League, the top soccer competition in England: no divisions, and every team plays ever other team once, with the winner being the team with the best record at the end–it doesn’t get more fair than that. The problem, of course, is that it’s phenomenally boring. The BPL has existed for 19 seasons, and Manchester United has won the title 12 times. Thanks to promotion and relegation, 44 teams has competed for at least one season, and only four have ever won. It’s almost a foregone conclusion going into the season that Manchester United and Chelsea will finish 1-2 and Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool will finish from 3-6 in some order. I think it’s boring and I root for one of the good teams.
The upside of our playoff system is that we get exciting moments like the Giants’ improbable run to the World Series last year, and watching the 18-0 Patriots get snuffed out at the last moment in Super Bowl XLII. The downside is that the best team hardly ever wins, but that’s the sacrifice we make, and judging by the number of Super Bowl parties I’ve attended and the number of times I’ve lost my voice screaming at playoff baseball and hockey, I’d say that sacrificing fairness for entertainment is worth it.
But back to the original point: no matter what the Phillies do in the next week, they can’t guarantee anything but their own involvement and seeding in the playoffs, and with Coolstandings giving La Furia Roja a 78 percent chance of winning the division and a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs going into today’s games, it’s all but guaranteed anyway.
All that adding Bell, or Beltran, or Hunter Pence would do is provide some sort of limited insurance against the kind of freak occurrence and small-sample-size randomness that characterize North American postseason sports. If Beltran’s playing left field instead of Raul Ibanez, maybe that bad hop off the wall doesn’t cause Mike Stutes to give up that four-run eighth inning that loses an NLCS Game 5 in Milwaukee, for instance, but as it has been proved to Phillies fans in 2010, the difference between victory and defeat can be precisely that razor-thin, even if there’s a marked difference in quality between the two competing teams.
So if and when the Phillies make the big trade, don’t make the mistake of thinking that having the best team guarantees anything come playoff time–the very qualities that make playoff baseball exciting can make it heartbreakingly unfair.