With the Houston Astros handling business against the Twins in Game One of the ALDS yesterday, they reminded everyone that they are the defending World Series champions for a reason even if the regular season was a bit of an adventure. However, it does draw attention to the fact that over the last couple of years, Houston has been one of the few top seeds to find consistent success in the playoffs.
Take just yesterday for instance. The four teams that were coming off a bye through the wild card round were the Astros, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Baltimore Orioles. All four teams were forces to be reckoned with in the regular season and, to varying degrees, favored going into their respective division series and all were playing at home. However, only the Astros won yesterday.
It would be easy to do some hand waving here and blame small sample size weirdness for what we have seen so far in the 2023 playoffs. However, as it turns out, this isn't the first time this has happened.
The Astros thrive under new playoff format while other teams struggle
The current playoff format in baseball is rather new. Before the 2022 season, baseball used a one game wild card playoff between 2012-2021 other than the 2020 playoffs which was a one-off situation. However, with the addition of an additional wild card slot in each league with the new CBA, changes were needed and they settled on the top two seeds in each league getting first round byes and the rest of the playoff teams having to fight things out in three game series in the wild card round.
The one game wild card playoff always felt bad and in theory, giving the top seeds byes would give teams an incentive to continue competing late in the season as those byes (again, in theory) would provide some valuable rest after a long regular season.
However, the 2022 postseason saw some interesting things happen. The top four seeds last year were the Astros, Braves, Yankees, and Dodgers. Both the Braves and Dodgers got bounced convincingly in their division series while the Yankees barely got through the ALDS before getting annihilated in the ALCS.
As for the Astros, they swept through their first two playoff series before securing another World Series title.
Why is this happening? Honestly, it is hard to say. Some players respond differently to downtime than others and there is a lot of variance in how teams handle the off week. The Braves, for instance, were not happy with their preparation last season, so Atlanta decided to have open workouts with fans in attendance including simulated games to stay fresh this season. However, that didn't seem to help them against Philly yesterday.
Maybe Houston has unlocked the formula of preparing that works best for their players. Maybe Houston just has guys on their roster that don't get rusty easily. Maybe, just maybe it is good ol' fashioned dumb luck in a small sample size. Whatever the cause may be, the Astros are thriving in the postseason which is more than what the other top seeds can say right now.