Wild Cards And Animal Spirits In October
3:51 PM EDT on October 5, 2023
It is inarguably bad news that the people currently overseeing baseball might be trying to do it, but the good news is that there is no real way to screw up October baseball. For all the attempts in recent years to make the sport's postseason something other than the unrepresentative, unstable, often unkind thing that it is, MLB's tinker-prone bosses have succeeded mostly in just making it bigger. It's not less October baseball-ish, which is to say it's not any less random or absurd. It's just more to talk about. Which is great, when you're doing a podcast with just two people on it.
Now, is all that extra playoff baseball good? Not necessarily, or not necessarily any more good than the basketball played during the first couple days of the NCAA Tournament is "good." But it is absolutely fine by those of us in the I'll Keep Drinking That Garbage community, especially during the early days of the playoffs when the bulk of inventory nudges Wild Card games into the workday. This year, all four of the three-game Wild Card series were a brusque sweep, sending the wan 99-win Tampa Bay Rays and some more overtly mediocre teams into the offseason in exactly the time it takes to record, edit, and upload our podcast. Not all of my Wild Card predictions were wrong, I am happy to report, but only because they were issued with so many hedges and caveats. I'd say that this is a reflection of my professionalism and experience and full-spectrum understanding of October's vagaries, but longtime listeners of the podcast will already know that I find it very challenging to communicate in any other way.
That said, there are some things that can draw a more decisive way of thinking and speaking out of me, and a great deal of the back half of this podcast is given over to that. If I lay them out in the slightly hinky order in which they were discussed—the issues with Heroes Of Capitalism-style hagiography as it relates to Michael Lewis's new book on Sam Bankman-Fried and Walter Isaacson's disastrously credulous Elon Musk biography, and also the different ways to be a good baseball team—they will look both disparate and out of sequence. And you might have us on the out-of-sequence part, although Drew and I both had a lot to say about Lewis, Isaacson, the damage they've recently done to their respective legacies, and I think this part of the podcast might be my favorite part of the episode. But I think the two are less disparate than they might seem at first.
That's because, in the years that followed baseball's Moneyball revolution—an orgy of arbitrage and corporate efficiency that also carries some Michael Lewis branding—good baseball teams and bad ones have come to share something like the same suite of best practices. (This isn't true of the Rockies or Royals, to be fair.) The difference, increasingly, is not so much in how those teams interpret and apply that understanding, but in what they choose to value. Teams know that young players are cheaper, that cost-controlled players are valuable in unique ways, and the areas in which there is an edge to find over rival organizations that are increasingly operating with the same understanding is shrinking rapidly.
The meaningful distinctions between one and the other, then, come down not just to which teams value efficiency and "sustainability" (or cheapness) as merits in their own right and which are willing to use them to build winning teams, but to how those lessons can be applied to goals beyond keeping payroll low. As it turns out, the best teams in baseball are pretty interesting right now in that regard, and so we talked about the limits of the Orioles' commitments, the Braves' creepy knack for getting their young players to sign long team-friendly contracts, and the Dodgers' ineffable and unparalleled capacity for Being The Dodgers in all of its many forms. Here, as elsewhere, it's not just about what you value, but how you value it, which is the sort of thing that tends to emerge more clearly through actions than words. These are all things—they are maybe all of the things—that get me heated enough to lose the qualifications. If that's an October miracle, it surely won't be the last one we see before we finally run out of baseball.
The live podcast I've been bugging you about in this text at the end went really great; our thanks to everyone who came out for it. We will do more of them at some point. If you would like to subscribe to The Distraction, you can do that through Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you might get your podcasts. Feel free to discuss this week's episode in the comments below. Thank you as always for your support.