The House Always Wins

I heard a phrase a fair amount this postseason regarding both the Cleveland Guardians & other teams. The phrase? "Team X is playing with house money" with the insinuation being that said team feels little pressure. I firmly disagree with this sentiment, and I want to mention two teams as specific examples: the Philadelphia Phillies & the Cleveland Guardians.

What does "Playing with House Money" Mean?

The intended sentiment, I suspect, points out that the team vastly exceeded expectations. The team did not intend to make the playoffs, even making the playoffs surprised the team and fans. Thus: whether or not the team succeeds in the playoffs matters less. Simply by making the playoffs the team succeeded.

I sympathize with this sentiment, to a degree. Specifically I sympathize with the argument that teams should not judge all of their success based on postseason success. Postseason baseball success is bloody hard, and being the best team means little in the postseason, a series of 3, 5 & 7 game series. Every team which made the playoffs enjoyed a successful season. The ‘weakest’ team, by regular season standards, was the Philadelphia Phillies, who were not even one of the top 10 teams in Major League Baseball, if you rank by regular season wins. But they won 87 games, which is the best record Philadelphia posted since 2011 when they last won the National League East. So whether any of these teams win in the postseason they should all consider 2022 a success.

But this is not, I think, what people mean when they say "Team X is playing with house money" instead what I think they mean is that even if the team loses this year: they will be back. If the team gets another crack at the apple, why worry about 2022? Like when you win a hand of blackjack, and you play with the winnings: any future winnings is a gain on money you lacked when you started.

It’s that sentiment I completely disagree with

You Can’t Beat Baseball

Here’s why: baseball is a capricious game, and things will not always go your way. This is where I want to bring in the two teams I have heard this saying specifically: Philadelphia & Cleveland. Again, both teams were successful this year, and no amount of postseason losses can change that (even if you lose a heartbreaker to the New York Yankees). Furthermore, nobody expected either of these teams to make the playoffs. I suspect people liked Philadelphia, but not as much as the reigning World Series champions (the Atlanta Braves) or Steve Cohen’s expensive New York Mets. Nobody liked the Cleveland Guardians (Joe Posnanski picked them for 5th in the division, for example). So both teams clearly exceeded expectations; "they arrived early" would be another common baseball saying about both teams.

But here’s the thing: there is nothing special about arriving early. "Arriving early" teams are not guaranteed future success; every opportunity is independent of the other. Your current opportunity may be your best shot. The last time the Philadelphia Phillies built a really good team was the 2007-11 team. They won the World Series in 2008; which was not their best year of that run. The best team in the NL that year was the Chicago Cubs (who were swept by the Dodgers in the NLDS), but the Phillies took care of the Brewers, and overpowered an upstart Dodgers team and then pretty easily beat the Rays (themselves a surprising team) in the World Series.

What did the Phillies do after 2008? They tried to get better: they traded for Cliff Lee in 2009, and made the World Series again, losing to the Yankees. They doubled down, acquiring Roy Halladay in 2010, and then combined Lee and Halladay in 2011, when they won over 100 games. Neither the 2010 nor 2011 teams came particularly close to winning the World Series, and Philadelphia collapsed after 2011; Roy Halladay fell off a cliff, Ryan Howard became human, and the team missed the postseason for 11 more seasons.

A similar story can be told about Cleveland (except for winning the ring). Cleveland started its last competitive window in 2016. They entered the 2016 playoffs as heavy underdogs: they lost ⅖ of their starting rotation (including the effective Carlos Carrasco). Local reporter Paul Hoynes declared their season dead. Instead Cleveland came inches away from pulling out a World Series win against the Chicago Cubs.

Again, 2016 felt like the start of great things for Cleveland, and in some ways they were! Cleveland won 102 games in 2017, the best regular season finish for Cleveland since 1995 (1954 if you want to be a stickler), and they won the division again in 2018. The 2017 team got bounced by New York after taking a 2-0 lead in the NLDS, and the 2018 team lost to the Houston Astros in an abysmal series. Cleveland fell just short of the postseason in 2019, had a poor showing in 2020, before surprising everyone in 2022 with basically a new roster besides Jose Ramirez.

Baseball will always beat you; and you never know what curveballs the sport will throw your way. You cannot take a postseason appearance for granted. There are plenty of ways for both Cleveland & Philadelphia to fall well short of expectations in 2023 and beyond, and even if they do: the magic can fade quickly. Postseason experience is meaningless as well. The 2017 team had three series of postseason experience, and that did the team no good with their backs against the wall facing New York in 2017, nor did it allow them to not feel the pressure in the Bronx. Miguel Cabrera played in the 2003 World Series (and won); that experience did not transfer to the Tigers in 2011, 12 or 13. Texas performed no better in the 2011 World Series despite their ‘experience’ in the 2010 World Series.

Baseball is the House: and the House Always Wins

Terry Francona told an excellent anecdote during his press conference about how he played for the Montreal Expos. In 1981 (Tito’s rookie season) the Expos made the playoffs, and took a hard loss to Los Angeles in the Championship Series. Francona said he imagined the Expos making the playoffs every year; and how 1981 felt like the start of great things for Montreal. Well, the Expos never made the playoffs again; heck that was the only postseason appearance for Montreal in their entire history.

I think the success of some franchises blinds us to how difficult consistent success can be for most teams. Houston, the Dodgers, the Yankees & the Cardinals seemingly make the playoffs every year. But for most teams? Making the playoffs is a treat because it happens so infrequently, and what appears strong one year will come undone the next. My advice to every player in the postseason? Leave your heart on the field: you never know when you’ll make it back, and certainly do not take it for granted: you never know when your opponent’s luck might run out.

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