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The 2017 playoffs are stacked with top-tier talent

Almost as stacked as any season in history

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

With losses from the Red Sox and Diamondbacks on Monday, the MLB playoffs scene is down to six teams. By the time we reach the weekend, there will be only four teams. However, this is your friendly reminder that, for more than half of baseball history, that seemingly small total of four teams was still twice as many teams as made the entire MLB postseason.

From 1903 (the first World Series) until 1968, only the top team from the American League and the National League made the postseason, earning themselves the league pennant and a trip to the World Series. From 1969 until 1993, MLB playoffs added a League Championship Series to expand the playoff bracket to four. From 1995 until 2011 (after the 1994 postseason was canceled due to the strike), there were eight teams. And most recently, MLB has had 10 teams in its playoff system over the past six seasons.

But you knew all that already. What you may not have realized, or may have forgotten, or may know, just not to its full extent, is how much more frequently we now get to see the top players in baseball competing on its biggest screen.

The modern baseball playoff system still isn’t as bloated as the NBA or NHL, where over half of the teams in the league make the playoffs, disincentivizing the regular season and making it so that fans often wish they could fast forward past the first round (more so in the NBA than NHL).

The number baseball has settled into for now seems perfect. Part of the reason this number seems so perfect in 2017 is that we have so much of the top talent in baseball right before our eyes on the playoff stage. With this 2017 group, baseball fans were able to see seven of the top 11 players in baseball, per rWAR (Stephen Strasburg and Mike Trout were tied for tenth). If fWAR is used, it is seven of the top 10 and nine of the top 12 (B-Ref is just cleaner for looking at past seasons.)

Last season, fans were treated to four of the top 10 players in baseball, by rWAR, a figure right in line with most of the previous seasons under the new format:

Top talent in playoffs (ten-team era)

Season Top 10 rWAR players
Season Top 10 rWAR players
2017 7 (out of 11)
2016 4
2015 4
2014 4
2013 4
2012 6 (out of 11)

Even in 2012, the season closest to 2017 in terms of top-tier talent, two of the six were eliminated in the one-game play-in (only one was eliminated that way this season), and the top overall talent by rWAR (Mike Trout) didn’t make the postseason. This season, one has to traverse all the way down to number five (Giancarlo Stanton) in the rWAR standings to find a player who will not be seen on the grand stage of the MLB playoffs.

If we go back before the play-in game expansion, there are only a few seasons that can top 2017:

Top talent in playoffs (eight-team era)

Season Top 10 rWAR players
Season Top 10 rWAR players
2011 6
2010 6
2009 4
2008 4
2007 3
2006 3
2005 4
2004 6
2003 6
2002 6 (out of 11)
2001 5
2000 4
1999 9
1998 3
1997 5
1996 1
1995 7

(A quick aside on the absurd 1999 season. The season had the following top top ten rWAR: Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, Derek Jeter, Mike Hampton, Roberto Alomar, Jeff Bagwell, Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones, Randy Velarde, and Chipper Jones. That’s eight Hall of Fame talents, a two-time All-Star/148-game winner, and Randy Velarde. Not a bad year for baseball.)

Baseball expansion has allowed for more and more of the top talent to reach the postseason. When compiling a list of the best players to never appear in the postseason, the roster is loaded with players from baseball’s early days. Players like Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Luke Appling, and probably other players who didn’t play in Chicago are among the all-time legends who never got to play in the postseason even once in their historic careers. In the modern game, Felix Hernandez is the only long-tenured true great without a postseason appearance, and his team has been flirting with the wild card enough the past few seasons that he may well break that streak soon.

Hank Aaron appeared in only 17 postseason games, though he played for 23 seasons. Kris Bryant has already played in 29 postseason games, and he’s a 25-year-old playing in the city many believed to be the most accursed team in baseball history until last year.

Just five years before the MLB expansion from two playoff teams to four, the 1964 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Yankees featured precisely zero of the top ten in that season’s rWAR. Since there was no League Championship Series, none of the top ten in the 1964 rWAR totals made the postseason at all. That’s a group that included Willie Mays, Ron Santo, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Dick Allen, and Don Drysdale! That’s so much incredible talent on the outside looking in during the most fun time in the baseball calendar, and people probably did not even recognize it.

Some may say that the expansion of the baseball playoff system dilutes the product, but I’d argue the opposite. Getting the sport’s top talents in front of as many eyes as possible is the best possible tack for the league to take. With MLB viewership trending towards more and more local viewing during the regular season, fans of the New York Mets may never have been able to see just how great George Springer is if it wasn’t for the postseason. Jose Altuve is already beloved around the league, but his three-homer performance to kick off this year’s ALDS seemed like his official coming out party as a mega-star.

Now if only the league could figure out a way to get their best player onto their biggest stage a bit more often, they’d have this down to a science.


Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay. You can follow him on Twitter @BaseballTurv.