With the regular season down to its last couple of series, the Houston Astros appear to be in great shape going into the post-season. They have locked up their 5th division title in 6 years and clinched home field throughout the AL playoffs. They boast arguably the best overall pitching staff in the majors and their offense is in the top half of the majors in most statistical areas. With the new playoff system for MLB, the Astros have a bye into the ALDS, putting themselves that much closer to their 6th consecutive ALCS, 2nd consecutive World Series appearance, and perhaps, their 2nd World Series title in 6 years.
Yet, how much of an advantage will home field be for the Astros? On the surface, the best regular season record usually should equal best chance for playoff glory. Yet, that does not always seem to be the case. Consider the post-season fates of those with the best overall records since 2017 (when World Series home field was determined by overall record)
- 2017: Los Angeles Dodgers (Lost in World Series)
- 2018: Boston Red Sox (Won World Series)
- 2019: Houston Astros (Lost in World Series)
- 2020: Los Angeles Dodgers (Won Wold Series)*
- 2021: San Francisco Giants (Lost in NLDS)
*Home field in 2020 was not quite the traditional definition, as the Dodgers only played two games at Chavez Ravine sans fans. The rest were played at neutral locations, but the Dodgers had more games where they batted last.
On the surface, four of the past five teams with the best overall record at least got to the World Series, and for the 107-win Giants, they lost a classic 5-game NLDS against a 106-win Dodgers team. However, setting aside the strangeness of 2020, only one team with home field throughout the playoffs actually went on to win the World Series (Boston). While it is a smaller sample size where home field is determined purely by record, it is interesting to note that the #1 overall seed is not assured of postseason victory.
When looking just at the teams who finished with the best record in the AL since 2017, the numbers are not quite as reassuring for the #1 overall seed:
- 2017: Cleveland (Lost in ALDS)
- 2018: Boston (Won World Series)
- 2019: Houston (Lost in World Series)
- 2020: Tampa Bay (Lost in World Series) *
- 2021: Tampa Bay (Lost in ALDS)
*Same issue as with the Dodgers, as they only played one round of games on home turf without fans.
Just on this sample size, two of the top teams didn’t even get out of the ALDS. Sometimes, the variances of a five-game vs a seven-game series open the door to upsets. There are always different variables and conditions that would impact the outcome of a playoff series, especially a shorter one, but a #1 seed is not guarantee of playoff success.
Additionally, since 2016, 3 teams that finished as runner-up in the previous World Series proceeded to win 100+ games the following year (like the 2022 Astros). The fate of those squads:
- 2017: Cleveland (102 wins) - Lost in the ALDS (3-2)
- 2019: LA Dodgers (106 wins) - Lost in the NLDS (3-2)
- 2021: Tampa Bay (100 wins) - Lost in the ALDS (3-1)
Just based on looking at these trends, the signs might not auger good news for Astros fans.
What does this mean for the Astros going forward? The way the current playoff structure sets up, the Astros would host the survivor of the 4-5 seed Wild Card round (MLB, unlike the NFL, does not project to reseed after each round (i.e. the team with the best record will host the surviving team with the worst record). As of this writing, the AL Wild Teams are set with Toronto, Seattle and Tampa Bay jockeying for seeding. In a short series, matchups are critical. If it is Toronto (which currently holds the 4-seed), they won the season series against Houston 4-2 (albeit the series concluded in the 1st few weeks of the season) and they have been playing quality ball in the last few weeks. Seattle lost the season series with Houston, but they will present their challenges should they advance to the ALDS. Tampa Bay is currently finishing its series with Houston, but they are always a dangerous playoff foe.
Nothing is a given where the MLB playoffs are concerned. The Astros should feel confidence, and many players on the roster have seen multiple playoffs series. Yet, a strong regular season does not guarantee matching results in the post-season, as we have seen for other teams. Do the Astros make their own fate, or do they follow the trends seen with other squads? We will know in the next couple of weeks.