Since 1961, only two Major League Baseball teams have won 110 or more games. That was the year that the regular season was lengthened to the 162-game mark it sits at today. The team with the second most wins of the two was the 1998 New York Yankees, while the team with the most was the 2001 Seattle Mariners. While both of these teams accomplished an almost unmatchable feat, the Yankees of that era are far more remembered by the sports world, for one reason only: not only did they cap off their 114-win season with a World Series victory, they won three other titles in a span of five years. The Mariners, on the other hand, lost in the American League Championship Series.
With an almost poetic irony, the team that knocked the Mariners out of the playoffs was none other than the Yankees, a team that won 21 less regular season games than them. The Yankees would go on to lose to the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that won a total of 103 games in 2001, counting both the regular season and the playoffs. Compared to the 120 games won by the Mariners, is it really fair to say that the Diamondbacks are the team that deserves to be immortalized?
Sure, the obvious counterpoint to this argument is that the pressure of win-or-go-home playoff competition gives merit to playoff success, but that discounts the hardships that are exclusive to regular season play. For example, the volume of games played in leagues such as MLB, the NBA, the WNBA, the NHL and the NFL is significantly higher in the regular season compared to the playoffs, with no league’s playoffs coming close to even half of the games played in the regular season.
The main reason we have playoffs is to fulfill the necessity to crown a winner that all us sports fans feel. It would feel really anti-climactic if at the end of the regular season, the team with the best record won the title, but at the end of the day that really would be the most fair system. Having two completely different formats in one professional league is not a marker of athletic integrity, it’s purely for entertainment value.
The 2021-22 NFL season is a perfect example of how regular season excellence does not equate to playoff success. Only two teams won 13 games in the regular season, the Green Bay Packers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but neither even made it to the Conference Championship round of the playoffs. While having the Cincinnati Bengals, the team with the least wins for a division winner, in the Super Bowl makes for a great storyline, that’s what it is. The only way that a sudden death bracket format would be a true measure of each team’s ability would be if it included all teams in the league and was the only format used.
That may be the solution leagues should go for. Omitting current regular season formats in favor of giant tournament-style contests might solve the problem, making each individual game matter more while establishing continuity throughout the season. Unfortunately, and this goes back to the entertainment point, the goal of professional sports is not solely to test which team is the best. With this proposed format, fanbases of teams that are not good would only be able to watch their team a limited amount of times before they were eliminated. Herein lies the problem of why the two-format system persists: a balance is struck in order to keep the maximum amount of fans engaged.
If there’s anything that can be gleaned from this tangent that ultimately found its way back to the beginning, it’s that regular season success deserves more credit. Sure, it would not make sense to have playoffs all the time or to get rid of them outright, but separate awards can be given to the best regular season team and the best playoff team. The 2001 Mariners should be honored in just as high a regard as the Diamondbacks, as neither team accomplished what the other team did in the other format. In the same vein, the 2007 Patriots’ 16-0 record should also be held in high regard, as no other team in the 16-game NFL season era accomplished it.