Has any Major League Baseball team been snakebit in October more often than the Atlanta Braves? At least in the last six decades or so, definitely not. If the Cubs are the lovable losers then the Braves are the lovable losers of postseason play. They’ve been to the playoffs 15 times since 1991 and have won the World Series only once (1995). The Braves have lost six consecutive playoff series dating back to the 2001 NLCS, including three in a decisive final game (all three of those at home).
So it would be just their luck to have the first season of new postseason rules derail what otherwise would have been routine passage into the National League Division Series. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Braves have at least a six-game lead on all other wild-card contenders. In prior years they would have punched their ticket to the division series by the middle of last week. Now, with implementation of a one-game playoff between two wild cards, Atlanta’s season—and entry into the “second” round of the playoffs—all comes down to Friday night.
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Just how important is it to win your division and avoid a one-gamer in this current era? Consider the respective postseason odds for the Braves and their NL East conquerors, the Washington Nationals. According to Sportsbook.ag, Washington is +270 to win the pennant (tied for second with San Francisco behind Cincinnati at +250). Atlanta, by contrast, is +500. Even more drastic is the difference in odds for winning the World Series. Washington is +500 to go all the way while Atlanta is a whopping +1200 (tied for seventh among the 11 teams still mathematically in contention).
The reason for the discrepancy, of course, is not that Washington is a much better team than Atlanta. Washington boasts a slightly superior offense (722 runs scored to Atlanta’s 695), but the pitching is similarly effective (Washington is third in the MLB in ERA, Atlanta fifth). The Braves also own a far more dominant bullpen, anchored by flame-throwing closer and Cy Young candidate Craig Kimbrel.
Nor is the reason for such odds that Washington is more experienced in the postseason than Atlanta (far from it!). The Nationals have never been to the playoffs since moving from Montreal in 2005. The franchise’s last playoff appearance came way back in 1981, when the Expos lost the NLCS. Most of these Braves have only been to the playoffs once (in 2010), but Chipper Jones’ value to the team in both experience and performance cannot be overestimated. They also have a solid postseason veteran on the mound in the form of Tim Hudson.
The reason, of course, is that a one-game playoff is a crapshoot. Atlanta will be a slight favorite at home against either St. Louis or Los Angeles (likely St. Louis), but it is essentially just that—a crapshoot. Case in point: the Cardinals are also +1200 to win the World Series. They are just slightly more of a longshot to win the NL pennant: +600 to the Braves’ +500.
American League odds are not quite as telling at the moment because neither wild-card team has been determined. Both the East and the West are still up for grabs, with only one-game separations atop the standings. Still, both of the current second-place teams are considerable underdogs to make deep postseason runs. Baltimore is +800 to win the ALCS while the Yankees are +250. Oakland is +600 to reach the World Series whereas Texas is +180.
Make no mistake about it: you want to avoid a one-game playoff like the plague. Sorry, Braves fans, it could be another unbearable October.