A World Series Without Baseball’s Best Teams or Best Players

From a Wall Street Journal story by Jared Diamond and Lindsey Adler headlined “The World Series Without Baseball’s Best Teams or Best Players”:

Major League Baseball fundamentally reshaped its rules this season in a drastic effort to improve the product on the field and attract younger generations of fans who had abandoned the sport.

The changes largely worked: The once-controversial pitch timer resulted in shorter and more action-packed games. Limiting pitcher pickoff throws led to a record 41% increase in stolen bases. Attendances climbed to their largest total since 2017, reversing years of decline that started even before the pandemic disrupted the live entertainment market. Nearly two-thirds of teams saw their local television ratings rise.

But as the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks now prepare to square off in one of the unlikeliest World Series matchups in history, MLB must confront a problem that no new innovations can easily solve: how to convince people to pay attention to a Fall Classic that is almost entirely devoid of anybody recognizable to a national audience.

If Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper or Mookie Betts wanted to be at the World Series this year, they’d have to buy a ticket. Instead, the championship will be decided by the likes of Brandon Pfaadt, Leody Taveras, Josh Sborz and Andrew Saalfrank. (Diamondbacks, Rangers, Rangers, Diamondbacks for those wondering.)

The name-recognition headliners for this World Series begin with Rangers pitcher Max Scherzer, a future Hall-of-Famer who at age 39 is approaching the end of his career. Texas also has shortstop Corey Seager, who earned World Series MVP honors with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020 but is unusually low-profile for a player of his caliber. The most well-known player on Arizona’s roster is probably 38-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria, who is returning to the World Series for the first time since 2008 and is there more for his contributions as a veteran clubhouse leader.

Since the Rangers and Diamondbacks won’t be showcasing many players already recognized as the game’s best, the best-case scenario for MLB is that the World Series helps to elevate new stars, like Arizona rookie Corbin Carroll. The Diamondbacks would argue he already fits that description.

“He’s our best player,” general manager Mike Hazen said. “We have so many good players, but he’s a superstar. You can’t win without superstars.”

Even if that’s the case, a superstar on the field is different from a superstar in the national consciousness. The Rangers committed half a billion dollars to sign Seager and second baseman Marcus Semien in free agency two winters ago, but the two players remain mostly overlooked in the public eye. The Rangers have a true superstar in starter Jacob deGrom, but he’s been sidelined with an elbow injury since April and might not pitch again until 2025.

That said, many of the most memorable World Series heroes through the decades—from Johnny Podres and Don Larsen in the 1950s to David Freese and Steve Pearce in the 2010s—were anything but stars before they delivered on baseball’s biggest stage. The World Series is where legends are made.

“We’re playing our best baseball in October,” Scherzer said. “That’s what it takes.”

The Rangers and Diamondbacks meeting in the World Series seems almost impossible to fathom. They combined for a .537 winning percentage during the regular season, an all-time low for teams meeting in the World Series. (That distinction previously belonged to the 1973 Oakland Athletics and New York Mets, at .545.)

Texas dropped eight straight at one point in August and nearly cost itself a spot in the playoffs. Arizona began that month with a nine-game losing streak and limped into October as the ultimate underdog. Back in spring training, one online sportsbook put the odds of the Rangers and Diamondbacks meeting in the World Series at 965-1. Both clubs lost more than 100 games just two years ago.

As the postseason unfolded, however, the Rangers and Diamondbacks kept winning. Texas swept the Tampa Bay Rays and the Baltimore Orioles—the top two teams in the American League—before upsetting the defending-champion Houston Astros to clinch the pennant. Arizona dispatched the Milwaukee Brewers, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the red-hot Philadelphia Phillies.

MLB views the parity of pedigree as a feature, a shining example that any organization can realistically compete for a championship regardless of their payroll, their market size or the starpower on their roster.

By design, baseball’s playoff format rewards the hottest teams, not necessarily the best teams, and the Rangers and Diamondbacks earned their place with how they have performed. Rangers outfielder Adolis García has emerged as a sensation after he set a postseason series record with 15 RBIs against the Astros. The Diamondbacks’ bullpen trio of Ryan Thompson, Kevin Ginkel and Paul Sewald has dominated Harper and Trea Turner, Betts and Freddie Freeman.

“I think like every single guy down in that bullpen could technically be worthy of being a big-name player,” Saalfrank said.

MLB has spent lots of time, brainpower and money to figure out how to better market its best talent to a general audience and create true crossover stars. It’s been a struggle at times, and this season shows one of the reasons why.

Among players with the best 10 selling jerseys this season, five missed the playoffs: Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees, Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres and Julio Rodríguez of the Seattle Mariners. Three others—Betts, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Matt Olson—failed to make it out of the division series.

There is only one player in this World Series who ranked in the top 20 in 2023 jersey sales: Seager, who came in at No. 14.

Other sports don’t face this issue in quite the same way. A top quarterback goes a long way toward ensuring success in the NFL playoffs. One or two superstars can propel a basketball team toward a title by themselves. Baseball doesn’t work like that, especially in the postseason, where randomness reigns. Case in point: Trout, the best player of his generation, has never won a single postseason game in his career and hasn’t even sniffed the playoffs in his years teamed up with Ohtani.

Few stars doesn’t mean there aren’t compelling story lines in this Texas-Arizona showdown. The Rangers, who came into existence as the Washington Senators in 1961 before moving to Arlington in 1972, are looking for the franchise’s first championship. Their manager, Bruce Bochy, left retirement this past winter to pursue his fourth career title with the Rangers. The Diamondbacks have been rallying around Mike Hazen, whose wife, Nicole, died of brain cancer in August 2022.

This World Series will also be the first opportunity for many people around the country to see Carroll play. He might not be a superstar yet, but he looks like a superstar in the making. Enjoying watching him now—because as the Rangers and Diamondbacks have shown, that doesn’t mean he’ll be in the World Series again anytime soon.

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