There have been twenty World Series champions since Major League Baseball expanded the postseason prior to 1995. In the past two decades, we’ve watched as October baseball became a little less like the Fall Classics the world had come to know, and a little more like March Madness. In today’s game, we can be less sure than ever that the team hoisting the trophy at the end of each season was actually the best the sport had to offer that year. Every new team added to the playoff mix represents another obstacle for the top teams to overcome. Every new postseason round serves as a tripwire for anyone with a claim at October glory. The playoffs have become less about rewarding baseball’s best and more about admiring whichever team is able to dance over the most laser beams and cross the finish line unscathed.
It took a while to arrive at this conclusion. The first reason for that is simply time. We couldn’t make a determination on exactly how expanded playoffs would affect the game until we actually saw the results play out over the course of several years. The second, less obvious, reason is that upon the introduction of wild card expansion we were almost immediately served with a red herring. We were introduced to a team that rattled off a run of success not seen since the 1950s…a team that, in retrospect, seemed to have broken the system.
The 1996-2001 New York Yankees won fourteen postseason series and lost two, claiming four World Series championships along the way. The team won a minimum of 92 games in five of the six years. They finished in first place of the American League East in just as many. The 1998 team alone rewrote the record books, winning a then-American League record 114 regular season games. After the smoke had cleared in October, they had amassed 125 wins, still the Major League single-season record. The teams won with both an assembly of acquired veterans and a collection of young, homegrown talent. An astounding sixteen players contributed to at least three of the four World Series New York won in that timespan.
- David Cone (x4)
- Derek Jeter (x4)
- Tino Martinez (x4)
- Jeff Nelson (x4)
- Paul O’Neill (x4)
- Andy Pettitte (x4)
- Mariano Rivera (x4)
- Luis Sojo (x4)
- Bernie Williams (x4)
- Scott Brosius (x3)
- Joe Girardi (x3)
- Orlando Hernandez (x3)
- Chuck Knoblauch (x3)
- Ramiro Mendoza (x3)
- Jorge Posada (x3)
- Mike Stanton (x3)
No other team in the wild card era has won back-to-back championships. Those Yankees won three in a row and were one inning away from a fourth. Their run of eleven straight playoff series victories from 1998-2001 is the most in baseball history. To have achieved that in an era that is set up almost explicitly to suppress such dominance is a staggering accomplishment. No other team comes particularly close to matching their performance. In fact, there are only seven other teams under the modern format that even won four consecutive postseason series. They break down as follows:
The Bare Minimum (Four Consecutive Playoff Series Wins):
- 2007-2008 Boston Red Sox
- 2009-2010 New York Yankees
The rivals find common ground here. The 2007 Red Sox suffer from middle-child syndrome at times, sandwiched between the two other, arguably more memorable Boston championships from the past decade. They weren’t, after all, the manic, curse-breaking team of 2004, nor were they the 2013 squad that shocked the world by going from worst to first. Rather, they were just really good. The ’07 team swept two of their three postseason matchups that year, including the World Series against Colorado. Unlike the 2005 Red Sox, however, who went out with a whimper in the first round, and the 2014 team that faded into last place of the American League East, the 2008 Red Sox pushed to within one game of a return-trip to the World Series. The team came up just short against the Cinderella Tampa Bay Rays, but the fact remains that the Sox team famous for bridging the gap from veteran stars like Manny, Schilling and Varitek to the new age of Pedroia, Lester and Ellsbury was the team that offered Boston its best shot at a repeat.
The Yankees of a year later, meanwhile, struck while the iron was hot. By continuing to squeeze production from their aging core of homegrown stars and capitalizing on mega free agent deals before they inevitably turned sour (A-Rod, Sabathia, Teixeira, Burnett), the Yankees were able to win their 27th title in 2009 and push the upstart Texas Rangers to six games in the 2010 ALCS before falling short. The Yankees have won just one postseason series since.
The In-Betweeners (Four, Maybe Five…but Probably Just Four Consecutive Playoff Series Wins):
- 2011-2012 St. Louis Cardinals
Whether you think the Cardinals belong in either the previous group or the next group depends on whether you classify the Wild Card play-in game as a series. If you go by the Baseball Reference Play Index, as I did, the Cardinals are listed as having won five consecutive playoff series, with the 2012 Wild Card game against Atlanta being included. It seems wrong to count a one-game playoff as a series win when it’s essentially just a coin-flip. Then again, a team’s odds in a five or seven game series are typically not much better, and you could make the case that playing and surviving the dreaded play-in game makes the Redbirds run even more impressive. In either case, seeing as how the system has only been in place since 2012, I’m giving the Cards half credit and sticking them in the middle.
The Almost Repeat-Offenders (Five Consecutive Playoff Series Wins):
- 1995-1996 Atlanta Braves
- 2008-2009 Philadelphia Phillies
Here we find the two wild card era teams that came oh-so-close to being back-to-back World Series champions without actually doing it. The regular season dominance and playoff heartbreak that came to define the ’90s Braves is probably something the rest of the sport should’ve taken better note of. The trajectory of those Atlanta teams laid the blueprint for how the modern playoff system would truly work in the coming decades. Not even an unprecedented run of fourteen straight division titles could yield more than just one championship for the Braves. The 1996 team came as close as the Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz group ever would again, taking a 2-0 lead before dropping the next four and the series to an underdog Yankee team.
Coincidentally it was those same Yankees, albeit a much more seasoned and expensive version, that was Philadelphia’s undoing in 2009. The Phillies are an interesting comp to those 90s Braves teams in that it’s hard to believe they came out of the late 2000s and early 2010s with just one title. More interestingly is that the 2008 team that actually did win it all was probably the weakest incarnation of the perennial first-place Philly squads that ruled the NL East until 2011. The 2009 Phillies paired ace lefty Cliff Lee with homegrown hero Cole Hamels at the top of rotation, won 92 games and lost the World Series to New York in six. The following year they swapped out Cliff Lee for Roys Halladay and Oswalt, won 97 games and then lost the NLCS to the Giants. In 2011 the Phillies kept Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels and brought Cliff Lee back for good measure, forming one of the most dominant pitching staffs in recent history. They finished with the best record in baseball, winning 102 games. Then they lost in the first round of the playoffs. Winning championships is hard.
The Split-Year Misfits:
- 1997, 2003 Florida Marlins (Six Consecutive Playoff Series Wins)
- 2010, 2012, 2014 San Francisco Giants (Nine, or Possibly Ten Consecutive Playoff Series Wins)
Strangely enough, these are the only two teams in the current era who put together a postseason winning streak in non-consecutive years. This is probably at least partially due to the fact that the majority of World Series winners qualify for the postseason in the year directly following their championship. There are exceptions however, namely the 2003 Angels, 2006 White Sox, 2007 Cardinals, 2013 Red Sox and the Giants and Marlins teams listed above, all who fell short of the playoffs after celebrating the previous season. The Angels, White Sox and Cardinals all lost immediately when their next October moment came, ending their streaks at three apiece. Being just a year removed from the latest Red Sox championship, we’ll have to wait to see if they can improve upon their current run, which also presently stands at three. The Marlins and Giants are the only franchises in the past two decades who have found postseason success and then picked up where they left off, multiple years later.
Despite winning two championships and never losing a playoff series in their 21 year existence, the Marlins are perhaps the least dynastic of any multi-World Series winner in the modern era. Not only did their improbable wins in 1997 and 2003 come with completely different rosters (as in, only Luis Castillo and Jeff Conine were present for both titles), but they came with different managers, general managers and even owners. Many of the key contributors to those wins were shipped out of Miami before the champagne dried, as Florida gutted their team with an exhaustive fire-sale after both victories. The Marlins were never a staple of the National League hierarchy. Instead, they parlayed unlikely wild card berths into two dramatic runs at World Series triumph. Odd? Yes. Impressive? Sure. But well short of dominant.