The regular season is officially in the books (OK, maybe there is still a game or two trickling slowly to its finish as you read this) and the 2022 MLB playoffs are set to start Friday -- and this year's postseason could be epic.
In addition to a new format that features 12 teams and a three-game wild-card round that is guaranteed to bring drama to October from the very start, there are so many storylines to follow throughout that it has a chance to be an all-time great month of baseball.
Below, we highlight the 12 themes that will dominate the entire sport as the new 12-team format begins.
1. This is the best playoff format ... ever
I think baseball finally nailed it. Yes, there are those who will always favor the old setups of two pennants or four division winners, but the 12-team arrangement is an improvement over 10 teams (which had been the norm for the past decade). The do-or-die wild-card game, which had been around since 2012, never felt right and, frankly, never really turned into the must-see drama that the sports world stopped everything to watch anyway.
As we saw with the temporary 16-team bracket in 2020, these quick, three-game series are fun. They're still plenty pressure-packed, but they feel more like baseball than a winner-take-all matchup.
Crucially, this format still rewards the best teams with a first-round bye and the opportunity to rest a pitching staff and line up a rotation. My only nit with where baseball landed this year is that a seven-game division series would be better than five -- maybe next year, when the start of the season won't be delayed by a lockout.
2. There's a 111-win superteam and nobody is sure what to make of its World Series chances
The Los Angeles Dodgers won 111 games -- the most ever for a National League team in a 162-game season and a total topped only by the 2001 Seattle Mariners and 1998 New York Yankees. If they win it all, they go down alongside that Yankees team as one of the greatest of all time; if they don't win it all, they're relegated to the back pages of history alongside those Mariners.
Since 2017, the Dodgers have had four 104-win seasons, a remarkably long period of domination ... but just one World Series title. Their sole championship came in the shortened 2020 season, with playoff games played in front of empty stadiums or at neutral sites. It counts -- or as a friend of mine who is a longtime die-hard Dodgers fan told me, it counts as one-third of a title. And don't forget that teams were allowed to play with 28-man rosters that postseason, which allowed the Dodgers to use starters as relievers and relievers as starters and do things they might not have been able to do with a 26-man roster.
Alden Gonzalez had a good breakdown of the pressure the Dodgers face this October. In a sense, they're playing for two championships: 2022 and a validation of 2020. While manager Dave Roberts told ESPN he "absolutely" considers the Dodgers a dynasty -- and four 104-win seasons certainly back that claim up -- two titles would definitely secure their place in history as one of the greatest teams of all time.
3. We've got a real chance of a repeat
After winning the World Series in 2021, the Atlanta Braves lost Freddie Freeman to the Dodgers -- and got younger and better, winning 101 games and their fifth straight division title. No team has repeated as World Series champs since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000; the Braves have the power, the pitching and the momentum -- after stealing the NL East in the final week with a three-game sweep of the New York Mets -- to do it.
And it's not just a repeat, the Braves might be on their way to a dynasty here. Their turnaround from a 10½-game deficit to the division title began when they called up Michael Harris II to play center field in late May and moved Spencer Strider to the rotation. From June 1 -- the first win in a 14-game winning streak -- to the end of the regular season, they went 78-34. Strider's injured oblique might keep him out of the playoffs, but they still have Max Fried, 20-game winner Kyle Wright and October hero of the past Charlie Morton, plus a lineup that led the NL in home runs.
4. Speaking of dynasties ... what do we make of the Houston Astros?
You might have noticed by now, but there are a lot of good teams at the top of this year's playoff bracket. We have four 100-win clubs in the Dodgers, Astros, Braves and Mets, with the Yankees finishing at 99 wins. The you-can't-predict-baseball nature of the postseason doesn't guarantee we'll see two of these teams in the World Series, but if we do, there's a good chance we'll see a classic series. The last matchup of 100-win teams in the World Series was 2017, when the Astros beat the Dodgers in seven thrilling games. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1970 to have two 100-win teams in the World Series.
The Astros also have four 100-win seasons since 2017, including 107 in 2019 and 106 this season. Sign-stealing scandal or not, if they win the World Series, perhaps they go down as the dominant franchise of this era. And an added bonus? After 25 years of managing in the big leagues and making his 12th trip to the postseason, manager Dusty Baker is hoping to finally win that final game of the season.
To make matters more interesting, the Astros appear on a collision course to meet the Yankees in the American League Championship Series for the third time since 2017. Remember the war of words in the spring between Astros owner Jim Crane and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman after Cashman cried that the only thing that had stopped the Yankees in previous seasons from reaching the World Series was "something that was so illegal and horrific." A Yankees-Astros ALCS would be an epic battle -- even if it is one Evil Empire versus another.
5. New York baseball is B-A-C-K
This is now the Yankees' 13th season since last appearing in a World Series in 2009 -- an unacceptable length of time for baseball's richest and most historically successful franchise with 27 titles in a sport where the wealthiest teams have a decided advantage. Longtime fans will note the Yankees are closing in on the infamous World Series drought from 1982 to 1995, the reign of terror era under George Steinbrenner when he cycled through 13 managers and seven general managers.
On the other side of town: The Mets won 100 games for just the fourth time in franchise history and first time since 1988, but they enter the postseason with the bitter taste of defeat after losing that final series to the Braves. Everyone knows that Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer can carry a team through a postseason -- but deGrom allowed 14 runs and six home runs in 21 innings over his final four starts, so the Mets will need him to find that groove where he posted a 1.66 ERA over his first seven starts after returning in August. Still, this is hardly a two-man team: Pete Alonso led the NL in RBIs, Francisco Lindor might finish in the top 10 of the MVP voting, Chris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker are solid 3-4 starters and Edwin Diaz has been a lockdown closer. The Mets have had their moments since that run of success in the 1980s, including two World Series appearances, but it's been 36 years since their iconic 1986 team won it all.
6. Did you really think we forgot about Aaron Judge?
Yes, both teams have made New York baseball interesting all season, but nobody has been more at the center of that than the man who just finished up a 62-home run campaign -- and has fans of both New York teams envisioning his free agency will end with him signing with their club.
Now, we have Judge trying to cap off what might be arguably the greatest season of any player in history -- by that, I mean a historic regular season, a great postseason and a World Series title. Ted Williams in 1941? Didn't even win the pennant. Carl Yastrzemski in 1967? The highest single-season WAR for a position player other than Babe Ruth, but the Red Sox lost the World Series. Bob Gibson in 1968? A 1.12 ERA and a record 17 strikeouts in one World Series game, but he lost Game 7. Dwight Gooden in 1985? The Mets missed the playoffs. Pedro Martinez in 1999? The Red Sox lost in the ALCS. Barry Bonds in 2001? The Giants didn't make the playoffs. Bonds in 2002? He had a great postseason, but the Giants lost Game 7 of the Fall Classic. Mookie Betts in 2018? A 10.7-WAR season that matches Judge and the Red Sox won the World Series, but Betts had a lackluster postseason (.210/.300/.323).
7. Can the GOAT go out on top?
Let's not forget the other slugger who made home run history this season -- Albert Pujols. Every player would love to go out on top, either still playing well or with a dogpile on the field. Almost none of them do. Pujols and Yadier Molina have a chance to do that -- and maybe Adam Wainwright joins them in retirement as well (he's yet to officially announce his status for 2023).
The three St. Louis Cardinals legends reunited this season when Pujols returned after a 10-year exile, and all three will play a key role in what happens to the club in October. As will Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, two of the greatest players of their generation who will likely finish 1-2 in the MVP voting in the NL -- and who both seek their first trip to the World Series.
8. The playoff drought-busters
While the Cardinals come into this postseason with loads of October experience, there are two franchises about to get their first taste of the playoffs in a long, long time. The Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies ended the sport's two longest playoff droughts in securing wild-card spots, although both teams will be on the road for the first round -- Seattle at Toronto, Philadelphia at St. Louis.
When Cal Raleigh hit his pinch-hit walk-off home run to clinch a wild-card spot, the Mariners celebrated like they had won the World Series. Can you blame them? Twenty-one years is a long time between playoff appearances. Sure, they had plenty of terrible teams along the way, but also several near misses: 93 wins in 2002 and 2003, 88 wins in 2007, one win short in 2014, three short in 2016, alive until the final day last season. They aren't even guaranteed a home playoff game if they don't beat the Blue Jays, although you can bet the watch party at T-Mobile Park will have a playoff-like atmosphere.
The good news is Julio Rodriguez returned from his back problem to play a couple of games at the end of the regular season (and homered in the season finale). The bad news is second-half spark plug Sam Haggerty and outfielder/DH Jesse Winker both just landed on the injured list. The rotation and bullpen are healthy, however -- Luis Castillo looks like a legitimate ace when he's on, while Logan Gilbert had a 2.00 ERA in September, allowing one run or less in five of his six starts. If you like a good underdog story, believe in the Mariners.
Meanwhile, the Phillies had the majors' second-longest playoff drought, making it for the first time since 2011. They have Bryce Harper, back in the postseason for the first time since 2017, and power-hitting Kyle Schwarber, who led the NL in home runs. Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler and Ranger Suarez (2.95 ERA since July 16) are a strong rotation trio. I wouldn't bet on them in the tough NL, but there are similarities here in roster construction to the 2019 Nationals, who went from the wild card to World Series champs.
9. The World Series curses we don't talk about enough
The Cleveland Guardians are trying to win their first World Series since 1948. The San Diego Padres and Tampa Bay Rays are trying to win their first one, while the aforementioned Mariners remain the only franchise never to play in a World Series.
The Guardians' World Series drought has never received as much attention as the ones for the Red Sox and Cubs did, but it's now been 74 years since the Cleveland franchise won it all -- longer than the 1986 Red Sox had gone (68 years) when they lost to the Mets. How about winning it all in the first season with the new nickname? They might make a movie out of that given this list of Cleveland's postseason heartbreaks:
1995: The best team in baseball that year, but they lost the World Series to the Braves.
1997: Blew a ninth-inning lead in Game 7 of the World Series to the Marlins and lost in extra innings.
2007: Lost the ALCS to the Red Sox after being up 3-1.
2016: Were up 3-1 on the Cubs in the World Series and lost Game 7, again, in extra innings.
2017: Lost the division series to the Yankees after being up 2-0.
And then there's the team that's been around since 1969 -- and never won it all. The Padres made World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998, but this is just the seventh postseason trip in franchise history.
But these aren't your older brother's Padres. This is a team that has spent the past three seasons acquiring an All-Star squad of talent while playing with a brash style that could make it very popular this postseason -- if the Padres can stick around long enough for national fans to get familiar with their stars. They've gone all-in to dethrone the Dodgers in recent seasons -- only to fall well short. But they squeaked in, and anything can happen in the playoffs, right? Especially with Manny Machado and Juan Soto and Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish and a suddenly rejuvenated Blake Snell (1.76 ERA over his final seven starts). The Mets-Padres wild-card series is the one to watch -- with the winner facing the Dodgers in a colossal division series showdown.
10. The redemption stories
Let's see here. We've got Justin Verlander, who after missing 2021 with Tommy John surgery, came back and went 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA while leading the American League in wins, ERA, WHIP and lowest batting average allowed. His status as future Hall of Famer is secure, but with a big October and another World Series championship for the Astros, his legacy becomes that of an inner-circle Hall of Famer. DeGrom and Scherzer missed some time, and deGrom sputtered at the end of the season, but that dynamic pair could carry the Mets to their first title since 1986. And then of course, there is Clayton Kershaw. Yes, he got his ring a couple of years ago, but he was injured last October, and he hasn't won a ring in a full season with a normal postseason. How will he perform?
11. The October introduction of some legit young stars
As my colleague Kiley McDaniel pointed out recently, this is the best rookie class since Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki debuted in 2001 -- and most of the biggest names will be playing in the postseason (sorry, Adley Rutschman). We've got Rodriguez leading the Mariners and Harris and Strider on the Braves.
But it's not just the rookies who will remind us how bright the future of baseball is this postseason ...
While we often think of the Rays as a parade of bullpen arms, they also have two budding young superstars in Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan who could power another small-market success story this postseason. And across the AL East, Alek Manoah, Alejandro Kirk, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. form a young core that makes the Blue Jays a team nobody wants to face this postseason. Of course, the question we'll all be waiting to see answered is how these young stars will handle the bright lights of October ... or should we say November.
12. It's an October so great -- it could take part of November to finish it
That's right, thanks to the combination of the new format and the MLB lockout pushing back the start of the season, Game 7 of the 2022 World Series would take place on Nov. 5, the latest date of a playoff game in MLB history.
If every series goes the distance, we'll get 53 postseason games with all of these incredible storylines fueling the possibility that any given night can become a must-see moment for baseball fans. Of course, in the end we need great games to have a great postseason.
That's what still makes 1986 the gold standard for all postseasons. There were just 20 playoff games that October -- the seven-game ALCS between the Red Sox and Angels, the six-game NLCS between the Mets and Astros, then the seven-game World Series when the Mets beat the Red Sox. Five of the 20 games went extra innings. Eight were decided by one run. Several are all-time classics, including Game 5 of the ALCS; Games 3, 5 and 6 of the NLCS; and Games 6 and 7 of the World Series.
The stage is set. I'm going with the Dodgers over the Astros. I'll take Kershaw versus Verlander in Game 7 of the World Series, thank you very much.