What Makes a Great Playoff Series?


This is a question that has been on my mind since Tim undertook his massive investigation of the 1999 NLCS last week.

The seven-game playoff series (we’re not even going to talk about the atrocious five-game divisional format) is really one of the best things about sports when it unfolds right. It takes the highs and lows of a great game and stretches them over a week and a half. Rooting for a team involved a great series, as Tim can attest, essentially consumes your life for those days. You’re either riding a high from a great win, resentful and angry at the world after a bad loss, or anxiously awaiting an upcoming match-up. The best series have the dramatic arc of a great novel.

I’ve been thinking about this question because I’ve been wondering if the 2009 ALCS between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was a Great Series. Superficially, it looks like one: two extra-inning, walk-off games, questionable managerial decisions, close contests in five out of six games. If not for inexplicable errors by Howie Kendrick and Scott Kazmir in Game 6, four of the six games would have been decided by one run.

And yet, I don’t think it qualifies. For one, some of the biggest moments in the series were errors: Izturis’ error to end Game 2, the symbolic pop-fly that fell between Aybar and Figgins in the first inning of Game 1, Kazmir throwing the ball eight feet over Kendrick’s head in Game 6. For a series to be great, it should be defined by great plays, and not mishaps.

But that’s not the real reason. Plenty of great postseason series are defined by miscues—the Buckner error, the Bartman foul ball, even Tim’s precious ’99 NLCS ended on a walk. What really separates this series from the truly great ones is its lack of narrative.

A great series needs to unfold like a story, with clear-cut characters, a conflict, rising action, a turning point, a climax, and a denouement. This ALCS had none of that. At no point did the Angels have the lead in the series, or even get it back to even after Game 1; it never looked like Los Angeles was in control.

This prevented any narrative flow from developing. The Angels’ walk-off win in Game 3 could have been a turning point, except they lost 10-1 the next day. Their rally in the seventh inning in Game 5 could have been the climax, except they lost the series. The Yankees didn’t really have a climax, since the only logical choice—A-Rod’s home run against Brian Fuentes—came a full week before the series ended. The climax can’t happen in the first act; that’s bad story-telling.

What’s worse, there was no antagonism between the two teams. In fact, I kind of liked the Angels, and almost felt bad about beating them by the end. Torii Hunter, Vlad Guerrero, ex-Yankee Bobby Abreu…those guys don’t make good villains.

A great series has to have some sense of animosity, ideally the kind of respectful animosity that comes with rivalry. This is why the best series tend to come between rivals: the 2003/2004 ALCS, the 1999 NLCS, 1978 World Series. These series come with a built-in narrative. 

This does not mean a great series can’t take place between non-rivals; it can happen, as it did in the 1975 World Series, the 1991 World Series and the 2001 World Series, but it needs some other hook.*

*This is one reason why the NBA has so many more great series than the MLB. When non-rivals meet in the playoffs, there is usually a key player match-up or some sense of identity clash that creates an instant rivalry: Shaq vs. Kobe, Kobe vs. LeBron, Wade vs. LeBron, Duncan vs. Garnett, the younger Bulls team vs. the older, seasoned, defending champ Celtics, etc. In the 1980s, in fact, Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson intersected with the existing Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry, resulting in a magical confluence of events that defined a decade of basketball. This is why, as Chuck Klosterman put it, “the Lakers-Celtics rivalry represents absolutely everything.”

The greatest series I’ve ever had a rooting interest in was the 1996 World Series. That series, between the non-rival Yankees and Braves, had a perfect narrative. The Yankees had a new manager who had never been to the World Series before (plus his brother was in the hospital during the series), in 30 years as either a player or manager, and they were generally a team that seemed to get by on luck and good breaks. The Braves, meanwhile, were the defending champions, with the vaunted rotation of Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine. It was David vs. Goliath, and somehow, the Yankees were David.

What made that series so great was how lopsided things looked after the first two games. The Atlanta Braves had won 12-1 and 4-0, and had outscored their opponents 48-2 in their last five games. They were going home with a 2-0 Series lead. It seemed insurmountable. And then suddenly things changed. The Yankees took Game 3 behind a great pitching performance by David Cone, but the real turning point came the next day. The Yankees came back from down 6-0, capped by a three-run homer by Jim Leyritz off Mark Wohlers, the Atlanta closer, to tie it in the eighth. Game 5 was one of the best games in World Series history, as Andy Pettitte, fresh off a terrible start in Game 1, out-pitched John Smoltz, and the Yankees won 1-0. Riding the high of winning three games in Atlanta, Game 6 never seemed in doubt, even though the final score was only 3-2.

The 1996 World Series and the 1999 NLCS weren’t just series with great games—they were great series. They started out with a narrative (in both cases that narrative was “The Braves can’t be beaten”), looked like they were going to flesh that one out, and then suddenly turned it on its head. They each had a different outcome, but the experience of watching them was largely the same. Some good stories have a happy ending, and some good stories have a tragic ending—either way, everyone likes a good story.   

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on October 31, 2009 at 12:06 AM

    Its kind of just personal preference, but have you ever woken up the day after Halloween(when you were five, and it was like the best day of the year) to a segment/montage featuring your favorite player hitting a game-winning home run at midnight?


  2. Posted by Tim on October 17, 2010 at 10:41 PM

    The NBA also has more great series because it has more series. And since it has more series, it fosters more rivalries with rematches.


  3. I would like to point out that the NHL probably had the best playoff set-up back in the days of yore. With four divisions, the top four teams in each division made the playoffs and played each other in a kind of pod, meaning the same teams clashed time and again in the playoffs. Pierre, for one, thinks the NHL would be best served by returning to a similar system (and yes, contracting a division and its teams in each conference in the process).


  4. […] narrative entering Game 7 is whether this is, in fact, a great series. Only idiots will think […]


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