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November 2, 2010

World Series Prospectus

What Makes a Good World Series?

by Tommy Bennett

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At some point during Derek Holland’s third batter faced in Game Two of the World Series, I realized that the level of play on display was not especially high. Holland had come into a relatively tight game—which the Rangers trailed by just two runs—and promptly doused the infield with gasoline. Theretofore entrusted to the right hand of Darren O’Day, the bottom of the eighth had gone like this: K, K, 1B. Holland, called upon by Ron Washington to record a solitary out against a lefty—the one thing you ought to be able to count on in a lefty reliever—walked Nate Schierholtz on four pitches. Then he walked Cody Ross on four pitches. Then Aubrey Huff on five.

After that last walk—which allowed a run to score and was only the beginning of a two-out unraveling that led to a 9-0 drubbing—I think a great many fans decided that the 2010 fall classic was a bad World Series. Never mind the middling average television market for this year's matchup. By “bad” World Series, I simply mean to conjure the image of a best-of-seven contest that isn’t well-contested, in which both the individual games and the overall series outcome aren't close, and in which the players themselves are somehow second-rate. I think there’s a grain of truth in that evaluation.

The Once and Future Flotsam

Consider how many of the players in this series have, at one point or another in their careers, been deemed almost completely worthless. Not just injured, but essentially zero-value properties. There are obvious examples like Pat Burrell and Ross, who just months ago were literally freely available, at least at their relative price points. Huff, too, was traded from Baltimore to Detroit in August of 2009 for an 11th-round reliever who has yet to throw a pitch above Single-A. Andres Torres was a career minor leaguer until last year. Jonathan Sanchez’s control problems were viewed as serious enough that in 2009, the Giants questioned his ability to start over the long term. Santiago Casilla has survived both an age scandal and an outright release last winter. Guillermo Mota was an Expo, has played for seven different teams, and was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

And that’s just the Giants. As for the Rangers, Colby Lewis returned to the U.S. this season after a sojourn in Japan. C.J. Wilson was a failed closer whose primary source of fame was a popular Twitter account. Darren Oliver is apparently still a baseball player! Vladimir Guerrero signed a one-year show-me deal after a dismal 2009 that ostensibly portended the twilight of his career. Nelson Cruz was a fringy Quad-A outfielder closer to 30 years old than 20 as recently as 2007. Josh Hamilton came as close to ruining immeasurable potential as any player in recent memory.

Of course, most of those players are actually useful. There are plenty of players on these rosters that are still pretty worthless. Players like Pablo Sandoval, Bengie Molina, Jeff Francoeur, and Mark Lowe are all basically replacement-level guys at the moment. So what you have is this combination of players that are either (a) currently or (b) very recently not anywhere close to World Series-caliber players.

What Do You Want from Us?!

Given these appearances, what would it take for us to get a truly classic World Series? In evaluating the quality of a series, I generally take the following factors to be influential:

  • The star quality of the individual players
  • The overall quality of the teams
  • How close each individual game is
  • The length of the series
  • The presence (or lack) of extra innings

Notice that of those factors, only the first two will be apparent before the series begins. I think these are two very good teams. In fact, historically, the combined quality of the 2010 pennant winners stacks up pretty well (actually, these are harmonic means of Pythagorean winning percentages):

 

This year’s teams are just about in line with how good previous World Series teams have been, at least according to Pythagorean record. Maybe, though, the difference in quality between the better team and the worse team has some impact on the other factors (particularly the length of the series)? The chart below tracks the relationship between the difference between the World Series teams’ Pythagorean records and the number of games in the series.

 

Well, it certainly doesn’t appear that way. The relationship is extraordinarily weak—indistinguishable from what a random set of outcomes would look like. I also think the likelihood that an individual game will be close is pretty random. Everyone expected the marquee Game One matchup between Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee to be a deadlocked pitcher’s duel, and it wasn’t—that hotly anticipated nail biter didn't come to fruition until their Game Five rematch. And if how close each game turns out is pretty random, so too would have to be the likelihood of extra innings. 

Question of the Day

My working theory is that for a series to be a truly memorable classic, people need to be emotionally invested enough in the early games of a series that they’ll be glued to the TV when and if the variables conspire to yield seven games or extra innings. Without that initial investment, it’s hard to follow the emotional storylines that we all (even numbers dorks) use to remember the ups and downs of the playoffs. What this year’s series lacked—after the initial failure of the first game to satisfy the hype that attended it, and the second game to remain close—was the requisite level of fan involvement to support even the remote possibility of a Rangers comeback.

 Of course, all of this understates (or rather ignores) the value that a World Series has to the fans of the participating teams. What other factors contribute to the creation of a classic World Series?   

Related Content:  Quad-a

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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jlefty

As a Cablevision subscriber, I can confirm your theory of needing to be emotionally invested early. After missing out on the first two games, this Series seemed doomed to be a dud from my perspective.

Nov 02, 2010 08:18 AM
rating: 0
 
John Douglass

I think you need two things for a 'classic' series, and neither of them depend on star power, unless you're defining the series success by TV ratings.

I think to make a series classic, it needs:
1. tension/drama
2. a player or tandem of players who dominate the series, or a moment or series of moments that define it

This year lacked tension, with all the games feeling over by the 7th/8th innings. And Edgar Renteria was probably deserving of the series MVP, for hitting a couple dingers several days apart from one another and collecting a few singles along the way. If Lee-Lincecum I and II had been as expected, and CJ doesn't come up with a blister in a G2 in which he was trading body blows w/ Cain step-for-step, we might still be going and have a classic series noteworthy for it's incredible pitching performances.

Nov 02, 2010 08:36 AM
rating: 1
 
amazin_mess

It was great that there was new blood, but it was far from a memorable Series.

Nov 02, 2010 08:45 AM
rating: 2
 
junglechef
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

It certainly is easy for analysts (yes, you) to forget that a baseball season is made up of so many parts and that it can perhaps be compared to a fabulous and memorable summer of foreplay that leads up to a mundane act of insertion.

If you want memorable maybe YOUR World Series should be made up of All-Star teams instead of teams that speak to chemistry, shared heroics and that all important and undefinable force, momentum.

You sound like a bratty little kid who didn't get what he wanted for Christmas from his loving parents. Look what baseball gave you this season and appreciate it, ingrate.

I went to my first baseball game in 1958 at tiny Seals Stadium at the corner of 16th and Bryant in the "old" Mission district of San Francisco and have seen a lot of teams come and go who had the star power you seem to have expected from "YOUR" World Series. And while all the Willies and Orlandos and Will the Thrills and Barrys couldn't quite push them over the hump, this collection of piece players did. I thought it was a great World Series. But then, I cared.

Nov 02, 2010 09:45 AM
rating: -6
 
juiced

Wrong. The Giants' domination was unexpected, and therefore a thrill to behold for most viewers. David slew 3 Goliaths this postseason, that is what the majority of baseball fans outside of NY want to see. The Giants' crowds and city celebration was unique. It was an electric series, and it's little surprise that your regression analysis and laughable focus on Nielsen ratings failed to pick up

Nov 02, 2010 09:55 AM
rating: -1
 
jlefty

Atlanta was no Goliath.

Nov 02, 2010 10:09 AM
rating: 1
 
npb7768

This was probably the most exciting series of five games or less since the two in 1969 and 1970...



Nov 02, 2010 10:27 AM
rating: 3
 
rellis

Well, "excitement" is certainly a subjective term and all have a right to their judgment on the matter. To me, it was obvious by the middle innings of game one that SF was the better team and the series totally over by the end of game two. I am growing quite weary of duds like Detroit, Colorado, Tampa, and Texas being in the World Series, but I don't know what baseball can do about it.

Nov 02, 2010 10:48 AM
rating: -2
 
davelamb

Ridiculous. When you focus only on the negative, of course it sounds bad. Let's flip it around.

Huff had a great 2010 and a pretty solid career
Burrell has 285 carrer home runs
Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter in 2009, and had a 3.09 ERA with 200+ Ks in 2010
Andres Torres had 67 extra base hits in 2010 with stellar defense
Pablo Sandoval, while struggling this year, was an all-star just last season

Vladimir Gurrerro is a potential future hall of famer
Nelson Cruz hit 33 HR last year and had a .950 OPS in an injury shorted 2010
Colby Lewis had a great 2010 season
Josh Hamilton - your 2010 AL MVP

So what you have is this combination of players that are either (a) currently or (b) very recently World Series-caliber players.

And these are just some of the players Bennett denigrates. I'm not sure how you can write this article and ignore the fact that with Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee, this series had the winners of 3 of the last 4 Cy Young awards.




Nov 02, 2010 10:53 AM
rating: 8
 
keef66

Are any series considered great that don't go at least 6 games? The 2005 series had quite a bit of drama, with a 14-inning game, no game decided by more than 2 runs, a charismatic manager on one side and 3 HOFers on the other. The early games were plenty good enough to draw people in, but I doubt this one will stick in the memory of many baseball fans outside of Houston or Chicago.

Conversely, the 1960 series must have been incredibly dull for most of the 7 games, but because of the way it ended, it remains a classic.

Maybe there's a distinction to be made between how exciting a series is at the moment and how exciting it seems in retrospect. Some, of course (1991, e.g.), are both.

Nov 02, 2010 11:48 AM
rating: 1
 
Tommy Bennett

I actually think that the 2005 World Series was one of the most exciting in recent memory, for exactly the reasons you cite. Of course, all of these judgments are subjective.

Nov 02, 2010 11:50 AM
rating: 0
 
Morris Greenberg

In 2010, the Giants were the best team.

The Yankees, Rays, Cardinals, Phillies, Twins, Red Sox, Rockies, Reds, and Rangers all had better rosters, but the Giants were the best team. They played like one unit.

From 2007-2009, the best rosters won the World Series, and I personally find that less exciting. Personally, I won't remember a single moment in any of those World Series

From 2001-2006, the best team won the World Series. I remember seeing Luis Gonzalez's hit, I remember the Angels being 6 outs away from losing the World Series, I remember the Marlins rallying three consecutive games in the NLCS and then outplaying the Yankees in the World Series, I remember the Red Sox winning 8 consecutive games to win the ALCS and World Series, I remember the White Sox winning a 14 inning game against the Astros, I remember the Cardinals coming out of nowhere to surprise the Tigers.

Sometimes, the best games don't have the best players. Read this onion article if you actually did not enjoy this series:
http://www.theonion.com/articles/nation-disappointed-by-great-world-series-matchup,18358/

Nov 02, 2010 12:33 PM
rating: -2
 
BillJohnson

In my opinion, we are still altogether too close to the event to form a well-founded opinion as to whether this World Series was "great," at least from a dramatic perspective. Story lines like the emergence of a new star (Cain, Posey) or the last gasp of an old one (Renteria) or even a "who was that masked man?" moment of prominence by a mediocrity (Ross) won't be validated for a few years yet. Patience.

That said, I don't think this was a particularly _good_ Series in terms of quality of play or excitement that remains after the games are done. If the most memorable occurrence was Holland's game-2 meltdown (and I think there's an excellent chance that it will be), that's not the kind of thing of which competitively excellent Series are made.

Nov 02, 2010 15:40 PM
rating: 0
 
Bob

I loved this World Series. It's always more enjoyable for me to watch any World Series that doesn't include the Yankees or Phillies (or Red Sox as well, for that matter).

But I think in general, the World Series means far less now than it did before the Wild Card was instituted. Now it's much easier for a team that was not the best team of 2010 to still win the World Series. The World Series determines the best (and luckiest) team involved in the postseason during that particular time frame, not the best team of the season.

I'd like to see baseball (fans) distinguish between the Regular Season Champion and the World Series Champion. To me, those are two separate entities and, I believe, the Regular Season Champion should be much more highly regarded.

This would be similar to English soccer, where you have the Premier League (regular season) champion plus the FA Cup Champion. The English fans can do math and therefore easily regard the regular season championship as a much more difficult and worthwhile result than the FA Cup tournament. We need to do the same with baseball.

Nov 02, 2010 19:24 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

The NHL also has a seperate award for the team with the most regular season points (President's Trophy), in addition to the Stanley Cup. But still, most people only discuss the Presiden't Trophy if the team that took that flopped early in the playoffs. Otherwise, we all remember the Cup winner two years later. And the NHL has 16 teams in the playoffs - even more of a potential crapshoot than MLB.

Nov 02, 2010 20:59 PM
rating: 0
 
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