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September 28, 1998
What Are the Yankees' Chances?We've been hearing all year about the dominance of the Yankees, and about how they should just go ahead and get fitted for their World Series rings, given that no other team in baseball could possibly compete against them. Well, I don't expect most of the mainstream media to really think through this issue too deeply, but baseball history is full of awesome teams that fizzled in the postseason, isn't it? Just how realistic is it to expect the Yankees to saunter through the playoff competition this year?
We can examine the evidence on all kinds of related questions: How often does the better team win a postseason series? Does the expanded playoff format help or hurt a dominant team in its pursuit of a championship? Does it make it a little easier for teams like the Florida Marlins to sneak in a title? Are the 1990's Atlanta Braves underachievers because they've won "only" one World Series?
I decided to check these things out by looking at baseball postseason history. There have been 165 playoff series in major league baseball since the first modern World Series in 1903. Surprisingly, in only three of those series have both teams have sported identical won-lost records, so I removed those from the study. That leaves us with the nice, convenient number of 162 series to look at. I examined the won-lost records of the teams that squared off in these series, and made a note on how often the team with the better record broke out the champagne and did all the TV interviews after the final out. I also took note of the distance between the two teams in the standings, to see if that made a difference. Here are the results:
The "better team" is defined as the one with the superior regular-season winning percentage, if that's not self-explanatory. Let me go through an example or two, just so we're all on the same page. In 1970, the Baltimore Orioles tore through the American League East with a 108-54 record. The Minnesota Twins won the West with a still-impressive 98-64 record, so the Orioles' margin over the Twins was 10 games, which places the series in the 9.5-and-over category above. The Orioles destroyed the Twins in the ALCS, so that counts as a "better-team victory" in the chart. The Birds didn't stop there: Brooks Robinson's heroics helped the O's pound some massive dents in the newly assembled Big Red Machine (102-60) in the World Series. Because the Orioles outplayed the Reds by six games in the regular season, that goes on the board as a "better-team victory" under the 3.5-to-6 game category.
That's not too hard to understand, is it? Let's do one more. Everybody knows that the New York Yankees' long dynasty began in 1921, the year Babe Ruth did his first Mark McGwire impersonation. The Yanks rode the Bambino's 59 taters to a 98-55 record and the American League pennant. But John McGraw's Giants, whose 94-59 record wasn't quite as dominant as that of the Yanks, tripped them up in the Series. That registers as a "better-team defeat" in the 3.5-to-6 game category.
The biggest gap ever between two postseason opponents occurred in 1906, when the mighty Tinker-Evers-Chance Chicago Cubs scorched the National League with a 116-36 record. The crosstown White Sox managed to finish on top of the junior circuit despite hitting only six homers all year, an abysmally low figure even in the dead-ball era. They were 22 1/2 games worse than the Cubbies, and no one gave them much of a chance in the Series. Of course, the Hitless Wonders ambushed the Cubs and ran off with the World Championship, setting the tone for the unpredictability of the Fall Classic. The next biggest margin was the Cleveland Indians' 21 1/2-game edge over the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 ALCS. This one ran true to form, as the Tribe overcame Randy Johnson and captured its first AL pennant since 1954. Cleveland was finally getting even for that unhappy year, as `54 saw the Wahoos strut into the Series with a 14-game edge over the Giants, only to get blown out in a four-game sweep, courtesy of Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes. The only other year with a twenty-game difference between playoff combatants was 1984, when the Tigers trampled the outclassed Royals three straight in the ALCS.
So as you can see from the chart above, a baseball postseason series is basically a tossup if the teams are within six games of each other. The better team wins a playoff series 58% of the time overall, but just about all of the advantage is concentrated in those instances when one team is significantly superior to the other - at least ten games better. In those cases, the better teams can and do take control, but even then the overmatched teams find a way to pull it out a third of the time. Still, the fact that great teams do win the lion's share of playoff showdowns bodes well for the Yankees. But there's another factor at work here, as we're about to see.
Let's approach this issue from a slightly different angle. How often does the best team in the regular season go on to win the World Series? Does it matter that a great team now has to survive two rounds of playoffs just to get to the Fall Classic, rather than one or none? I looked at this issue by tracking down how many times the better team won (a) from 1903 to 1968, when the league pennant winners went straight into the Series; (b) from 1969 to 1993 (excluding 1981), when the League Championship Series was added to the mix, and (c) from 1995 to the present (throwing in strike-shortened 1981), when teams had to win three short series to get their rings. Here's the data:
(For clarity's sake, I'm counting the best 1981 team as the Oakland A's, even though, as we all know, the Cincinnati Reds actually had the best record in baseball but got fleeced out of the postseason by TV interests who saw a quick way to get the Yankees and Dodgers into the playoffs.)
Hmmm. Let's read this chart through together. In all those years in which the World Series was the only baseball show in October, the better team won 56% of the confrontations - fairly close to the overall 58% average for all postseason series. But when the LCS's were adopted, the regular-season kings got to pop the bubbly only 29% of the time - just a tiny bit more often than would have been expected if a champion had been chosen randomly from the four teams in the hunt. And not once since the owners thrust the wild cards down our throats has the best team perched its flag on top of the mountain after the last beer commercial aired. So maybe there is something to the idea that organizations are better off simply doing what the Florida Marlins did last year - just get your foot through the postseason door and maybe you'll get lucky and draw Eric Gregg as your home-plate umpire.
On the basis of these charts, it's obvious that the Atlanta Braves have no reason to hang their heads for their alleged playoff "shortcomings". The Braves have participated in the impressive number of 13 playoff series in the 1990's, and have won eight of them. That works out to a .615 percentage, solidly above the .580 expectation for the superior team, which they haven't always been anyways. In the 1995 World Series, the Braves beat a Cleveland team that finished ten games better than they did. In other years, they just haven't been able to string together three playoff victories in a row. Given that even the most dominant teams can expect to win three straight playoff series only 35% of the time, that's hardly a cause for embarrassment. In most cases, it's not about who has a better team; it's about who has a better week. (To digress for a second, it's not about having a "proven closer", either; Toronto nailed down the 1992 title with Mike Timlin on the hill.) Of course, the Braves' annoying tendency to waste roster spots on Rafael Belliard and Ozzie Guillen probably doesn't help them in October, but on balance, they've done better than expected.
We keep hearing about how the Braves' season will be a "failure" if they don't win the World Series, which is the myopic mindset that's been one of many malignant by-products of the wild-card era. If you have to share the playoff spotlight with seven other teams, then making the postseason isn't quite all that special anymore, and an early playoff defeat is more damaging to your perception of the season than it would have been in the past.
Which brings us back to the Yankees. Obviously, they've been the class of the major leagues in 1998. But even granting them the most generous assumptions, they have no more than a theoretical 30-35% chance of flying a World Championship banner this year, and that's assuming that no National League team will be within ten games of them should the Yankees survive the American League wars. They've certainly got a better shot at the title than anyone else, but if they don't happen to win it, we'll be hearing all winter about how they "choked", about their "lack of character", about how this guy isn't a "money player", yadda, yadda, yadda - all that flotsam that circulates about the Braves today. They'll blame it on everything except the addition of the third playoff round and wild card teams, which as we have seen, have all but turned the postseason into a crapshoot. George Steinbrenner is right for a change: whatever happens in the playoffs won't change the fact that the Yankees have had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Of course, we'll see if George's still saying that if the ticker-tape parade rolls through Houston or San Diego instead of New York.
So perhaps true baseball fans should root fervently against the Yankees this October. Not just because they're the Yankees (though that's a noble enough reason for some folks), but because a quick Yankee loss might mean the end of the wild cards and a return to real pennant races in September. Hey, we can dream, can't we?