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September 26, 2013

Skewed Left

The Canadian World Series Drought

by Zachary Levine

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Look down the resume of what Canadians have accomplished in Major League Baseball, and you’ll quickly find that America’s pastime would be a lesser place without the influence of its northern neighbor.

Canada has brought us a Hall of Famer in Ferguson Jenkins of Chatham, Ontario and maybe another eventual Hall of Famer in British Columbian Larry Walker. Don’t just look at history, though. Its present-day exports include the National League’s best hitter, Toronto native Joey Votto, an accomplished pair of Pirates pickups in Justin Morneau and Russell Martin, and a promising piece of the game’s future in Mariners rookie James Paxton.

But for all the hardware that Canadian baseball has on its collective mantel—including MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards—there is one thing strangely lacking. For all they’ve brought to the game, there’s one thing they haven’t taken away from it.

Canadian baseball players don’t play in the World Series.

***

The Toronto Blue Jays were officially eliminated from playoff contention a week and a half ago, and in this, the 20th anniversary of the last title for Canada’s last remaining team, the nation will once again go without a parade.

Portions of the fanbase will move on, however. In the eyes of many fans in the nation of 35 million, there is still a chance for Canada to win a World Series title, albeit in a way that hasn’t been done much lately either.

Canadian fans will adopt their countrymen. Votto for the Reds, Morneau and Martin for the Pirates, and Ryan Dempster for the Red Sox stand out among a few other players who are technically still eligible, though may not all find their ways onto playoff rosters.

“(Most Canadian fans) always cheer for Toronto first, but Toronto's had a few rough years in a row and I think they go to those players,” said Scott Crawford, who serves as director of operations for the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Mary’s, Ontario. “It's something they do watch; after their favourite team goes, they'll move on to a Canadian player.”

Ditto whether it’s Tigers fans in Ontario, Mariners fans in B.C., ubiquitous/obligatory Yankees fans or a growing contingent of Reds and Brewers fans that Crawford attributes to Votto and the uber-Canadian recent history of the Brewers, including general manager Doug Melvin.

Newspapers in Canada cover Canadian players to an extent at times unmatched by papers in the U.S., with only a few local players to track. And the nation seems to be paying attention.

The problem is that it hasn’t always worked out so well.

Whatever it is about the education system up there that breeds a distinct lack of #TWTW or okay, fine, maybe bad luck, Canadian players have been represented when the whole baseball world is watching at about half the rate that they should have given their numbers.

One can use Canadian players as a percentage of all players each season and how many World Series participants there were to calculate how many Canadian players you’d expect to have played in the World Series from 1903 through 2012. The answer: 41.3. (You can see the math here if you’d like.)

But there have only been half that many. Only 21 times has a Canadian player taken part in the World Series, and that counts George Selkirk as six of them. The Ontario-born outfielder from some pretty great Yankees teams played in World Series in 1936-39 and 1941-42, winning five of them. And since then, even as Canadians have become a much larger presence in the game and on All-Star teams, they’ve become hard to find in late October.

Matt Stairs had one World Series at-bat for the 2008 Phillies, making him the last Canadian player to win a Fall Classic. He’s also the last to play in one, having taken eight at-bats in the 2009 Phillies’ loss to the Yankees.

Regulars are harder to find. No Canadian pitcher has ever started a World Series game for a team that won, and only Reggie Cleveland (1975 Red Sox) and Jeff Francis (2007 Rockies) have started them at all. And while Larry Walker played for the 2004 Cardinals team that got swept by the Red Sox, you have to go all the way back to Selkirk in the 1930s to find a Canadian player who was a regular for a World Series winner. He’s still a point of pride in the plugged-in circles.

“There hasn't been a huge in-depth Canadian connection with the World Series, unfortunately—you've got to go back to the 1930s with George Selkirk with the Yankees, and he won five World Series,” Crawford said without a prompt to the name.

Among the Canadian greats, the trend is even more apparent. You’d expect the top 10 Canadian players to have won more than 10 pennants and five World Series given their longevity and the number of teams in the league at the time. Instead, over the top 10 by bWAR, it’s three and one, and it’s a bit of a stretch to call it three pennants, as one didn’t play the postseason.

Player (WAR)

Seasons

Expected pennants

Pennants

Expected championships

Championships

1. Ferguson Jenkins

19

1.59

0

0.80

0

2. Larry Walker

17

1.19

2004 STL

0.60

0

3. Jeff Heath

14

1.75

1948 BSN**

0.88

0

4. John Hiller

15

1.27

1968 DET

0.63

1968 DET

5. Terry Puhl

15

1.24

0

0.62

0

6. Joey Votto

6

0.38

0

0.19

0

7. Russ Ford

5

0.63

0

0.31

0

8. Corey Koskie

9

0.63

0

0.32

0

9. Jason Bay

10

0.64

0

0.32

0

10. Ryan Dempster

15

0.95

0

0.47

0

Total top 10

125

10.27

3

5.14

1

**Heath did not play in the postseason for the 1948 Braves | Source: Baseball-Reference.com

***

Player

Team

Hometown

Jim Adduci

Rangers

Burnaby, B.C.

John Axford

Cardinals

Simcoe, Ont.

Jesse Crain

Rays

Guelph, Ont.

Ryan Dempster

Red Sox

Sechelt, B.C.

Russell Martin

Pirates

East York, Ont.

Justin Morneau

Pirates

New Westminster, B.C.

Joey Votto

Reds

Toronto

Crawford is hopeful that this is the year that at least some part of Canada gets to fete one of its homegrown players after a World Series championship.

“The players are getting better each year and there's more players making the playoffs and taking more of an important role,” he said.

Indeed, the last three years have been the three biggest for Canadians in Major League Baseball, and seven of the 22 Canadian players who saw the majors this year remain at least nominally alive. But with Dempster headed to the bullpen in the playoffs, the chances of finding a regular on a World Series team basically rests on the shoulders of whoever emerges from the likely NL wild card game.

Joey Votto would be the logical great red hope—the name even works with his ballclub—as one of the greatest players in the game and the presumed face of the Reds’ World Series run, if there is one.

He’s the perfect representative of the Canadian baseball experience. He has the numbers, he has the individual hardware, and he’s just waiting to play on the biggest stage.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  World Series,  Canada

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