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September 29, 2003

Predicting the Playoffs

Mortal Lock or Coin Flip?

by Doug Pappas

After the 2003 regular season ended, the time before the divisional series was filled by "experts" forecasting the outcome of the four divisional series. This phenomenon will be repeated before the League Championship Series, and again before the World Series. These same pundits will look back after each series to pat themselves on the back, make excuses or explain how they went wrong. They believe, or at least pretend, that postseason results can be accurately predicted.

Others believe that the postseason is essentially a crapshoot, that any club can win a succession of short series among eight clubs which all finished within 10-15 games of one another during the regular season. This group includes Billy Beane, quoted in Moneyball as saying: "My s*** doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is f****** luck." Those in the first group have criticized Beane's Oakland A's and Bobby Cox's Atlanta Braves as teams that "can't win the big ones"; those in the second think "clutch postseason performance" is as real as "clutch hitting," or the Easter Bunny.

Who's right? Let's look at the past century of postseason play. Since 1903, there have been exactly 200 postseason championship series of best-of-five or longer. This includes 94 best-of-seven World Series, four best-of-nine World Series (1903, 1919-21), 34 best-of-seven League Championship Series (LCS), 32 best-of-five LCS, 32 best-of-five divisional series, and four best-of-five divisional playoff series following the 1981 strike-induced split season. That's a sizable data set.

Absent an easily accessible, generally accepted way to compare clubs in different leagues all the way back to the deadball era, I'll define the "better team" as the one with the better regular season record. Four of these 200 series matched clubs with identical records, leaving 196 with a "better team" that, at least in theory, "should have won." The better team has won 106 of these series and lost 90, for a .541 winning percentage. These 196 series break down as follows:

World Series: Better teams are 52-44 (.542), with two evenly matched Series.
Seven-game LCS: Better teams are 19-14 (.576), with one evenly matched Series.
All best-of-seven or -nine series: Better teams are 71-58 (.550).
Five-game LCS and divisional series: Better teams are 35-32 (.532), with one evenly matched series.

As the tables below show, the better club is more likely to win blowout series, less likely to win those decided by a single game. Better clubs lose more deciding fifth or seventh games than they win.


Results for Team with Better Record, World Series
Win by 4 (10):  1907  1927  1928  1932  1939  1950  1966  1976
                1989  1998
Win by 3 (14):  1905  1908  1910  1915  1920  1929  1937  1938
                1941  1942  1961  1970  1983  1984
Win by 2 (13):  1903  1911  1917  1919* 1923  1930  1936  1944
                1948  1951  1977  1978  1981
Win by 1 (15):  1909  1912  1925  1940  1947  1955  1956  1967
                1968  1973  1975  1986  1991  1997  2002

Lose by 1(19):  1924  1926  1931  1934  1945  1946  1952  1957
                1960  1962  1964  1965  1971  1972  1979  1982
                1985  1987  2001
Lose by 2(11):  1906  1918  1921  1935  1953  1959  1980  1992
                1993  1995  1996
Lose by 3 (8):  1913  1916  1933  1943  1969  1974  1988  2000
Lose by 4 (6):  1914  1922  1954  1963  1990  1999

Note: In 1949 and 1958, the World Series opponents had the same regular season record.
* - The 1919 Reds may well have won even a non-fixed World Series. Their .686 regular-season winning percentage is the NL's second highest since 1910.

The 4-0 losses include three of the biggest World Series surprises: the 1914 Braves over Philadelphia, Dusty Rhodes and the 1954 Giants over the 111-43 Indians, and the 1990 Reds sweep of Oakland, which I won't discuss further because a crying Gary Huckabay is not a pretty sight. The four recognized "miracle" pennant winners, the 1914 Braves, 1961 Reds, 1967 Red Sox and 1969 Mets, went 2-2 in the World Series, suggesting that "magic" loses its strength when confronted by Bob Gibson or Mickey Mantle/Roger Maris.

Note that the 1999 and 2000 Yankees, Exhibit A to Commissioner Selig's competitive balance laments, both beat clubs with better regular-season records. In fact, the 2000 Yankees had only the ninth-best record in the majors, fifth-best in the American League. That's the same as the 1987 Twins, who won the World Series despite being outscored during the regular season. At the other end of the spectrum, the 4-0 wins include six Yankee demolitions of inferior opponents, and one humbling of the Yankees at the hands of the Big Red Machine.


Results for Team with Better Record, Best-of-7 LCS
Win by 4  (3):  1988A  1990A  1995N
Win by 3  (6):  1989A  1991A  1996A  1999A  2001N  2002A
Win by 2  (6):  1985N  1986N  1993N  1995N  1998A  1999N
Win by 1  (4):  1986A  1987N  1992N  1996N

Lose by 1 (3):  1985A  1988N  1991N
Lose by 2 (6):  1990N  1993N  1997A  1997N  1998N  2000A
Lose by 3 (5):  1987A  1989N  2000N  2001A  2002N
Lose by 4 (0):

Note: In 1992, both ALCS opponents had the same record.

Compared to the World Series, the seven-game LCS is significantly less likely to end up as a four-game sweep--but in non-swept Series, the club with the better record holds only a 16-14 edge. The big surprises here include easy wins by the 1987 Twins over the Tigers and the 2001 Yankees over the 116-46 Mariners. The late-80s Oakland juggernaut barely broke a sweat, going 12-1 in three consecutive LCS.


Results for Team with Better Record, Best-of-5 LCS and Div Series
Win by 3 (19):  1969A  1969N  1970A  1970N  1971A  1975N  1976N
                1979N  1981AE 1982N  1984A  1995A1 1995N2 1996N1
                1997N1 1997N2 1998A1 1998N1 1999A1
Win by 2  (9):  1971N  1974N  1978A  1978N  1979A  1995N1 1996A1
                1997A1 1999N2
Win by 1  (7):  1972A  1976A  1981NE 1981NW 1981N  1982A  2001A1

Lose by 1(15):  1972N  1973A  1973N  1977A  1980N  1981AE 1984N
                1995A2 1997A2 1999A2 2000A1 2001A2 2001N2 2002A1
                2002N2
Lose by 2(10):  1974A  1977N  1983A  1983N  1996A2 1998A2 1998N2
                1999N1 2000N2 2002A2
Lose by 3 (7):  1975A  1980N  1981A  1996N2 2000A2 2001N1 2002N1

Note: In 2000, one of the NL divisional series matched opponents with identical records.

In all best-of-five postseason series, the team with the better record is 19-7 in sweeps, 16-25 in 3-1 or 3-2 series. In divisional series since 1995, the team with the better record is just 13-18. Since 2000, 10 of 11 divisional series have been won by the team with the worse record.

Does this foretell wins by the Red Sox, Twins, Marlins and Cubs? No. Overall, as one would expect from series between relatively evenly matched teams, the teams with the better record hold a small but consistent edge. But while the playoffs aren't quite random, when the better team can be expected to win just 54% of the time, anyone who claims to know what will happen is only fooling himself.

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