September 29, 2003
Predicting the Playoffs
Mortal Lock or Coin Flip?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.
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 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.