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April 13, 2004

Prospectus Today

The L Word

by Joe Sheehan

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The Tigers have won five out of six. The Mariners have lost five out of six. The Phillies have lost six of seven.

The opening week of the 2004 season? Yes, but also last September, when each of those events last occurred. The 43-119 Tigers of '03 managed a 5-1 stretch near the start of the month, while the contending teams in Philadelphia and Seattle each suffered losing stretches towards the end of otherwise good seasons. In none of those cases did the outcomes of a week's worth of games define the season, and in fact, each was anomalous in the context of 162 games.

I've always said that April is the most difficult month to write this type of column. It's too easy to lose sight of the fact that we just don't have enough information to go on, and to inflate the importance of a frighteningly small sample of games. Good teams, even 95-win teams, have losing streaks and stretches during the season. Bad teams are capable of ripping off five or six wins in a row, even over contenders. It's the nature of baseball.

So as much as I'd like to look at the Tigers' hot start as validation for my being the only person in this galaxy to pick them as high as third in the AL Central, that would be silly. I'm a genius for seeing the Mariners as a .500 team at best? Hardly. It's one week of games, and it doesn't mean anything.

I think it's interesting to look at the standings and think not about what they mean right now, but about the postseason. If the consensus worst team in the league, the Tigers, can go 5-1 against two teams projected to finish in the top half of the circuit, what can we really conclude when one .580 team goes 3-2 against another .580 team in five games in October? Just because we've labelled one set of games "the playoffs" doesn't change the fact that in baseball, five games just doesn't tell you much. Too many things go into winning and losing those games to make them a base for drawing conclusions.

Last month at the Brooklyn Pizza Feed, a BP reader asked about whether we'd looked into what types of teams win in the postseason. That research has been done, although not by us, and the conclusions are that there are no conclusions: There are no defining characteristics of a successful postseason team.

The comment I made at the time sticks with me: We have to find a better way to describe this phenomenon than "luck." Made famous in part by Billy Beane's quote in Moneyball, the idea that playoff series are determined by luck is both inaccurate and an inelegant way to present the concept to people invested in the idea that it's how the best team is determined. It sounds like you're--and I could say "we're," because it is certainly connected to the perception that Baseball Prospectus has favored the A's and their processes over the years--making an excuse for the team that lost.

The term "luck" is actually shorthand for a more difficult concept, that when two playoff-caliber teams square off in a best-of-five or best-of-seven series, any result is reasonably likely. Just because a particular one occurs doesn't reflect anything other than the events that made up that series: one player's hot week, or one pitcher's inability to throw his curve for strikes, or a baserunner's ill-fated decision to take an extra base. These events do not, despite the mythology of October, enlighten us about the character or fortitude of people any more than Nate Robertson's huge last week out of the bullpen does.

Those things aren't luck, they're performance, and using the former word to describe them isn't helping us make the larger concept accessible to more people. That's a challenge that we're going to have to meet, and I encourage everyone reading this to think about the idea and drop me a line with their suggestions on how to do so.

One week of baseball games, no matter the month, are a bit like Jessica Simpson. Beautiful to look at, and impossible to get any useful information from.

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

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