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November 1, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

World Series, Revisited

by Jim Baker

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I opened a couple of cans of worms in my last column that will be requiring follow-up today.

Regarding my contention that the World Series is aptly named, a number of you wrote in either wondering if or demanding that the following were true: the Series was originally named after the New York World newspaper, therefore having nothing to do with global implications. Did the World offer some sort of loving cup and a night with chorus girls for the team as reward for winning it all? No. The much-missed Doug Pappas debunked the legend several years ago and, as a bonus, threw in a history of the evolution of the name as well.

Next, while most of you who wrote in said you agreed with my contention, perhaps some further clarification is required. Major League Baseball is the premier baseball operation in the world and the vast majority of the very best players on the planet play for MLB. This is not xenophobia or jingoism because MLB has a large, non-native-born contingent. If you pay, they will come and come they do.

Are there world class players not in MLB? Yes, a few. The overall quality of play where they currently do their playing though is nothing like you are seeing in North America. To help quantify this, I asked Clay Davenport to reiterate the translations he uses for players coming in from professional leagues in other countries.

Japan: slightly above AAA
Cuba: "Recent years appear to be on the order of the South Atlantic League or even the New York-Penn League. It may well have been higher a decade ago, but defections have gutted it."
Mexico: "Below AA but still above the high A leagues when everything gets averaged out."

Has the money available in from MLB rounded up every star in the world? No, but what it buys in addition to stars is depth of talent. It is this depth that lies at the heart of my statement that the World Series has every right to be called the World Series. As Clay writes: "Taking the top team in any existing league (as opposed to an All-Star team of players from a given country), the top Mexican and Cuban teams would stand little chance (of course, if your team includes two good starters, you've got a chance in a seven game series). The top Japanese team would come the closest, but I think even they would struggle to be a .500 team in the US majors. The last two champions (before this year) translate to roughly 75 win teams in the US, so it would be like facing the Baltimore Orioles in the "World" Series."

A lot of people use soccer to gauge the way international sport should be defined. Because baseball does not have the global presence of soccer, the talent distribution of its professionals is much more obvious. While one may be able to rank the premier soccer leagues based on overall talent (I'm not the person to do that), the differences between those leagues would not be as great as those that exist between the MLB and the professional baseball played in other countries.

Regarding my presentation on the fate of teams who were swept out of the World Series as the Astros just were, reader David Nix writes: "So--how do the next-year result of sweepees compare with the next-year results of other World Series losers? Of World Series winners?"

Curses! I was hoping nobody would ask that question because it means more research for me. (I just had to fire my intern. Turns out he was stealing nickels from my piggy bank to buy week-old bread. I swear, some people think the world owes them a living.) It's an excellent question, though, and one I would have addressed last time if I had not run up against deadline.

Here are the results for the World Series losers, based on the number of games they won in the Series. The plus-minus-same columns indicate what they did the next season. Eight of the 38 teams (.267 in the Pct. Column) that won three games got better the next year. Five of the 38 won World Series, four others won pennants and three won their division. The column marked ave +/- indicates how many games they, as a group, declined or improved. (I adjusted for large game number discrepancies in seasons where that was an issue. I did not include the champions from 1980, 1981, 1993 and 1994. Teams that won three games in best-of-nine series are in the three-win column.)


              plus    minus     same     Pct.  ave +/-   WS   pennant division
three wins     8        30        0      .267    -7.4     5       4        3
two wins       5        13        1      .289    -5.8     2       4        3
one win        3        17        2      .182    -8.8     4       1        0
zero wins      3        15        0      .167   -11.6     3       2        1
 Overall      19        75        3      .211    -8.2    14      11        7

Obviously, the sample sizes here aren't big enough to draw any definitive conclusions. We see that teams who get swept lose three to five more games on average than those who manage to win a game in the Series. The sweepees would fare a bit better if we don't include the 1914-15 A's, a team that was intentionally made awful.

The winners have fared almost exactly the same as the losers. 21 got better, 75 got worse and one stayed the same. The average change has been pretty close, too: -7.6 games. This stands to reason since very few championship teams have much room for improvement. The two greatest increases ever by World Series winners came to us courtesy of the Yankees in 1962 and 2000 and that was 8 games. There is much more space for decreasing on the other side and any number of World Champions have fallen prey to it. For instance, from 1978 to 1986, the defending World Champs all declined by no less than 11 games each. Defending champs have 24 repeats as opposed to the 14 Championships that World Series losers have managed in the following season. The overall follow-up postseason appearance count is 39 to 32 in favor of the Champs.

My last column was written in part as an assurance to Astros fans that there is life after being swept. Given the preponderance of declines among winners, too, it would appear that White Sox fans are going to need similar assurances. On the other hand, about one in four champions have repeated and that's about as close to a sure thing in baseball as you're going to find.

Related Content:  World Series,  The Who,  World Team,  The Atlantic

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