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October 28, 2006

World Series Prospectus

Game Five

by Nate Silver

Statistical analysts like my colleagues at Baseball Prospectus tend to downplay the nature of streakiness in baseball. A 95-win team on Tuesday is a 95-win team on Wednesday, and a .300 hitter today is a .300 hitter tomorrow. Sure, any result is possible in a short series. But this result is a matter of short-term luck, nothing more and nothing less. So the argument goes.

I've just watched the Tigers play 44 innings of terrible baseball. They couldn't hit, they couldn't field, they couldn't run the bases, and all the pine tar in the world isn't going to buy you a championship when you can't do any of those things.

I don't think it was bad luck. I think this team wasn't in the right frame of mind to play winning baseball.

You want numbers? I'll give you numbers.

During the regular season, Detroit Tiger pitchers had a respectable .939 fielding percentage. During the World Series, Detroit Tiger pitchers made five errors in 17 chances. The odds of that happening based on chance alone are 355 to 1 against.

During the regular season, Detroit Tiger leadoff hitters got on base 33 percent of the time. During the World Series, Detroit Tiger leadoff hitters reached base five times in 44 plate appearances. The odds of that happening based on chance alone are 843 to 1 against.

In other words, it wasn't that the Tigers lost. It was the way in which they lost. If you want to take a conspiratorial bent, you can identify a myriad of factors that prevented the Tigers from playing relaxed, professional baseball. There was the long lay-off prior to Game 1. There was smudgegate during Game 2. There was Chris Carpenter pitching his best game of the season in Game 3. There was the rainout before Game 4. And the Tigers headed into Game 5 coming off a heartbreaking loss, facing another road game in a compromised position that they'd never planned for. The Tigers never had the chance to catch their breath. It might have been bad luck that they faced this sequence of events. But it wasn't bad luck that they lost this series.

The Detroit Tigers. They just weren't right.

* * *

Having just given the Cardinals no credit at all, you might expect that this is the point in time at which I trot out some statistical formula claiming that the Cardinals are the worst team ever to win a World Series.

Well, you'd be right.

Baseball Prospectus maintains a formula called the Elo Ratings, which is based on the system used to rate chess players for international competition. This formula, as adapted to baseball, can account for strength of schedule, scoring margin, disparities in league strength, and postseason performance. According to the Elo Ratings, the 2006 Cardinals are the worst World Champion ever, just "beating" the 1987 Twins.

We keep another formula called third order wins. This formula accounts for pretty much everything that the Elo Ratings do, plus the additional wrinkle of examining each team's underlying batting and pitching statistics. Third order wins confirm the conclusion of the Elo Ratings: the 2006 Cardinals are the worst World Champion ever.

Not that it takes some wonky statistical formula to tell you this. The Cardinals compiled an 83-78 record, which is the worst winning percentage ever for a World Series winner. And they did this in an inferior division in a vastly inferior league.

But there are several reasons why the Cardinals are better than their numbers might indicate:

  • The Cardinals didn't come out of nowhere. Sure, 2006 was a rough year for the Cardinals, at least until the calendar turned to October. But between the last three seasons, with largely the same core of talent, the Cardinals averaged 96 wins, a mark surpassed by only the Yankees. And over the last five seasons, they averaged 94 wins, a mark bettered by only the Yankees and the A's. Did the Cardinals play over their head in the playoffs? Perhaps. But they also vastly underachieved in the regular season.

  • The superstar factor. The Cardinals have three players--Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, and Chris Carpenter, who are better than any players on the 2005 World Champion White Sox. Now, three players do not a roster make, and Walt Jocketty took way too many liberties with the rest of his roster. However, a team whose best players are Pujols, Rolen and Carpenter should generally be good enough to win a title.

  • The dead weight factor. The Cardinals gave 17 starts to Mark Mulder during the regular season, who had a 7.14 ERA before his shoulder finally gave out. They gave 13 starts to Sidney Ponson (5.24 ERA). Thirty-three starts to Jason Marquis (6.02 ERA). And Jason Isringhausen was their closer for most of the season; he was second in the National League with 10 blown saves. None was on the World Series roster. This is the corollary to the superstar factor. It's far easier to replace truly execrable performers with adequate ones--Ponson, say, for Jeff Weaver--than it is to exchange average performers for blue-chip talent. The Cardinals didn't make any big ticket acquisitions at the trade deadline, but they cut out a lot of fat.

I don't think the 2006 Cardinals were a 100-win team by any means. But they were probably a 90-win team, a 92-win team, at least based on the roster they fielded during the playoffs. Plenty of teams with 90-win talent have won the World Series. If this result was an embarrassment to baseball in any way, it's because there's a reward system in place that allows an 83-78 team to compete in October. It wasn't because of the Cardinals.

So about this worst-team-ever business: I don't think the Cardinals are demonstrably the worst team ever to win the World Series. But I do think they're in the company of some similarly mediocre teams that represent the lowest echelon of World Series champion.

If I run the fool's errand of ranking every world champion since 1982 (the last time that the Cardinals won it all) based on a combination of objective and subjective factors, they divide fairly neatly into four tiers:

Tier A: The Transcendents. Teams that not only dominated their season, but transcended it, either by an utterly superior performance or by building part of a dynasty. Some folks may debate the placement of the 2004 Red Sox in this group, a team that didn't even win its division, but I know a Transcendent when I see it.

1. 1998 Yankees
2. 1986 Mets
3. 1984 Tigers
4. 1999 Yankees
5. 2004 Red Sox
6. 1989 A's
7. 1995 Braves

Tier B: The No-Doubters. Well-constructed teams that might or might not have had staying power, but left absolutely no doubt that they were the best team of the season in question. Last year's White Sox typify this group.

8. 1983 Orioles
9. 2002 Angels
10. 2005 White Sox
11. 1991 Twins

Tier C: The Yes, Buts. "Deserving" champions that had at least one serious flaw--the '92 and '93 Blue Jays couldn't pitch, the '88 Dodgers couldn't hit, and the 2000 Yankees barely qualified for the playoffs. A Tier C champion was probably not the best team in the league during the regular season.

12. 1993 Blue Jays
13. 1992 Blue Jays
14. 1996 Yankees
15. 2001 Diamondbacks
16. 1988 Dodgers
17. 2000 Yankees

Tier D: The Bleeps. As in, "What the [bleep]?" "How in the [bleep]?" Teams that were closer to average than great and required a truly serendipitous course of circumstances to win the championship.

18. 1995 Royals
19. 1990 Reds
20. 1997 Marlins
21. 2006 Cardinals
22. 2003 Marlins
23. 1987 Twins

You can shuffle the Tier D teams around in pretty much any order. But I watched a lot of that 2003 Marlins team, and a lot of that 1987 Twins team, and I think this year's Cardinals would beat them soundly.

Anyway, congratulations, St. Louis. People are going to say that you didn't deserve your championship. But you sure as hell played these last fifteen games like you did.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  World Champion,  World Team,  Cardinals

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