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October 12, 2000

Call It In The Air!

Predicting Postseason Series

by Dave Pease

Every year at around this time, the staff of Baseball Prospectus likes to engage in a complete exercise in futility. I'm not talking about Somersizing, resolving to balance the checkbook for the rest of the year or attempting to teach Derek Zumsteg the wonders of laying off the curve ball. What we end up doing has much less a chance of success: we write--and publish--our playoff predictions.

As we say when we publish our preseason predictions, there's a reason we don't print this stuff in the book. With all the possible performance spikes, outside influences, injuries and atypical development that major-league squads experience, the complexity of the system is generally enough to make even full-season predictions a sucker bet. Things fall our way in some divisions and we get completely snookered in others, and we're certainly not the only outfit to run into that type of performance.

Predicting postseason outcomes is an exercise that makes calling the order of regular-season finish look like an exact science. If you're reading this, I probably don't have to explain how a short series throws the law of averages for a serious loop. In theory, it shouldn't be hard to identify the team that is stronger based on what happened during the regular season, and we can even attempt to account for differences in playoff strategy, such as the devaluation of a deep rotation.

What we can't do is account for the Bobby Jones es of the world--the guys who pull completely out-of-character performances out of their back pockets and dominate 25% of the series as a result. We can't predict Terrence Long injuring his knee, remaining in center field and failing to pull in a Tino Martinez fly ball. That one play could have changed not only the entire game, but the entire series for both teams.

Over the course of a season, these extreme events even out fairly nicely, but the short-series format of the postseason gives rise to all sorts of unlikely heroes. It is those performances that make the playoffs unpredictable, and also a large part of what makes the playoffs great.

As it turns out, last year we were pretty lucky--we correctly called the winner in six of the seven postseason matchups, with the only misstep coming from yours truly in the Mets/Diamondbacks series. This year, we're at .500, and I wouldn't be surprised if we end up below that. Anything can happen.

Hopefully, if you're reading the Playoff Prospectus series, you're getting commentary that you might not get anywhere else. We want to make you think, and we want you to tell us what you think. If we've done that, then we'll consider the whole exercise a success even if we go 0-for-October.

Dave Pease is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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