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October 24, 2000

The Daily Prospectus

The Value of the Series

by Joe Sheehan

As I've often mentioned, Baseball Prospectus is very lucky to have a readership that, on a daily basis, makes us smarter.

One of our readers dropped a note to me last week in the wake of some recent pieces he'd seen here and on the Web:

I'm excited about the Series and a little concerned about analyst views of the Series and the postseason in general. Rob Neyer's columns of the past two days, along with much of the writing in BP speak to the randomness of the 'short series'. The main points are that the results are mostly based on chance and it's important to not put too much stock into the player performances in the postseason. The truly great teams and players are the ones who do it consistently over the course of a season or 10.

However, the true goal of the great player is a championship. That's what management is trying to do, that's what the players want (at least they pay lip service to it) and that's what fans want. Now I know that to maximize your chances for a championship, you need to put the most consistently good players on the field. What I'm discouraged with is how the 'random' attitude demeans the accomplishments of teams and individuals. Perhaps it would be fairer to simply award the championship to the team with the best record. But, as long as the championships are decided on the field, the performances in these playoffs DO matter. Each time you dismiss the postseason performance of Barry Bonds, by definition you dismiss the postseason performances of Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth. If my Rockies ever win a championship (stop laughing), I'd like to think they deserve credit for that, rather than just getting credit for playing well enough to reach the 'Final 8,' and then drawing the lucky numbers from that point to win.

That's Chris Muntean from Denver. Chris, thanks for your well thought out note. You're not alone in wondering about this; you are the person whose letter set out the position best.

To me, the best illustration I can provide of the idea that postseason success is heavily influenced by luck, or "random", is Todd Zeile. Todd Zeile is approximately ten inches from having Queens Boulevard renamed in his honor. His blast in the sixth inning of Game One came as close to being a home run as it could without being one, while his ninth-inning fly ball in Game Two needed about eight inches to get over Clay Bellinger's glove for another home run.

That's the difference between being up two games to nothing and down two games to nothing. Ten inches. And those ten inches have nothing to do with Todd Zeile's talent or his character or his performance on those pitches. Ten inches is luck. It's a gust of wind, a millimeter on the bat, a mile per hour on a fastball.

That's the difference in the World Series right now. (OK, it's a difference, but let's leave Timoniel Perez alone for now.)

One of the reasons people like Dave and Rob and myself emphasize the unpredictibility of a best-of-seven series is to counteract the way the games are written and talked about elsewhere. The coverage of these games lionizes the winners and blames the losers, assigning positive character traits to the team that comes out on top while picking apart the flaws of the defeated. Players get labels such as "clutch" and entire teams are branded "chokers".

Players, as well as large segments of the media and fans, want to believe that teams win and lose because of things like heart and character and moxie or the lack of those qualities. For players, it's a validation, while for fans and media it's a better story. "The Yankees have heart" plays better than "The Yankees are built well for short series and have gotten some breaks". "Jeff Bagwell choked" sells more papers than "Jeff Bagwell has faced some incredible right-handed pitching in the Division Series".

The fact is that major-league baseball players are all great. Take someone we all dump on, Dante Bichette or Rey Ordonez or Jaime Navarro. Those guys are awesome baseball players, relative to the pool of human beings who play baseball or even the pool of those who get paid to do so. We are watching the extreme right edge of the bell curve, this minuscule slice of talent.

Over the course of a week, some players are going to play worse than others, because the matchups don't work or they're fighting a cold or they spent the week hitting lasers right at people. It's the same thing that could happen, and does, on a road trip to Montreal and Chicago in May. It's a tiny slice of performance that doesn't say anything about the player in question. But it can, and will, determine who gets to or even wins the World Series.

The idea that regular-season performance can, and even should, be dismissed because of what happens in October is personally offensive to me. The Braves are a dynasty. Barry Bonds is an all-time great; Mark Lemke isn't. Performances in one month shouldn't change those things, but to some eyes, they do.

Recognizing that short series aren't the last word in team quality, and that they don't tell you anything about players, doesn't make watching them less enjoyable. I'm a Yankee fan, and knowing that short series may not always go to the better team didn't make 1996, 1998 or 1999 any less enjoyable, nor did it erase the pain of 1995 and 1997. Best-of series are how baseball determines its champion, and the team that wins its last game is the champion.

But the champion isn't always the best team. There's no disconnect there: a champion is the team standing at the end. The best team? Well, I'm more inclined to believe that's proven over a season.

It's the same with players. The best players are the ones who play the best over a season or seasons. That doesn't mean Joe Carter isn't a hero, or that Mark Lemke or Brian Doyle didn't have a great week at the right time. It just means that those performances don't make them better baseball players than they were, nor better human beings than their peers.

Saying that the outcome of a short series is essentially unpredictable is just a recognition of all that. Recognizing that whose fly balls carry and whose don't isn't a function of character or even ability, but, well, random.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Related Content:  Todd Zeile,  Character,  The Who

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