October 24, 2012
The Pleasure and Perfection of Postseason Sweeps
After the Tigers swept the Yankees, I was happy. Not because I was rooting for the former or against the latter. I just like sweeps. I like them because they’re fairly rare, especially four-game sweeps. Maybe someone with much more powerful number-crunching jaws than mine will want to chew on this, but it seems to me that the 4-0 sweep is not only the rarest of regular-season series outcomes, but by far the rarest.
Given that we’re in the postseason, how about playoff sweeps? Since 1985, the year the League Championship Series expanded from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven, every LCS (and of course World Series) has been a race to four. From 1985-2011, there were 78 best-of-seven postseason series. At first that made no sense to me, because I counted on my fingers a bunch of times and kept coming up with 81 (27 seasons times three series per season), but then I counted the actual number of series results, with my fingers literally touching the screen as I scrolled, and kept getting 78. I decided the reason I couldn’t make it work was that I am simply bad at math until I noticed that there were no playoff series in 1994 because of the strike. So I am bad at history. And in fact I’m also bad at math. Good thing I went in for an MFA.
Anyway, here is the results breakdown, which took me far longer to calculate than it should have because I am bad at math:
Twelve of the 78 postseason series were sweeps.
Here is a handy table, too, which took me far longer to make than it should have, also because I am bad at math:
Because I am bad at math, I can use only a playwright’s dramaturgical logic to analyze the above, but it seems to me that the results break down just as one would guess. The two outcomes that I would call the “purest,” 4-3 and 4-0, occur the least often. The other two are the more “corrupt,” and they are the most frequent. if you were writing a play, you would never write a 4-2 LCS play. Who would want to read a 4-2 play? How common, how ho-hum and likely that would be: satisfying in terms of probability, but not in terms of theater, which is what sports really is.
Aristotle, Poetics: "Probable impossibilities are to be preferred to improbable possibilities." Imagine a version of Hamlet where the Queen survives the Act V bloodbath, marries Horatio, and preserves the kingdom. Pity about Hamlet and Claudius—very unfortunate, that; dreadful sorry—but in the end the realm has kept its coin. Something like that. It has narrative conflict, resolution and consequence, but it is empty and unsatisfying. That’s a 4-2 series.
What about a 4-1 series? Better, perhaps, but perfection marred—the very notion of perfection effaced by that single loss. A 4-1 result seems very far from a sweep, somehow. Extrapolate the result to outs in a game, and it’s kind of like throwing a six- or seven-hit shutout: nice, a superior performance. But not memorable. The difference between a six-hitter and, say, a two-hitter is quite wide. One is commendable; the other is silencing, overpowering. It’s called a clean sweep for a reason: because cleanliness is next to godliness. Thus sweeps are divine. This is really just simple transitive math. (Transitive math: that exists, right?)
A 4-3 playoff series seems to be the ideal result, the one that in a vacuum you might be tempted to predict, even want, every time. (Certainly you get more baseball that way, if nothing else.) The two best teams in baseball ought to be evenly matched, right? So shouldn’t every series should come down to a Game Seven coin flip?
Even someone as bad at math as I am can see the fallacy there; and anyway, as admirably full of action and drama as a 4-3 series is, it too suffers from a sort of probability plainness. Those “evenly matched” teams: well, if they don’t play a 4-3 series, doesn’t that just reveal that they weren’t so evenly matched after all? There’s sort of a hoax there, a sense of false advertising. Something was lopsided to begin with; thus the “corrupt” outcome at 4-2 or 4-1. A 4-3 series is to be expected: it is an improbable possibility. In that sense it’s better than 4-1 or 4-2, which are probable probabilities, but there’s a reason why seven-game series occur more frequently than sweeps: the environment of baseball is simply more conducive to them.
Now, 4-0 is the most lopsided result. But it is not like 4-1 at all. A sweep is a different animal altogether. A sweep speaks to that thing we all agree does not exist in baseball (no, I’m not talking about crying) yet manages, unnervingly, to seem to assert itself at times: momentum. A sweep has an extraordinary engine in it. The 2012 Tigers (-Valverde) incinerating the Yankees’ heavy lumber—by the third game, this stunning shutdown seemed to have gained its own phenomenological footing, as though neither team could have reversed the Yankees’ slump if they’d tried. The 2004 Red Sox, having pulled off their momentous 0-3 comeback in the ALCS, emerged in the rarefied air of the World Series and swept the Cardinals: all that hard work to beat the Yankees led to a stunningly easy curse-breaking sweep. Or think of the reverse-thrust of 2008, in which the dominant Cubs (97 regular-season wins) were skunked by the 84-win Dodgers.
Chris Jaffe just published a good article at Hardball Times called “The 10 Worst Postseason Sweeps Ever,” but to me (granting that those indeed are the correct 10, although I might prefer a different methodology) they’re more rightly the 10 best ever. Sweeps! In the playoffs! That isn’t supposed to happen—especially in baseball, where the unpredictability (and, often, inequality) of pitching matchups, and of pitching generally, ought to turn the tables at least once, you’d think. When a team wins the first two games of a postseason series, I start rooting for two more.
Because we’re going into the World Series, and because World Series sweeps outnumber combined LCS sweeps, I’m going to look at those. That is very sound math. Some notes on the seven World Series sweeps since 1985:
1. The 1989 A’s were completely invulnerable to the effects of the Game Two earthquake and the Giants’ legendary starting trio of Scott Garrelts, Don Robinson, and Rick Reuschel—who is the 31st-greatest pitcher of all time on Baseball-Reference, three spots behind Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown! (That was a plant, by the way.) Jaffe’s “10 Worst” article has this sweep at no. 1, the very worst, which really means the very best, because of how thoroughly the A’s trounced the Giants. And his list includes all sweeps: best-of-fives, all the way back to the dawn of modern baseball—the whole history and variety of sweeps. The 1989 Earthquake Series sweep is the Best. Sweep. Ever.
2. The 1990 Oakland A’s were completely invulnerable to the—oh, wait, the Reds swept them, because they had World Series MVP and wanted man Jose Rijo. Also, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire couldn’t find their steroids and went 4-for-26 with one homer and seven strikeouts. No word on whether Mike Gallego mislaid his, too, but he did go 1-for-11. Actually, the entire A’s team (except Rickey Henderson) pulled a 2012 Yankees ALCS-style vanishing act: .207/.270/.304. The model-of-efficiency Reds used a total of eight pitchers in the four games.
3 & 4. In 1998 and 1999, the Yankees were at the apex of their most recent wave of greatness. All due respect to that 1999 Braves team, which actually had a better regular-season record (103-59 to New York’s 98-64), but the powerhouse Yankees were simply flattening everything in their path that postseason. They, like the 2005 White Sox, lost only one game. The Yankees were so good at that point, so powerful, that even Chad Curtis could have a two-homer game—the second of the dingers (10th-inning walkoff) completing a Yankee comeback—and strut over to blow off Jim Gray in an interview. The Yankees were just going to sweep away anyone with Chad Curtis production and attitude like that. (Anyone remember that the Braves had—timely reference!—Ozzie Guillen in 1999? Me either. ) In 1998, it didn’t matter that Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams combined to go 5-for-35 in the World Series because the Yankees had MVP Scott Brosius and the best outfielder in history, Ricky Ledee, who put up a 1.515 OPS.
The Yankees’ 1998-99 sweeps were the first consecutive World Series whitewashes in 60 years, previously achieved by the 1938-39… Yankees, of course. They also did it in 1927-28. No other team has done it, not once. Your jaw just dropped in the total opposite of surprise—an O of deeply underwhelmed boredom—and drool ran from both sides of your mouth. You just got into the Guinness Book of World Records for Most Appropriate Exaggerated Response to Obvious Information.
5. In 2004, the Cardinals were mighty-mighty—105-57! holy moly!—but fell to the aforementioned Red Sox of destiny; sweeps, again, are divine, and 2004 is mathematical proof. Other proof is Mark Bellhorn. There do seem to be a biggish number of teams (well, three) with wonderful regular-season records that were swept in the World Series from 1985-2007. By the way, both the BoSox and Cards had played 4-3 championship series and were equally tired. This sample is too small-sized to draw conclusions. Also math.
6. The 2005 White Sox were white-hot in the playoffs, losing only one game. Ozzie Guillen saw no reason not to ride his starters deep into games—not quite as deep as he did in the ALCS, but deep—and sat back in the dugout spewing happy, nonsensical, Castro-loving, profanity-laced logorrhea while his 99-63 team rode roughshod over the 89-73 Astros, who had already achieved their Clemens-Pettitte-Oswalt-fueled triumph (the latter was NLCS MVP) by taking down the 100-62 Cardinals in the NLCS. They perhaps had nothing left against the ChiSox.
n. b. In winning the five-game ALCS that put the White Sox in position for their World Series sweep, they used only five pitchers. Five! Take that, 1990 Reds!
7. In 2007, the Red Sox swept the Rockies in the World Series after the Rockies themselves had swept the Diamondbacks in the NLCS, while the Red Sox had to battle back from a 3-1 deficit to oust Cleveland. The ex post facto agreement was that the Rockies’ “momentum” was killed by sitting around for nine days.
I don’t really think a layoff means all that much, although the Tigers evidently played some sim games while they waited out the seven-game NLCS (Jim Leyland smoked real cigarettes, though). The 2007 Red Sox were much the better team, going 96-66 out of the AL East while the 90-73 Rockies had to win 14 of their last 15 games just to force a game-163 tiebreaker with San Diego. The other thing about that NLCS that jumps out at the impressionable onlooker is that Jeremy Affeldt, who is going to the World Series with the Giants tonight, pitched in all four games! I had totally not remembered that. Maybe Affeldt hadn’t either. Sweeps happen so fast. Such is their fleeting yet deep-scarring beauty.
The very first World Series sweep, by the way, took place in 1907. The Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance Chicago Cubs (Chance was their player-manager, and a really handsome one, if I do say so myself) were so good that they inspired a novel with the smackingly unambiguous title, The Best Team Ever. They went 107-45 that season, finishing 17 games ahead of second-place Pittsburgh. They had actually been even better in 1906, going 116-36, the best winning percentage in regular-season history—so to the author of that Best Team Ever book: WTF?—but were shocked in the World Series in six games by their city rivals, the White Sox (41-year-old Jose Contreras threw two complete games).
In 1907, the Cubs faced the Detroit Tigers, led by 20-year-old batting champion Ty Cobb. The Cubs did not care about that, though, sweeping the Tigers. Two facts of note: 1) The series was a four-game sweep, but it took five games to decide. Game One was suspended by darkness and canceled. It ended in the one outcome a seven-game series can never have: a tie. 2) The clinching game was started and won by Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown. Even I can do that math.