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We’ve been hearing all year about the dominance of the Yankees, and about how
they should just go ahead and get fitted for their World Series rings, given
that no other team in baseball could possibly compete against them. Well, I
don’t expect most of the mainstream media to really think through this issue
too deeply, but baseball history is full of awesome teams that fizzled in the
postseason, isn’t it? Just how realistic is it to expect the Yankees to
saunter through the playoff competition this year?


We can examine the evidence on all kinds of related questions: How often does
the better team win a postseason series? Does the expanded playoff format help
or hurt a dominant team in its pursuit of a championship? Does it make it a
little easier for teams like the Florida Marlins to sneak in a title? Are the
1990’s Atlanta Braves underachievers because they’ve won "only" one World
Series?


I decided to check these things out by looking at baseball postseason history.
There have been 165 playoff series in major league baseball since the first
modern World Series in 1903. Surprisingly, in only three of those series have
both teams have sported identical won-lost records, so I removed those from the
study. That leaves us with the nice, convenient number of 162 series to look
at. I examined the won-lost records of the teams that squared off in these
series, and made a note on how often the team with the better record broke out
the champagne and did all the TV interviews after the final out. I also took
note of the distance between the two teams in the standings, to see if that
made a difference. Here are the results:


Difference
Between
Teams

Number
of
Series

Better
Team
Victories

Better
Team
Defeats

Better
Team
Winning Pct.
0.5 to 3 games 50 25 25 .500
3.5 to 6 games 38 18 20 .474
6.5 to 9 games 27 16 11 .593
9.5 games + 47 33 14 .702
TOTALS 162 94 68 .580


The "better team" is defined as the one with the superior regular-season
winning percentage, if that’s not self-explanatory. Let me go through an
example or two, just so we’re all on the same page. In 1970, the Baltimore
Orioles tore through the American League East with a 108-54 record. The
Minnesota Twins won the West with a still-impressive 98-64 record, so the
Orioles’ margin over the Twins was 10 games, which places the series in the
9.5-and-over category above. The Orioles destroyed the Twins in the ALCS, so
that counts as a "better-team victory" in the chart. The Birds didn’t stop
there: Brooks Robinson‘s heroics helped the O’s pound some massive dents in the
newly assembled Big Red Machine (102-60) in the World Series. Because the
Orioles outplayed the Reds by six games in the regular season, that goes on the
board as a "better-team victory" under the 3.5-to-6 game category.


That’s not too hard to understand, is it? Let’s do one more. Everybody knows
that the New York Yankees’ long dynasty began in 1921, the year Babe Ruth did
his first Mark McGwire impersonation. The Yanks rode the Bambino’s 59 taters
to a 98-55 record and the American League pennant. But John McGraw‘s Giants,
whose 94-59 record wasn’t quite as dominant as that of the Yanks, tripped them
up in the Series. That registers as a "better-team defeat" in the 3.5-to-6
game category.


The biggest gap ever between two postseason opponents occurred in 1906, when
the mighty Tinker-Evers-Chance Chicago Cubs scorched the National League with a
116-36 record. The crosstown White Sox managed to finish on top of the junior
circuit despite hitting only six homers all year, an abysmally low figure even
in the dead-ball era. They were 22 1/2 games worse than the Cubbies, and no
one gave them much of a chance in the Series. Of course, the Hitless Wonders
ambushed the Cubs and ran off with the World Championship, setting the tone for
the unpredictability of the Fall Classic. The next biggest margin was the
Cleveland Indians’ 21 1/2-game edge over the Seattle Mariners in the 1995 ALCS.
This one ran true to form, as the Tribe overcame Randy Johnson and captured
its first AL pennant since 1954. Cleveland was finally getting even for that
unhappy year, as `54 saw the Wahoos strut into the Series with a 14-game edge
over the Giants, only to get blown out in a four-game sweep, courtesy of Willie
Mays
and Dusty Rhodes. The only other year with a twenty-game difference
between playoff combatants was 1984, when the Tigers trampled the outclassed
Royals three straight in the ALCS.


So as you can see from the chart above, a baseball postseason series is
basically a tossup if the teams are within six games of each other. The better
team wins a playoff series 58% of the time overall, but just about all of the
advantage is concentrated in those instances when one team is significantly
superior to the other – at least ten games better. In those cases, the better
teams can and do take control, but even then the overmatched teams find a way
to pull it out a third of the time. Still, the fact that great teams do win
the lion’s share of playoff showdowns bodes well for the Yankees. But there’s
another factor at work here, as we’re about to see.


Let’s approach this issue from a slightly different angle. How often does the
best team in the regular season go on to win the World Series? Does it matter
that a great team now has to survive two rounds of playoffs just to get to the
Fall Classic, rather than one or none? I looked at this issue by tracking down
how many times the better team won (a) from 1903 to 1968, when the league
pennant winners went straight into the Series; (b) from 1969 to 1993 (excluding
1981), when the League Championship Series was added to the mix, and (c) from
1995 to the present (throwing in strike-shortened 1981), when teams had to win
three short series to get their rings. Here’s the data:


Years

Best Team
Victories

Best Team
Defeats

Best Team
Winning Pct.
1903-1968 35 28 .556
1969-1993 7 17 .292
1981, 1995-1997 0 4 .000
TOTALS 42 49 .462


(For clarity’s sake, I’m counting the best 1981 team as the Oakland A’s, even
though, as we all know, the Cincinnati Reds actually had the best record in
baseball but got fleeced out of the postseason by TV interests who saw a quick
way to get the Yankees and Dodgers into the playoffs.)


Hmmm. Let’s read this chart through together. In all those years in which the
World Series was the only baseball show in October, the better team won 56% of
the confrontations – fairly close to the overall 58% average for all postseason
series. But when the LCS’s were adopted, the regular-season kings got to pop
the bubbly only 29% of the time – just a tiny bit more often than would have
been expected if a champion had been chosen randomly from the four teams in the
hunt. And not once since the owners thrust the wild cards down our throats has
the best team perched its flag on top of the mountain after the last beer
commercial aired. So maybe there is something to the idea that organizations
are better off simply doing what the Florida Marlins did last year – just get
your foot through the postseason door and maybe you’ll get lucky and draw Eric
Gregg
as your home-plate umpire.


On the basis of these charts, it’s obvious that the Atlanta Braves have no
reason to hang their heads for their alleged playoff "shortcomings". The
Braves have participated in the impressive number of 13 playoff series in the
1990’s, and have won eight of them. That works out to a .615 percentage,
solidly above the .580 expectation for the superior team, which they haven’t
always been anyways. In the 1995 World Series, the Braves beat a Cleveland
team that finished ten games better than they did. In other years, they just
haven’t been able to string together three playoff victories in a row. Given
that even the most dominant teams can expect to win three straight playoff
series only 35% of the time, that’s hardly a cause for embarrassment. In most
cases, it’s not about who has a better team; it’s about who has a better week.
(To digress for a second, it’s not about having a "proven closer", either;
Toronto nailed down the 1992 title with Mike Timlin on the hill.) Of course,
the Braves’ annoying tendency to waste roster spots on Rafael Belliard and
Ozzie Guillen probably doesn’t help them in October, but on balance, they’ve
done better than expected.


We keep hearing about how the Braves’ season will be a "failure" if they don’t
win the World Series, which is the myopic mindset that’s been one of many
malignant by-products of the wild-card era. If you have to share the playoff
spotlight with seven other teams, then making the postseason isn’t quite all
that special anymore, and an early playoff defeat is more damaging to your
perception of the season than it would have been in the past.


Which brings us back to the Yankees. Obviously, they’ve been the class of the
major leagues in 1998. But even granting them the most generous assumptions,
they have no more than a theoretical 30-35% chance of flying a World
Championship banner this year, and that’s assuming that no National League team
will be within ten games of them should the Yankees survive the American League
wars. They’ve certainly got a better shot at the title than anyone else, but
if they don’t happen to win it, we’ll be hearing all winter about how they
"choked", about their "lack of character", about how this guy isn’t a "money
player", yadda, yadda, yadda – all that flotsam that circulates about the
Braves today. They’ll blame it on everything except the addition of the third
playoff round and wild card teams, which as we have seen, have all but turned
the postseason into a crapshoot. George Steinbrenner is right for a change:
whatever happens in the playoffs won’t change the fact that the Yankees have
had one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. Of course, we’ll see if
George’s still saying that if the ticker-tape parade rolls through Houston or
San Diego instead of New York.


So perhaps true baseball fans should root fervently against the Yankees this
October. Not just because they’re the Yankees (though that’s a noble enough
reason for some folks), but because a quick Yankee loss might mean the end of
the wild cards and a return to real pennant races in September. Hey, we can
dream, can’t we?

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