Any team that follows the rules and beats all comers in the first two rounds of the playoffs deserves to be in the World Series. That the team does so in spite of having the worst third-order percentage ever for a World Series participant make it more or less of an accomplishment? The Cardinals, at .471, have gotten this far in spite of pushing down hard on the lower perimeter of Series participation (lowering the standard by 17 points from previous the low team, the 1987 Minnesota Twins); it’s something of a wonder as well as a testament to the foibles of short series participation.

Beginning tonight, they find themselves aligned against a team that is nearly 100 points higher in third-order winning percentage. Detroit’s mark of .567 puts them 96 points ahead of St. Louis and lands them squarely on the list you see below: the 10 biggest mismatchups in World Series history as defined by third-order won-loss records. Because of this disparity, can we assume the outcome of the Series? Let’s take a look at what happened the previous 10 times before answering that.

138: 1906 — Chicago Cubs (.715) vs. Chicago White Sox (.577)
Result: White Sox 4-2

The lesson was given very early in the postseason process and yet, it still doesn’t seem to have sunk in 100 years later. A century ago this month, the team with the best winning percentage ever mustered in the so-called modern era was taken down by a team that won 23 fewer games during the regular season. There it was for all to see: anything can happen in a short series. In just the third World Series played in the 20th Century, Exhibit A was made available for inspection for the jury: bad things can happen to great teams. In this case, Mordecai Brown of the Cubs had the misfortune to have one of the worst starts in his career in Game Six, putting them down 7-1 after two, a deficit from which they never recovered. The White Sox were known as the “Hitless Wonders” but did manage a league average 3.70 runs per game during the regular season. Regardless, they scored eight runs twice against the Cubs.

117: 1939 — New York Yankees (.713) vs. Cincinnati Reds (.596)
Result: Yanks 4-0

The ’39 Reds have the best third-order projection of any of the 10 underdog teams on this list. It was their fate to run into the team that many consider the best ever. As sweeps go, was this a close one? Yes. Two of the games came right down to the wire. In Game One, the score was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the ninth when Charlie Keller tripled with one out. Joe DiMaggio was walked intentionally, but Bill Dickey ruined the strategy with a single to win the game. In Game Four, the Reds had a 4-2 lead heading into the ninth. They blew that and surrendered three runs in the top of the 10th to lose 7-4. In those two innings, they committed five errors. In all, the Yankees outscored them 20-8, but Cincinnati did have leads in three of the four games.

114: 1944 – St. Louis Cardinals (.673) vs. St. Louis Browns (.558)
Result: Cardinals 4-2

In his 1978 book Even the Browns, William B. Mead cites the pre-Series odds at 1:2 for the Cardinals and 8:5 for the Browns. Of course, those were St. Louis bookmaker odds and they were trying to drum up betting interest. The Browns were up two games to one in this, their only Series, and it could have just as easily been 3-0 if not for some terrible fielding on a Max Lanier bunt in the third inning of Game Two. Brownie manager Luke Sewell recalled in Even the Browns that his men made six different mistakes on that play and were charged with two errors. It led to a Cardinal run. The Browns later tied the game at two but lost in the 11th. The Browns had a 1-0 lead in Game Six before the Cardinals put them away with a three-run fourth.

108: 1927 – New York Yankees (.693) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (.585)
Result: Yankees 4-0

The sweep seemed like the inevitable conclusion for a team long considered one of the great juggernauts of the game’s history. They outscored the Pirates 23-10, but Pittsburgh did have its chances. In Game One, they scored in the bottom of the eighth to make it 5-4 and had runners on first and third when the inning ended. Federal League veteran Johnny Miljus kept them in the game with four innings of scoreless relief, but his moment of destiny would come three games later. It’s rather surprising that more is not heard about what happened in Game Four of that Series. The Pirates were brushed aside easily in Games Two and Three, but battled back to tie Game Four at three. In the bottom of the ninth, Miljus got into trouble with a walk, a sac bunt attempt that went for a hit and a wild pitch. That brought up the heart of the order. He walked Babe Ruth intentionally and then proceeded to strike out Lou Gehrig and Bob Meusel. With Tony Lazzeri at the plate, Miljus uncorked a wild pitch, ending the Series. Perhaps it was the lack of inherent drama in the Series standings at that point (Pirates down 3-0) that has kept this from being considered one of the more memorable World Series moments, but that’s a heck of a way to end it nonetheless.

104: 1969 – Baltimore Orioles (.665) vs. New York Mets (.562)
Result: Mets 4-1

The Mets outstripped their projection by nine games. They were 41-23 in one-run games. They cheated in the World Series (the infamous shoe polish ball incident) and got the benefit of the doubt on the play where J.C. Martin was running inside the baseline and got nailed with a thrown ball. There is every chance they would have won anyway, but the fact that these sorts of things can and do happen make predicting the outcome of these Series–even these extreme examples–a dicey proposition.

97: 1998 – New York Yankees (.667) vs. San Diego Padres (.570)
Result: Yankees 4-0

Both the Padres and Yankees outshone their third-order counts by about six games, so this matchup wasn’t quite as high-falutin’ as it appeared on paper. Still, though, the Padres had good leads in both Games One and Three. A 5-2 advantage vanished in the blood spray of a Yankees seven-run seventh in Game One as Chuck Knoblauch and Tino Martinez launched three- and four-run homers (also known as “grand slams” in the jargon of the time) respectively. With a chance to get back into the Series, the Padres blew a 3-0 lead over the course of the seventh and eighth innings of Game Three. San Diego was blown out in Game Two and squandered 10 baserunners in Game Four, leaving the bases loaded twice and hitting into two double plays on their way to a 3-0 defeat.

96: 2006 – Detroit Tigers (.567) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (.471)
Result: ?

Of the 204 teams to advance to the World Series, this year’s Cardinals go right to the top–or bottom–of this list, the Fall Classic participants with the worst third-order winning percentage:

2006 St. Louis Cardinals: .471
1987 Minnesota Twins: .488
1973 New York Mets: .511
1959 Los Angeles Dodgers:  .522
1997 Cleveland Indians: .525
1984 San Diego Padres: .528
1985 Kansas City Royals: .528
2000 New York Yankees: .530
1961 Cincinnati Reds: .532
2000 New York Mets .535
1964 St. Louis Cardinals .535

Only one of these teams was unfortunate to turn up on the larger mismatchup list we’re discussing today, the 1961 Reds. Half of these clubs became World Champions. Technically, it’s more than half, since only one winner was going to come out of the 2000 World Series. (It is no wonder that nobody paid much attention to the first Subway Series in over four decades–it wasn’t just that it was New York-centric, it was also arguably the worst World Series matchup in history.)

96: 1975 – Cincinnati Reds (.643) vs. Boston Red Sox (.547)
Result: Reds 4-3

This one could have gone either way as well. A slight turn of events in any of the following games would have put the flag over Fenway Park:

  • Game Two: The Red Sox came within one out of going up two games to none. They had a 2-1 lead in the ninth but Dick Drago couldn’t get the last out before two runs scored. Boston went down quietly in the ninth.
  • Game Three: Boston battled back from 5-1 deficit, finally tying it with two runs in the ninth. The Reds 10th turned on the controversial non-interference call on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Ed Armbrister. I’m not sure the umpires got the call right or wrong, but I do know this: had Carlton Fisk had gone for the sure out at first instead of throwing down to second (chucking the ball into centerfield in the process) the complexion of the inning would have been very different.
  • Game Seven: The Red Sox were up 3-0 and had the bases loaded with two outs in the fifth. Unfortunately, the batter was pitcher Bill Lee. He made an out and began to falter in the next inning. The Reds scored the checkmate run in the ninth.

91: 1961 – New York Yankees (.623) vs. Cincinnati Reds (.532)
Result: Yankees 4-1

The ’61 Reds were a miracle team provided you didn’t look too closely. Their record improved by 26 games from 1960’s 67-87 showing. Except they weren’t really that bad in 1960 nor quite that good in 1961. In fact, they had really only improved by about 10 or 11 games, not 26. With that, they held their own through the seventh inning of Game Three. With the game count at one each, they took a 2-1 lead in the home seventh on a single by Eddie Kasko. (It was preceded by an intentional walk. I didn’t count, but so many of the rallies I examined in these World Series seem to have had an ill-fated intentional walk in the mix.) Johnny Blanchard homered to tie it in the eighth and Roger Maris hit the go-ahead homer in the top of the ninth. The Yankees never trailed again.

87: 1936 – New York Yankees (.656) vs. New York Giants (.569)
Result: Yankees 4-2

Apart from an 18-4 thrashing in Game Two, this was looking like a fairly even Series through the eighth inning of Game Six. True, the Giants were trailing 6-5 in runs and 3-2 in games, but they had another shot to tie it in the bottom of the ninth provided they could hold the Yankees in their half. Five singles and four walks–the first of which was intentional–later, the Yankees had a 13-5 lead and the Series title.

84: 1945 – Chicago Cubs (.625) vs. Detroit Tigers (.541)
Result: Tigers 4-3

It would seem that the Tigers team that came to the World Series was a lot better than the one that played half the year without Hank Greenberg, except that their record was a little better in the first half than in the second. A major hassle for the Cubs was that their pitchers lost the plate in October. During the regular season Cubs pitchers surrendered just 2.5 walks per game, a full walk-per-game better than the rest of the league. In the seven Series games they handed out 33 free passes, although five of them did come in Hank Borowy‘s Game One shutout.

A predictive tool?

In these 10 meetings, the teams with the decided third-order advantage have gone 7-3. They’ve won 33 games and lost 20. Still, though, is a decided edge in regular season quality a good predictive tool for the World Series? We know that three of the dominant teams were upset and four others won without sweeping. Of the three Yankee teams that did sweep, we’ve seen that half of their games were close enough to have gone either way.

We are being told by many pundits that this one is going to the Tigers. The thing of it is, what hasn’t happened yet is a Series where one of these decided favorites totally annihilates the underdog. I’m talking about a complete humiliation where they win every game going away, never have a deficit for even half an inning and truly show themselves to be 100 points better than their opponent. They win 13-2, 5-0, 7-1 and 11-3 with none of the games ever in doubt. Until that happens, I wouldn’t be too hasty to set any team up as a monstrous favorite.

Of course, even if that does happen, there’s no guarantee it will happen again, so the previous results of great mismatchups remain a fuzzy predictive tool at best. If we didn’t take to heart the lesson of the World Series played exactly 100 years ago, at least we can remember back to the recently completed 2006 playoffs to know that it’s folly to assume dominance on anybody’s part.

Clay Davenport contributed data for this column.

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