As we all know in baseball and particularly in a short postseason series, anything can happen. Billy Evans, an American League umpire, submitted a story for The New York Times, writing that “breaks often decide baseball championship games.”
Evans was a significant man in the history of baseball. He wrote the article in 1919 and had become the youngest MLB umpire at 22 years of age. He was the youngest to umpire in a World Series. Later in life, he became general manager of the Cleveland Indians when a GM was a new-fangled thing. He was then farm director for the Red Sox after that. In 1973, he became the third MLB umpire to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
As an umpire he wrote, “Ball teams do not always run true to form in a short series. … [S]ome freak situation, some unusual play, may prove to be the turning point. In a number of world’s series, the final result has been greatly influenced by some one situation that was not reckoned with … .”
I always think of the baseball postseason the way he did — that breaks determine so much in a short series — that anything can happen.
So I looked at the 14 years of postseason play in which three postseason series were required to win a World Series (1995 through 2008). In each league, I divided the postseason into five types of teams:
|1||Best record in the league (tie decided by Pythagorean wins formula)|
|2||Second-best record of division winners in the league|
|3||Third-best record of division winners in the league|
|Best||Best record in MLB that year (tie given to AL teams over NL teams due to comparative strength of leagues)|
Take a look at the number of postseason series wins below. Because it takes three series wins to win a World Series, if one of the below seeds won each year, they would have accumulated 42 postseason series wins. The best team in the National League (as measured by regular-season win-loss record) won 14 series. The NL wild card won 16. Odd?
|NL1||14 (1.00 per year)|
|NL2||8 (0.57 per year)|
|NL3||9 (0.64 per year)|
|NLW||16 (1.14 per year)|
The American League won more World Series over this period and the best AL team won 19 total postseason series.
|AL1||19 (1.36 per year)|
|AL2||10 (0.71 per year)|
|AL3||8 (0.57 per year)|
|ALW||13 (0.93 per year)|
The best record in MLB accounted for 17 postseason series wins.
|Best||17 (1.21 per year)|
Win percentage for each postseason series:
|NL1||14-13 (52 percent)|
|NL2||8-12 (40 percent)|
|NL3||9-13 (41 percent)|
|NLW||16-12 (57 percent)|
|AL1||19-10 (74 percent)|
|AL2||10-13 (43 percent)|
|AL3||8-13 (38 percent)|
|ALW||13-12 (52 percent)|
Looking at both leagues overall:
|1||33-23 (won 59 percent of postseason series)|
|2||18-25 (42 percent)|
|3||17-26 (40 percent)|
|WC||29-24 (55 percent)|
|Best||17-12 (59 percent)|
So, on average, no one wins the World Series. But seriously, the best team record in each league does seem to provide an advantage in the playoffs despite the shortness of the series. Interestingly, the best team overall each year only had a very slight advantage over the wild card over 14 years, despite having home-field advantage 100 percent of the time. Wild cards never have home-field advantage in the first two series that lead to a berth in the World Series.
Which teams have actually won the last 14 World Series?
|NL1||1 (7 percent per year)|
|NL2||2 (14 percent per year)|
|NL3||1 (7 percent per year)|
|NLW||2 (14 percent per year)|
|AL1||4 (29 percent per year)|
|AL2||1 (7 percent per year)|
|AL3||1 (7 percent per year)|
|ALW||2 (14 percent per year)|
|Best||2 (14 percent per year)|
Combining both leagues:
|1||5 (36 percent per year or 18 percent each)|
|2||3 (21 percent per year or 11 percent each)|
|3||2 (14 percent per year or 7 percent each)|
|WC||4 (29 percent per year or 14 percent each)|
|Best||2 (14 percent each)|
So even in a short series, the best team has to have an advantage. But how large is that advantage over the default win percentage of 12.5 percent for one out of eight teams entering the playoffs? Again, what is most interesting is how the regular-season records of the wild card and the third-best division winners are fairly close, yet wild cards have won world titles twice as often.
This is a small sample size — only 14 postseasons. And using only these 14 seasons, I might rate the chance of winning the World Series this way in either league, with a slight advantage to the AL:
|1||17 percent (AL 18 percent/NL 16 percent)|
|2||12 percent (AL 13 percent/NL 12 percent)|
|3||10 percent (AL 11 percent/NL 9 percent)|
|WC||11 percent (AL 12 percent/ NL 10 percent)|
|Best||17 percent (AL 18 percent/NL 16 percent)|
So probably no team goes into the MLB postseason with more than a 17 or 18 percent chance of ultimate success. The champion who emerges overcomes very long odds as one of the 30 that entered spring training last February. Therefore, the only way to give yourself a very good chance of win a World Series is to qualify frequently for the postseason.
Evans wrote 90 years ago what holds true for the postseason this year: “In all probability when the 1919 series is over, a diagnosis of it will show that the final result was brought about by some unusual situation or freak happening that was given no consideration when the relative strength of the two clubs was considered.”
Last year, Baseball Prospectus published postseason odds that looked like this:
|2008 Team||Win DS percentage||Win CS percentage||Win WS percentage|
They gave the Cubs a 32 percent chance of winning the World Series. The Cubs didn’t win a game in the postseason. That’s how tough it is to predict anything in the postseason.