Monday, October 20, 2014

On The Horror of a Wild Card World Series

Look, I'm not wild about it either. For the second time in baseball history (2002, Angels-Giants), we will have two wild card teams--i.e., teams that couldn't even win their own division--meet in the World Series. That's a far cry from the years though 1968, when a team had to be the best in and eight- or ten-team league in order to make the Fall Classic. Now, you don't have to even win a five-team division.

Except. There is an element of variability in most everything in life, including baseball, that is almost always ignored. Say there's a game, tied 3-3 in the eighth inning. The pitcher throws a ball on the border of the strike zone. The batter doesn't swing. Is it a ball or a strike? 

Well, the average major league hitter had a .251 batting average, .314 on base percentage, and .386 slugging percentage in 2014. After a 1-0 count, that rose to .267/.373/.420. After 0-1, it became .221/.261/.331. 

That difference, in the late innings of a close game, is enough to sway a ballgame. The batter who gets a strike call is far less likely to get on base and score a run than the batter who doesn't. How many times do fluctuations like that occur over the course of a season? Take the Royals. They finished with 89 wins. If you were to replay 2014, over and over again, using the exact same players, same lineups, same injuries--do you think they'd win exactly 89 games every time? I don't. Maybe they'd win 88 or 86 or 92--it all depends on little things like ball/strike calls, a tiny movement in a batter's swing, the precise timing of a fielder's leap. How random are things like that? Maybe, say, 3%? Then over a 162-game season, we'd expect variance of 162 x 3% = 5 games. So the Royals may have won 89 games this year, but it's just as likely that they're an 84-win team that got a little lucky, to the tune of five wins, or a 94-win team that got a little unlucky, to the tune of five losses. Yes, the 89-win Royals knocked off the 98-win Angels and 96-win Orioles, but you can easily build a case that the Royals, if we were to replay the season over and over, might have, in the long run, a better record than the other two. Maybe the Angels and O's are really, in the long run, 93-win teams that got a little lucky this year while the Royals are really, in the long run, a 94-win team that got a little unlucky this year. 

Same in the National League. The Giants won 88 games, and they knocked off the 96-win Nationals and the 90-win Cardinals. But were they an inferior team? Those differences are both within our 3% margin of error. 

I've quoted baseball analyst Joe Sheehan before, but his observation from his newsletter bears repeating: Variance swamps everything. The fact that we're seeing two wild card teams in the Series doesn't mean we're seeing two inferior teams. We're just seeing two teams that didn't compile as good a record over a six-month, 162-game season as the teams they defeated. Maybe they picked the right time to get hot, or maybe they took advantage of their opponents' injuries (the Royals faced an Angels team without its No. 1 starter and an Orioles squad without its starting third baseman, first baseman, or catcher), or maybe some pitchers were more worn down in October than they were in April, or any of many other factors. The point is: If the goal were to insure that the teams with the best record meet in the World Series, then we should return to the pre-1969, pre-divisional play baseball world in which there were two leagues and one champion per league, period. As FanGraphs managing editor Dave Cameron said in his chat last week, "If you crown your champion with a postseason tournament, you’re asking for randomness."

And that's what you get: Randomness. There are two things I hate hearing, incessantly, during the postseason. One is all the myths I addressed last month: that prior postseason experience is important, that having veteran players provides an edge, that momentum matters, that good pitching stops good hitting, that reliance on home runs is bad, that ace starters confer an advantage. All of those, I explained, are dubious. 

But the other thing that I hear a lot, and which is probably more offensive, is that the postseason is a test of character. It's a short series of baseball games, not a morality play, for crying out loud. The Royals and Giants didn't advance because they're better people than the players on the Angels, Nationals, Orioles, and Cardinals. They didn't win because they were able to "put it together," "draw on their inner strength," "function better as a team," "will themselves to win," execute under pressure," "perform when they had to," and whatever other crap you read and hear, while their vanquished opponents didn't. They're each here because they won eight baseball games, spread over a one-game play-in and two short series. And, to the delight of baseball fans, most of those games were tight and exciting. Isn't that enough?

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