Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | July 26, 2010

Make The Playoffs and the Sky Is The Limit

As we’ve moved closer to the trade deadline in this baseball season there are talks in every community where the team isn’t hopelessly out of the playoff race about whether each team is a buyer or a seller.   Just a few days ago I covered my opinion on the matter with regard to my own local team (a piece written before a pair of extremely devastating injuries befell said team).   If the talk in other places is similar to the talk around here, there generally is some form of evaluation going on amongst fans and presumably front offices around whether or not a team would have what it takes following a move to make a serious challenge for the playoffs.   One of the things that I’ve noted listening to the conversations as they tend to have gone locally have featured a faction of fans that believe that the Tigers are a team that, even if good enough to make the post-season would not be good enough to advance in the post-season.

Frankly, this is a train of thought that is very intuitive.   It would be fair for anyone to note that the Tigers don’t fit anybody’s definition of a “championship caliber” team, and no reasonable trade (or even series of trades) would turn them into one this season.   Based on the multiple experiences of watching one or two poor teams turn a playoff berth into a championship, and watching several very good to great teams get whisked out of the championship picture, I tend to abide by the standard that “if you get in, you can win”.   Part and parcel with this line of reasoning is the idea that even the best teams don’t win all the time, they often lose series, and sometimes they lose series to very bad teams.   This second argument is indisputably true, but even as I’ve verbally made the point many times over I’ve never actually looked at it closely myself to see exactly how true it was (or wasn’t).   That led me to think about matchups between the very best and very worst teams.   How often did the worst teams beat the best teams in a given year?   The answer?   Not often, but often enough that it shouldn’t be unfathomable to anyone.

For the purpose of looking at this question I limited my sample to the post-strike era of 1995-present, mostly because of the ability to acquire recent and relevant results in addition to the fact that interleague play makes it so that there is some degree of apples to apples comparison going on.   While there are still discrepancies between leagues with regard to talent level, the fact that the teams are at least playing each other during this time period gives slightly more meaning to matchups between the best and the worst teams.   In addition to looking at individual series, I looked at the number of games won and lost.    There were a few years where the samples I took were particularly noteworthy:

  • – In 2007 the Red Sox and Indians both finished tied for the best record in the league.  I used the results for both of their matchups against the Devil Rays.
  • – In 2002 the Devil Rays and the Tigers both finished tied for the worst record in the league.  I used the results for the Yankees matchups against both teams.
  • – In 2000 the Cubs and Phillies both finished tied for the worst record in the league.  I used the results for the Giants matchups against both teams.
  • – In both 1997 and 1999 the Braves finished with the best record in the league but did not play the team with the worst record.  In each case I selected the worst team that they played that year, which in 1999 was the Marlins, while in 1997 was two teams with identical records: Again the Cubs and Phillies.

 

After looking at all of this information (I included Yankees vs. Orioles matchups from this season), I found that since 1995 there have been 69 series comprising 210 games pitting the league’s worst team against the league’s best team and that the “worst” team only won 7 of the series while splitting 2.   As far as the individual games are concerned, the “best” team posted a record of 161-49 in the matchups.   At two ends of the spectrum were the 1996 Indians and the 2000 Giants.   The ’96 Indians won all 12 games they played against the ’96 Tigers, sweeping all four series between the two teams.   The 2000 Giants struggled against their generally hapless foes, however.    This was a 97 win team, while the ’00 Phillies and Cubs both only managed 65 wins during the regular season.   Both teams still managed to give the Giants a hard time.   The Cubs won 2 of 3 series against the Giants that year (the only team in the sample to beat a “best” team twice), getting swept in the series they lost and posting a 4-5 record overall.   The Phillies won 1 of the 3 series while getting swept in the other two, posting a 2-7 record overall.   The ’00 Giants 12-6 record against the “worsts” was the worst of a “best” team that played more than 3 games against a “worst”, and they were the only team to lose as many as two series in a year, much less the three that they actually lost.

While the matchups both at the individual level and in the aggregate were generally the blowouts that one might expect, depending on your expectations they also reveal something else: The “worsts” had a winning percentage of .233 in the actual games and .101 in the series (.116 if you count the two split series as a “half win” each).   Both are very poor numbers, but neither would rise to the level of “impossible to fathom”.   Whenever the best team in the league takes on the worst team in the league, essentially the “worst” team has a 1-in-4 chance to take any given game and a 1-in-10 chance of taking an entire 3 game (usually) series.   Scheduling isn’t done so neatly, but if we were theoretically to split up a 162 game season into 54 three-game series, that means that we should expect even the worst team in the league to take 5-6 of those series from the best team.   That seems like a lot to me, when judged against the standard of “possibility or impossibility”.    Also note that it takes eight years for 54 playoff series to be played, although those series are of best-of-five and best-of-seven variety; This format makes so while it would require a lower winning percentage to win the series, it would require beating the heavy odds more frequently than winning a three game series.

If the sample I’ve taken is representative of expectations (and if my math is correct), when the worst team matches up with the best team one would expect about a 13.9% chance that they would win a best of 5 series (with a 1.2% chance of a 3 game sweep) and a 13.1% chance that they would win a best of 7 (with a 0.3% chance of a 4 game sweep).   Considering that in reality they’ve won 10.1% of three game series’ (which would be easier to win) it seems that maybe the theoretical is overshooting the reality just a tad, but not by a whole lot.    With odds like those even the worst team in the league could be expected, if dropped into a playoff-style tournament like the MLB runs, to win a single series at least every other decade or so even if they’re matched up against the best team every time.    There are a few caveats that are specific to post-season play that might drive their odds down fairly significantly — Most notably the fact that the rules and the way teams are managed in the playoffs are quite different than the regular season and many of the backup players and end-of-the-rotation starters that appear in regular season games would not appear in a playoff game (or would only appear in highly specialized roles), which would tilt a theoretical matchup heavily in the favor of a “best” team than a “worst”.    Still, we are looking at the very poles of extremism — Best and Worst — And even when comparing the poles we can see that it is reasonable to think that while the worst team would regularly get trounced by the best, they would also could get lucky and even win an entire series very infrequently.

Given that even the worst teams could achieve this, the odds are exponentially greater that an average or slightly above-average team could do so.   While I haven’t done the analysis to put an exact number on it, just looking at the difference between the best and worst shows that it wouldn’t be an impossibility for the worst, so it certainly wouldn’t be for the #10 or 12 or 15 team out of a 30 team league to “make noise” in the playoffs.   While winning three successive series of a best-of-5, 7, and 7 nature would be a considerably tougher task, it really is true that in this game any team that gets in does have a legitimate shot at a title.   However, the even lesser goal of simply “making noise” — Generally defined as either winning a series or at least pushing the first round series to a fifth game — Is even more likely and attainable than winning a title.

This piece isn’t meant to be pro-buyer or pro-seller regarding your conversation about what your favorite team should do regarding the trade deadline.  There are many lines of reasoning and philosophies you can draw from to make your point regarding that issue.  In the case of my own team I argued for a “stand pat” position.   However, you cannot say that if even if your team makes it to the playoffs, they cannot make noise.  It simply isn’t true.  If you get there, you can make noise, and you might even get lucky and win a title even if you are nowhere near the best team.   You just have to hope that in a given year your team has the spirit (or unique fortune) of the 2000 Cubs come playoff time.

For those with interest, below is the data set that I looked at:

2010: Yankees 10-2 vs. Baltimore; 4-0

2009: Yankees 1-2 vs. Washington; 0-1

2008: Angels 2-1 vs. Washington; 1-0

2007: Boston 13-5 vs. Tampa Bay; 6-0

2007: Cleveland 8-2 vs. Tampa Bay; 3-0

2006: Yankees 13-5 vs. Tampa Bay; 5-1

2005: St. Louis 2-1 vs. Kansas City; 1-0

2004: St. Louis 5-1 vs. Arizona; 2-0

2003: Yankees 5-1 vs. Detroit; 2-0

2002: Yankees 8-1 vs. Detroit; 3-0

2002: Yankees 13-5 vs. Tampa Bay; 5-1

2001: Seattle 7-2 vs. Tampa Bay; 3-0

2000: San Francisco 5-4 vs. Cubs; 1-2

2000: San Francisco 7-2 vs. Philadelphia; 2-1

1999: Atlanta 9-4 vs. Florida; 3-0-1

1998: Yankees 3-0 vs. Florida; 1-0

1997: Atlanta 9-2 vs. Cubs; 3-1

1997: Atlanta 10-2 vs. Philadelphia; 3-0-1

1996: Cleveland 12-0 vs. Detroit; 4-0

1995: Cleveland 10-3 vs. Toronto; 4-0

1995: Cleveland 9-4 vs. Minnesota; 4-0

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