Baseball Toaster was unplugged on February 4, 2009.
At the start of the World Series, we baseball fans were giddy after witnessing two exciting League Championship Series, both of which went the distance, seven games, and were packed with exciting twists and turns, heroes and goats. The LCS round couldn't have ended any more dramatically than the eleventh-hour, eleventh-inning walk-off homer from unlikely pinch-hit hero Aaron Boone.
The sports media, which had been promulgating an All-Curse World Series, had to switch gears quickly and latched onto the idea that this was the closest of times, the best of times for playoffs baseball. Fox and ESPN both were telling us that the 2003 playoffs were among the closest of all time. Joe Buck told us that in the first two rounds 32 of a possible 34 games had actually been played—that is if all series went to their maximum number of games. The media evidently felt the David v. Goliath angle was too. Or maybe they have to justify the Elias Sport Bureau budget. Anyway, this analysis cum sales approach boded well for an exciting World Series we were told—or at least we were left to infer it.
But, A funny thing happened on the way to the closest playoffs in history. Suddenly it was last call for us excitement-inebriated fans. The party was over as Don Merdith was wont to sing amid cocktails in the Monday Night Football booth. A group of relative unknowns were the champs—"Look, Chauncy, that nice Pudgy fellow is playing on a new baseball nine. Oh, dear me, that Tim McCarver says the most original things!" This is a team that Fox Felt compelled to introduce us to I the first round.
The World Series was more of a hangover, or a hanging curveball, then a continuation of the Herculean, late-innings feats. It was like releasing a new Star Wars movie or two after 20 years and having it be a complete stinker. Boy, I'm glad that hasn't happened (Or "Yar, mes so so happy no flippity-floop-floop," in Jar-Jar Binks speak).
It started with such promise, too, with a one-run size-'em-upper in the opener. Then the Yankees grabbed a seemingly commanding two-games-to-one lead with two 6-1 victories, albeit with late-innings rallies to secure the second one. The Yankees then trailed for the next three games and the spoils went to the Marlins. The Yankees did tie up game four with some late-inning heroics, only to call on Jeff Weaver to Calvin Schiraldi the game away along with all excitement for the rest of the Series.
Amid the toasting of Jack McKeon, whom most of America wouldn't know from Jack Bauer, who Fox ensured would have more of a presence in the playoffs, and the speculation over who George Steinbrenner would vivisect first, the story of the closest playoffs ever got lost in the shuffle. I guess that's what a six-game World Series will do.
However, I think this postseason was remarkable in many ways and contained some classic series. It's too bad that, like a John Grisham novel/movie (since they are one in the same), the finale couldn't live up to the hype of the setup. But that shouldn't condemn the entire postseason, one that many were calling the most exciting they had witnessed in many a year, to obscurity. Even the tepid World Series had some interesting points that should be considered before we close the book on the year and enjoy the excitement of the free agent season—Ooh, who will win the John Flaherty sweepstakes!
(Be forewarned that the following contains many numbers many of which are organized into (gasp!) tables. Proceed at your own risk.)
First, let's start with the Series. One obvious thing that is remarkable about it is that the Yankees outscored the Marlins 21 to 17 and still lost in six games. Well, in 106 championship games—that includes World Series and nineteenth century championships—there have been 22, including 2003's, in which the loser outscored the winner.
Here is a yearly scoring breakdown for the World Series (Notes: RF=Runs For (Winner), RA=Runs Against (Loser), and MOV= Margin of Victory):
Note that even though the winner has only been outscored only 22 times or about one out of every five Series, it has happened six times in the last 12 World Series. That's odd. I wonder if the high scoring of the last decade or so make it more likely that a team, even the eventual Series loser, will have a lopsided victory or two in a series. Or can expansion have so depleted the staffs of even the eventual champ to such a degree that even they are prone to a big loss or two in a short series.
Another thing of note is that the Marlins did not score a heck of a lot of runs. The Marlin's 2.86 runs per game match the 1992 Blue Jays and '96 Yankees for the lowest in a winning effort since the A's in 1972 (2.29 runs per game). It's also one of a handful of cases all-time in which winning teams scored fewer than 3 runs per game in the Series.
It kind of reminds me of another unlikely Yankee World Series loss. I am, of course, referring to the famous 1960 World Series, that witnessed the Yankees outscoring the Pirates by an average of 4 runs per game and still losing. That is the largest average margin of victory in the World Series for a losing team. It included Yankee wins of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0. The Pirates won four games by a grand total of seven runs (6-4, 3-2, 5-2, 10-9). The 1960 Yankees 7.86 runs per game were and still are the most ever by a losing team.
Another thing I found interesting about this postseason was the number of teams that won series against teams with better record in the regular season. In the Division Series, Florida (91-71) beat San Francisco (100-61), the Cubs (88-74) beat the Braves (101-61), and the Red Sox (95-67) beat the A's (96-66). That's three "upsets" in four series. The League Championships did feature an upset with wild-card Marlins beating division winner Chicago. However, for the sake of this study, the Marlins were the "favorites" given their record was two games better than the Cubs during the season. The final "upset" came, of course, in the World Series when the Marlins beat a Yankee team that was its superior by ten full games during the regular season.
That makes four series out of seven won by the team with the inferior record in 2003. This was also the third of four World Series since 2000 in which the "inferior" team lost. Since 2000 only one winning team in the eight NL Division Series has had a superior record. The AL has had just two of eight. Adding an extra round of playoffs especially a very short one seems to be throwing up a major stumbling block for teams that have superior records.
Maybe that's an obvious statement but I just thought an historical comparison would be useful. Here's a table per decade and playoff round of the records of the teams with better records in each series and the winning percentage of each:
Actually, the Yankees were the first team with the best team in their league to represent that league in the World Series since 1999 when The Yankees and the Braves faced off. 1999 was also the last year in which the teams with the best records in their respective leagues met in the World Series. Before expansion the best teams from each league went to the World Series automatically. Since the addition of the wild card, only twice have the best teams from each league met in the World Series (1995 Braves-Indians being the other).
As far as the team with the best record winning the whole enchilada, that hasn't happened since 114-win 1998 Yankees. And that was the only time in the wild card era that the team with the best record in baseball won the World Series.
Here's a breakdown by era of World Series winner and losers, whether they has their leagues' best record, individually and as a pair, and the number of times that the World Series winner has the majors' best record. The eras are pre-expansion (prior to 1969), expansion (1969-2003 inclusive), and then the expansion era broken down thusly: 5-game LCS (1969-84), 7-game LCS (1985-93), and wild card (1995 to today).
|Era||W Lg Best?||L Lg Best?||W MLB Best?||Two Best in WS||#Yrs||WS Winner Best PCT||Two Best in WS PCT|
|LCS 5 G||10||8||5||7||16||31.25%||43.75%|
|LCS 7 G||5||6||2||2||9||22.22%||22.22%|
For those of us who want to see the best teams in the World Series, to quote Austin Powers, "That train has sailed." The odd thing is that the dropoff happened after the League Championships were expanded to seven games. One of the major complaints of the wild card is that the Divisional Series are too short, thereby allowing a "hot" or lucky team to beat a superior team. The thinking is to lengthen the series to seven games thereby legitimizing the winners even if the cost is shortening the schedule to 154 games to accommodate the additional playoff games. The only problem is that when the LCSs were expanded from a best-of-five to a best-of-seven, fewer regular-season "champs" made it to the World Series. This is a very small sample (15 years) and luck could be the explanation, but the data certainly don't support expanding the wild card round for any reason other than aesthetics.
Now, as far as the 2003 postseason, taken as a whole, to complete the thought that Joe Buck kept repeating at the beginning of the World Series, 38 of a possible 41 games or 92.68% were played this year. That's three games more than the previous high, 35 in 2001. The last time a higher percentage of possible playoff games were actually played was in 1985-86 when 95.24% (20 of 21) were played both years. The only expansion-era postseasons that are higher are the 1972-73 seasons in which all possible games were played (17 of 17).
Here's a comparison by era (note that the games possible for the pre-expansion era is above 7 because of a few nine-game series—1903, '19-21):
You may have noticed a trend that as each newly-imposed playoff structure is imposed, the percentages seem to drop and then gradually and frenetically increase.
From 1955 to 1968, ten of fourteen World Series went the distance. In 1969 the League Championship Round was added and in the first two years the losing teams in the LCSs won a total of zero games against 12 losses. The World Series were won those years in five games. In the first three years, they won one game against 18 losses, but by the third season the World Series went a full seven games. Suddenly, the League Championships went the distance for the next two years and so did the World Series.
The same thing seemed to happen after the wild card round was added in 1995, though 1985-86 when the LCSs were increased to seven games experienced the opposite effect.
Now, of course you're going to say that this is an incredible small sample and it's all just luck. Well, maybe but it would like to theorize that it takes teams a year or two adjust to playoff changes that tend to level the playing field. If you graph out the percentage of teams that have a .500 or better record, you will see a dropoff every time there is an expansion in either the playoff field or the expansion rounds. This seems to be counter-intuitive as more teams would see an opportunity to make a World Series run. For example, 1994, the first year of the wild card system (though there were no playoffs due to the strike), has the lowest percentage of winning teams in baseball history (35.71%). 2003 saw 60% of the major-league teams registering a winning record, the highest percentage since 1991.
In a few years of the playoff expansion, they percentage of winning teams is high again, though it seems to be telescoping down with each expansion. Could it be that it takes a few seasons for the teams to adjust to the new playoff structure? More teams feel capable of advancing to and in the playoffs but perhaps the realization takes a few years. You see more toying with teams in order to fill holes than ever now. It used to be about bettering yourself for the playoffs. Billy Beane still does this, but a number of teams just rent a decent player to fill a hole. Look at the Cubs revamping their offense with rented players from the Pirates. The Marlins filled a whole in left by grabbing Conine, fixed their bullpen problems with Fox and Urbina. When I was a kid, the Phils grabbed Bake McBride to replace Jay Johnstone, who was a solid veteran. The Phils were trying to improve. Teams now seem to be filling holes mid-season. They aren't looking for great players. They're just minimizing liabilities. Payroll slashing is becoming more and more an issue. So you have the teams picking up other teams mistakes at the deadlines.
It's just a theory. I'm not sure if there is anything more than luck involved. There was a large increase in the number of non-losing teams this year—maybe teams were inspired to try to contend after seeing the once –lowly Angels win it all. Maybe the Yankee and Brave dynasties are perceived to have weakened and more teams feel emboldened to contend. Maybe nothing other than luck was involved. I'm not sure, but it’s something that I am going to be watching for next season.
OK, so back to this season. How close were the playoffs anyway? Here is a table with the average wins and losses per series per year as well as the average run differential:
|Yr||Rounds||W||W/Rd||L||L/Rd||Avg W-L||Win R||R/G||Lose R||R/G||R Diff|
Note that this season's 0.32 run differential per payoff game is the lowest of the wild card era. Witness the increases in 1969 and 1995 after the playoffs were expanded. It seems that the losing teams are much better prepared today than they were right after the wild card round was added. This may be some more evidence that supports my playoff theory.
OK, we're just about done. There's just one more thing to check out: what was the closest series of all time? To qualify the series has to go the distance. Whether that's five, seven, or nine games, I don't care. However, I don't want to include a four-game sweep that consists of four 1-0 games. Yes, each game is as close as it gets, but taken as a whole those series are not as close, in my opinion, as a seven-game series won by a 10-0 score in the final game.
Next, we want to look at run differential throughout the series. How close were those games? A seven-game series in which one team outscores the other by just lone run is closer than a bunch of lopsided victories in a series that happens to go seven games.
To hone that down a bit more, we will look at average margin of victory (MoV). The run differential over a series is important but trading lopsided victories can make the games of a series seem closer than they were. Average margin of victory will break down the run differentials into individual games. For example, Series A features Team One vs. Team Two. Team One wins the series with the following game scores 1-0, 1-3, 8-7, 4-6, 3-1, 2-4, and 2-0. The run differential is nil (i.e., both have 21 runs) and the avg. MoV is 1.71 runs (i.e., a 12 run difference in seven games). Now consider series B with Teams Three and Four: 10-2, 1-9, 6-0, 5-11, 7-4, 2-6, and 1-0. Again the run differential is zero, but the avg. MoV is 5.14. Which would you consider a closer series?
Finally, let's look at margin of victory in the final game and extra innings games/innings. Obviously, when we think about close series, we remember the one-run seventh-game victories like the Yankees over the Red Sox in this year's ALCS rather than the Royals beating the Cardinals 11-0 in the seventh game of the 1985 World Series. Also, if the final game goes into extra innings (again like this year's ALCS), that's even better. If there are extra inning games during the series that's just an indication of how close the games were played.
First, here is a table of all playoff series that have gone to the maximum number of games sorted by the run differential:
|Year||Round||W||L||T||Winner||R||Loser||R||Diff||Avg MoV||Final game margin||Extra Innings|
|1987||NLCS||4||3||St. Louis||23||San Francisco||23||0||2.86||6||0|
|1962||WS||4||3||NY Yankees||20||San Francisco||21||1||2.43||1||0|
|1976||ALCS||3||2||NY Yankees||23||Kansas City||24||1||2.60||1||0|
|1964||WS||4||3||St. Louis||32||NY Yankees||33||1||3.00||2||1(1)|
|1977||ALCS||3||2||NY Yankees||21||Kansas City||22||1||3.40||2||0|
|1957||WS||4||3||Milwaukee Braves||23||NY Yankees||25||2||3.14||5||1(1)|
|1931||WS||4||3||St. Louis Cardinals||19||Philadelphia A's||22||3||3.57||2||0|
|1988||NLCS||4||3||Los Angeles||31||NY Mets||27||4||3.14||6||1(3)|
|1984||NLCS||3||2||San Diego||22||Chicago Cubs||26||4||5.20||3||0|
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