Not a Crapshoot? Or, We’re Disagreeing with Joe Posnanski Again?!?!?

Joe Posnanski doesn’t like the Division Series—in fact, he ranks Division Series games as the seventh most exciting games in a baseball season, behind “Cool mid-season matchups between great starting pitchers” AND “Important pennant race games in August.” He makes a pretty compelling argument, but he falls back on one piece of conventional wisdom that I don’t think is quite true: that the Division Series is a crapshoot.

People say this all the time: The Division Series is too short. It’s a crapshoot. Great teams get upset all the time by mediocre teams that snuck into the playoffs. One great starting pitcher can exert too much influence. But is this really true? Let’s quote Posnanski himself:

“You know how people always say that in baseball the playoffs are a crapshoot? Well, there’s a reason they say that: It’s because the playoffs are a crapshoot. Since 1998 — an arbitrary cutoff point, yes, but I’ll give you the whole set of numbers in a minute — since 1998, teams with better regular season records are 42-42 in series against teams with worse records. You can’t get much more crapshooty than that.

I did these numbers quickly, so they may be off a win or two. But still:

Since 1995 (expanded playoffs):

Better record: 55 wins

Worse record: 47 wins

From 1969-1993 (Division Series and World Series):

Better record: 39 wins

Worse record: 32 wins

From 1920-1968 (World Series only)

Better record: 24 wins

Worse record: 22 wins

There are a few ties in there as well — opposing teams with exactly the same record — which is why those numbers don’t all add up. All in all, the better-record teams have a 117-102 record, a .534 winning percentage. Crapshoot (especially when you consider that often the team with the better record had homefield advantage). Five game series are especially so.”

Unfortunately, Posnanski’s numbers prove the exact opposite of his point. Back when the World Series consisted of the best team in each league, the team with the better record had a winning percentage of .522—if two World Series had gone the other way, it would be a below .500 record (Posnanski is also disingenuous to bring up home-field advantage, at least in regard to the World Series, since that has never been determined based on records). Why is this? Probably because comparing the records of teams that played in completely different leagues, especially in an era in which the leagues never played each other at all, didn’t mean a whole lot.

This of course brings us to the reason that the Wild Card and the expanded playoffs make sense: competitive balance, an issue that seems totally absent from Posnanski’s argument.  Winning 98 in a very competitive league is not necessarily worse than winning 101 in a league without another good team. This, after all, is why we play the World Series. Similarly, as more divisions get added, more rounds are needed. This does not necessarily lead to a rash of upsets—in fact, the winning percentage of the team with the better record has gone up to .543 since adding more teams to the playoffs—but it does lead to teams in harder divisions getting a fair shot.

Since Posnanski has such disdain for the Division Series, I decided to do the legwork, and it turns out that since the Wild Card was introduced in 1995, teams with the better record are 34-28 in the Division Series. In fact, teams with the better record are better in five-game series than they are in seven-game series: In seven-game series they are 54-48, for a .529 winning percentage, and in five-game series they are 64-53, for a .548 winning percentage.

Even more illustrative is how the records change as the differences increase. Since 1995, the two teams to have more than a 20-game edge in the division series (’98 Yankees and ’01 Mariners) each won. Six teams have had leads of 15 games or more, and they too are undefeated. Teams with a double-digit lead are 10-3 and teams with a lead of five or greater are 20-12. When the lead shrinks below five games, though, teams with the better record are a mere 14-16.*

*Oddly, though, teams with a lead of two games or fewer are 11-5 in the Division Series, but teams with a lead of between two and five games are only 3-11. Having a lead of three games is a death sentence, I guess: They are 1-5.

This makes perfect sense. A difference of a few games between teams from different divisions, in a league with an unbalanced schedule, can be due to having more games against better competition. This doesn’t necessarily mean the worse team has won, just that the teams’ final records didn’t definitively show who the best team was. As leads grow, though, competitive imbalance can’t explain the difference. The 2001 Cleveland Indians can’t explain being 25 games worse than the Seattle Mariners because they had to play eight more games against the 85-win Minnesota Twins. And, predictably, as leads grow, and teams become more definitively better, they win more often. Teams with a double-digit lead win at a rate .769—a percentage greater than any team has ever put up in the regular season.

What does this mean? Well, it means that the Division Series and the Wild Card are working. Contrary to popular belief, they are not littering the playoffs with freak upsets and mediocre teams—they are allowing teams to prove that a three-game difference, in a sample of 162, may not mean all that much. They are allowing teams that happen to be in a loaded division to have a fair chance at the World Series.

Also, it means that Joe Posnanski, for like the second time ever, was wrong.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on October 18, 2010 at 12:26 AM

    I don’t know how much you can attribute Division Series upsets to divisional imbalance. First of all, the schedules were balanced from 1995-2000, and the winning percentages of the better team in the DS is almost exactly equal for the two eras (12-10, .545 from 1995-2000; 22-18, .550 since 2000). And so you can’t say the AL East was better than the AL Central in 1997, so that’s why 88-win Baltimore beat 99-win Cleveland, and you can’t say the opposite was true the next year, when 86-win Cleveland beat 96-win New York and 98-win Baltimore in the playoffs. They all played almost identical schedules, and the fickleness of the Division Series was on full display, with a not-that-good pitcher dominating for the Indians against the Yankees.

    Furthermore, let’s look at a few more specifically. In 2002, the 94-win Twins beat the 103-win Athletics (from the AL West) before being more or less crushed by the 99-win Angels (from the AL West). The Cardinals did the same thing that year, beating NL West champion Arizona before losing to NL West Wild Card San Francisco.

    How can you call the 1997 Marlins and Indians anything but mediocre? Florida didn’t have a single regular that hit .300 or as many as 30 home runs — in the middle of the steroid era! Cleveland’s best pitcher (Charles Nagy) had a WHIP of 1.45! And these teams played in the World Series!

    Reply

    • Posted by Tim on October 18, 2010 at 12:27 AM

      That should be 1996 in the first paragraph there (for Baltimore beating Cleveland). My mistake.

      Reply

    • Posted by John S on October 18, 2010 at 1:06 AM

      I didn’t mean to imply that every upset can be attributed to divisional imbalance, or to deny that upsets exist. But I think that upsets are not nearly as common as people tend to think they are and that when they do occur they are not nearly as…upsetting as they are made out to be. The majority of upsets are between teams that are less than five games apart, which, in the course of a 162-game season, is not all that significant. The point about divisional imbalance was mainly in there to justify the Wild Card. People like Joe Poz tend to view the Wild Card as letting weaker teams into the playoffs, but I think that’s a big oversimplication: Often, the weakest team in the playoffs is the winner of the weakest division.

      Another point, which I didn’t make in the post, is that a team’s division often factors into its record in deceptive ways. Take Texas this year. The AL West was so bad this year, and the Rangers had the division wrapped up so early, that their games were less urgent than those of the Yankees and Rays. A worse record in a situation like this could be the result of taking more time to rest players and give younger guys a chance to develop with less at stake (I’m not saying it is, but it could be).

      Lastly, I think playoff upsets are, largely, a good thing (and I say this as a fan who has been on the wrong end of them a huge amount, between rooting for the Yankees and Duke basketball). I mean, that’s why we like sports, isn’t it? I could just as easily say, “How can you call the 2007 NY Giants anything but mediocre? Their only regular season win against an above .500 team was against the 9-7 Redskins. They won their last three playoff games by a combined 10 points. They were 14th in league offense and 17th in defense.” But it was still awesome when they beat the Patriots, wasn’t it?

      Reply

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