Does the “Best” Team Win the World Series?

(Photo: Eric)

It’s been a few days. And although I ain’t over it yet, I think I can write about the Detroit Tigers losing the World Series.

When the playoff in baseball began, 10 teams – and their fans – were very happy.  But the playoffs being what they are, we knew that only one team – and its fans – would actually be happy when the whole thing was over.

After the best-of-five series, the Tigers – and this fan – were quite happy.  When the Tigers swept the Yankees, I was very happy.  And then when the Giants swept the Tigers… okay, I wasn’t happy anymore.

So what did the Tigers and all the other “losers” (and yes, that includes the Yankees) learn from the playoffs?

For an answer, let me quote the following from The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (a wonderful book by Leonard Mlodinow):

…if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55% of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a 7-game series about 4 times out of 10.  And if the superior team could beat its opponent, on average, 2 out of 3 times they meet, the inferior team will still win a 7-game series about once every 5 match-ups.  There is really no way for a sports league to change this.  In the lopsided 2/3-probability case, for example, you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the winner with what is called statistical significance, meaning the weaker team would be crowned champion 5 percent or less of the time.  And in the case of one team’s having only a 55-45 edge, the shortest significant “world series” would be the best of 269 games, a tedious endeavor indeed! So sports playoff series can be fun and exciting, but being crowned “world champion” is not a reliable indication that a team is actually the best one. (p. 70-71)

As Mlodinow notes, a seven-game series is not a sufficient sample to identify the “best” team.  So that means we are not sure at this point that the Giants are better.  And I am not just saying that because the Tigers lost (okay, I probably am just saying that because the Tigers lost).

The idea that the World Series doesn’t necessarily identify the “best” team relates to something I said in this forum a few weeks ago:  team spending and wins in baseball are not strongly related.  In fact, in some years (like 2012) there isn’t even a statistically significant relationship between payroll and regular season wins.

But let’s imagine for a moment that there is a link between spending and winning. In fact, let’s imagine that if you spend enough money you can guarantee that you will have the “best” team in baseball.  Would that be enough to guarantee your team a World Series title?

To answer this question, we need to specify what it means to be the “best” baseball team.   And here are three ways we can define “best”:

  1. Winning percentage: This may seem like the most obvious definition of “best.”Across a 162 game season the team that wins the most could be thought of as the very “best” team.  
    Then again, we could consider…
  2. Pythagorean Win-LossBaseball-Reference.com defines this as the expected win-loss record based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the team. 
  3. Simple Rating System: Baseball-Reference.com defines this as the number of runs per game they are better (or worse) than the average team (average ML team for years with inter-league play and just their league for other years).  The specific formula – which takes into account strength of schedule – is as follows: SRS = Run Differential (R_diff) + Strength of Schedule (SOS)

With some definitions of “best” in hand, let’s look at how often the “best” team has won the World Series. We begin our study in 1969, or the first year more than two teams appeared in baseball’s postseason.  Specifically:

  • from 1969 to 1993, four teams made the post-season. 
  • from 1995 to 2011 (there was no post-season in 1994), eight teams participated in the playoffs. 
  • this past season, ten teams were in the playoffs.

Given these definitions, how often has the “best” team won the title?

From 1969 to 1993 – or across 25 seasons — here is what we see:

  • Top team in winning percentage won the World Series 7 times.
  • Top team in Pythagorean Win-Loss won the World Series 8 times
  • Top team in Simple Rating System won the World Series 11 times

So no matter how you define “best,” the “best” team in baseball failed to win the World Series half the time when four teams made the playoffs.

When we look at the playoffs with at least eight teams, the “best” teams do even worse.  From 1995 to the present (across 18 seasons) we see the following:

  • Top team in winning percentage won the World Series 3 times.
  • Top team in Pythagorean Win-Loss won the World Series 3 times
  • Top team in Simple Rating System won the World Series 5 times

Again, being the “best” doesn’t seem to guarantee a title.  More than two-thirds of the time, the “best” team fails to end the post-season as a very happy team.

So even if a team could increase its payroll and buy the “best” team, the playoffs in baseball are simply not designed for the “best” team to consistently triumph.

And that means teams should be very cautious about responding to what they see in the playoffs.  The Yankees inability to win against the Tigers in the American League Championship doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees need to make major changes for next season. Every baseball team – not matter how it is constructed – is going to have a bad week once in a while. And if that bad week happens to occur in October, your team will look bad in the playoffs and your fans will be unhappy.

I should add, this was very much the argument Steve Walters (economist at Loyala University and consultant to the Baltimore Orioles) recently made at the Wages of Wins Journal.  The playoffs are simply hard to predict. As Steve noted in the videocast, even winning more than 100 games is no guarantee of a World Series title.  Across the past 25 years, 20 different teams have finished the regular season with more than 100 victories.  And of these, only two managed to win a title.

So the playoffs should be thought of as entertainment.  But if you are not entertained because your team lost (the outcome for 90% of playoff teams), don’t think this “proves” your team isn’t the “best”.  And if your team does win… well, you can think that your team is the “best”; even if the rest of us know this isn’t true. And I am not saying that just because my team lost (okay, that’s probably not true).

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  1. Rob says:

    Interesting to actually put numbers to how often the best team wins the World Series. I think many people assume it is often with the thought that over the course of a series, the better team will inevitably win more games. Of course, this doesn’t take into account postseason pitching rotations, the strategic difference between managing under NL rules versus having a DH, and the overall streaky nature of baseball.

    I would be interested to see a similar study done with the NBA Finals.

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  2. Dave Brown says:

    Great article. Does this imply any manifestation or romantic nostalgia of “dominance” for any sports franchise “dynasty” is more of a fantasy myth cooked up by media and marketing teams ?

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  3. Doug says:

    A 7 game series is 4% of a typical 162 game season. This is what often makes the “best” team very beatable. It’s very rare (I assume, no stats) to have the “best” team peaking at the end of the year, especially when the lesser team is usually playing better at the end of the year as they struggled to get into the post season while the better team was able to coast.

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  4. Doug says:

    But then you have the 1998 Yankees (114 wins) who win it all and the 2001 Mariners (116 wins) who lose in the ALDS. It’s just such a small sample size that the difference between the two teams is often only 10-20 wins over 162 games which is only 6-12%. So over 7 games all you need to do is win 1 more game than the other guy.

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  5. A smirking Giants fan says:

    The Giants didn’t just win a 7-game series. They swept. I’m no certified freakonomist, but that has to signal a greater degree of superiority.

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    • Seminymous Coward says:

      For an even chance of sweeping a 7 game series, a team has to be so much better than their opponent as to win over 84% of the time. (The calculation is the 4th root of 0.5.)

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    • Moderatelycrazy says:

      If the chances are 50-50 of each team winning a single game, each team has a 1 in 16 chance of sweeping. So while a sweep says more than just winning, it doesn’t say THAT much.

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      • Shasta says:

        It shows that the Giants played better than the Tigers over those four games. According to the Pecota stats The Best Team (Tampa Bay ) did not make the Playoffs. The Tigers were ranked Number 7 and the Giants ranked number 13.

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    • Shasta says:

      The Tigers swept a series from the Yankees–a superior team. The Yankees won more games than the Tigers, had a better pyth and in the regular season really manhandled the Tigers.

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      • Kuhan says:

        Also, the Yankees finished with the most wins in the AL while in a traditionally strong division, whereas the Tigers barely won the weakest division in Major League baseball.

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  6. Dave Diamond says:

    Of course the “best” team doesn’t always win the World Series or any other game. That’s why we watch, to see how the players react to specific situations, to see surprising things happen, and sometimes even to see the “better” team get their comeuppance.

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    • Mike B says:

      The better team is almost be definition one that doesn’t choke in the championship series.

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      • Blambster says:

        Precisely. My coach always said, “you don’t have to be the fastest, just the fastest today.”

        I read the article and thought, “no duh.” The reason we (giants’ fans) loved winning the World Series, is because we knew we weren’t the best team. Every playoff series was amazing because of the real risk of losing.

        I kinda wonder if the author was just bored when he wrote it.

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  7. Eric M. Jones. says:

    Or it may be that teams competing in a world series is “Intransitive”. Example: Team A always beats team B. Team B always beats team C. But team C always beats team A.

    Intransitiveness is a property comparing two groups that clearly shows how different team sports is from, for example horse racing.

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  8. Rick says:

    Here’s the kicker to this type of analysis:

    MLB has set up a system where the best team, by definition, is the one that wins the World Series. No team has the goal of having the best regular season, just to be the one that wins in the World Series. So, does it really make sense to judge them by regular season performance when that was not the goal? Wouldn’t the smarter good teams do just enough to make the playoffs (by resting pitchers more often, giving their best hitters regular breaks, etc), thus saving them for the playoffs and World Series? They would not do this if the goal were to be the best over the course of the regular season. So, we can’t really judge their regular season performance justly because it is affected by the system that is in place.

    Incidentally, the same argument can be made for the Electoral College vs. Popular vote in US Presidential politics. The goal of the presidency is to win 270 electoral votes, so it’s not really a fair comparison to extrapolate a national popular vote from that system when that isn’t the goal of the candidate.

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    • Quentin says:

      It may be that the best regular season team has a surprisingly small probability of winning the World Series, but it still has a higher probability of winning the World Series than all of the other teams. (I would be interested in seeing that analysis, by the way.) So, there’s not really a way to “optimize for the postseason” that doesn’t involve building a good team for the regular season.

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      • Joshua says:

        There are many ways to optimize for the postseason that doesn’t involve building a good team for the regular season.

        For example, in the post season teams generally pare down to a three or four man starting rotation. If we assume for simplicity that talent is relative to money spent, then it makes most sense for the postseason to have spent your pitching money on three awesome pitchers instead of five merely good pitchers. In the regular season you are basically throwing 40% of your games, but a postseason would go very well.

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    • Vince says:

      Or in the case of the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton supporters crying foul that they had overtaken now-President Obama in the popular vote after the final primary in Puerto Rico, a primary that Obama hadn’t contested because he had already secured the nomination. In every primary and caucus, the Obama campaign had focused on winning delegates rather than on winning votes, so it’s just sour grapes to complain at the end of the process that you won a greater share of the popular vote.

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    • Arjun says:

      Rick, I think it is fair to judge them on the regular season performance. Every team plays its absolute hardest in every game and they do indeed try to get the best record they can with the team that they have. “Smarter good teams” do not do just enough to make the playoffs so I think the evidence which leads to your conclusion isn’t based on accurate information.

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